Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Voices of Race: Youth Programs to See and Celebrate Diversity

How do you help children to see the world from perspectives other than their own, especially in a developmentally appropriate way? That's been my driving question as I create programming for our annual two-month initiative, Coming Together in Skokie and Niles Township. Our theme this year is Voices of Race, and the premise is to facilitate the building of knowledge and appreciation for the diversity in our community. That's a tall order--often conversations on these topics are uncomfortable, in particular if they are in fact deep conversations and not just superficial platitudes. It's an especially tall order with children's programming, but as it's also vital to a mission for anti-racist librarianship, we've been offering these programs.

For the youngest crowd--preschoolers--I wanted to stick with a somewhat traditional storytime format. I approached my program for this age group armed with some brain research: specifically, that from a very young age children try to understand the world by categorizing everything they see and learn. That means the default setting for the young brain--and the foundation on which older brains are built--is a "these things are the same, these things are different" premise. When race and perceptions of race are socialized from such a young age, with the young brain automatically sorting information into "same" and, essentially, "other," this can ingrain a certain amount of racial prejudice without anything ever being specifically taught. My goal for this storytime, then, was to share stories, songs, etc., of people who might at first glance seem different from what the kids were personally familiar with, but who are ultimately much more alike the kids than different from them. Our goal was to work on seeing commonalities between ourselves and people who may not look, talk, or act like us. It was a very basic concept, yes, but it was developmentally appropriate for the 3- to 7-year-olds who were in the evening program.

This past weekend I had a program for school-age children. Called "A Day in My Life: An Intergenerational Program," the event invited children to bring a beloved caregiver with them to the library. In the room, each pair was given a simple book template I had created. The premise was for the child and caregiver to have conversations about what it's like living in 2015 for the child compared with what life was like for the caregiver when they were the child's age. The book had 5 different prompts to start these conversations:
  • "My name is ____, and I am __ years old." / "My name is ____, and I was your age in the year ___."
  • "I live in ____." / "When I was your age, I lived in ____."
  • "During the day, I ____." / "When I was your age, I would ____ during the day."
  • "In my free time, I ____." / "When I was your age, I would ____ in my free time."
  • "When I grow up, I want to be a ____." / "When I was your age, I wanted to be a ____ when I grew up."
My goal was to invite children to recognize that different people have lived different experiences than them, and having this conversation with a beloved adult helped to get conversations started. I heard some terrific interactions going on as the pairs wrote and draw in their books. One grandson learned his grandmother's first name for the first time. Another pair talked about Brown v. Board of Education, which had occurred in the year another grandmother was the same age as her grandson is currently; the grandson was rapt to listen to not only what the decision was, but his grandmother's memories of its impact. One table had three generations present, and throughout the conversations I could occasionally hear the middle generation saying "I didn't even know that about you." Families don't always have these types of simple, straightforward conversations, even though they make everyone feel closer. And if families don't have them, it's even more of a stretch to expect strangers to have them. So we've got to start somewhere.

I was so impressed with how the kids and their caregivers took the starting premise--a simple book with fill-in-the-blanks--and really expanded on it. One pair ended up making a list comparing facets of 2015 with facets of 1954. Another talked about all the different careers that are open to girls now that were effectively male-only 50-60 years ago. Each pair left the program expressing their thanks at getting them started in these conversations, and I encouraged them to keep talking--with one another, with other family members, with friends, etc.

Finally, for an older-ages program for the Voices of Race initiative, we brought in a teacher-artist from Chicago Slam Works, an organization supporting social justice through poetry. The teach-artist offered workshops for 4th-5th graders, junior high students, and high schoolers, each of which included an exploration of slam poetry and its power. The workshops really focused on the kids themselves reflecting on their own voices and stories, then putting those down to paper. Many shared their poems with the group--a practice that was uncomfortable at first, but ultimately rewarding. It can be hard to know, let alone share, our own stories, but there is power in them.

We can all benefit from listening to more voices, and seeing the humanity in each of them.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Selection is Privilege

There is a conversation happening on the Storytime Underground Facebook Group right now. It’s been going on for a few days, actually, and it seems to have started innocuously enough: with a question about folks’ thoughts on the Youth Media Award winners, asked by a person who expressed “major shock” and disappointment (via frown-y face emoticons) about one of the Caldecott honors. As I said; innocuously enough.

Some folks who added to the thread brought up the perennial gripe that not all the recognized titles seem to have much kid appeal; other voices jumped in to clarify that kid appeal is not part of the criteria for any of the major YMAs awarded by ALSC and YALSA. I find this argument annoying the same way I do a mosquito bite, because it pops up every year around the same time and is irritating but will disappear in a week. After all, there are awards that take kid appeal into account.

But. Then something ugly and uncomfortable popped up. People started talking about certain books not appealing to kids or their entire communities for one reason: because said certain books have diverse protagonists.

Things people have said*:
  • “Sometimes I pass on even well reviewed books because I know they just won't circulate. There aren't any Greek gods in it! I also have a difficult time getting uh, diverse books to circulate in my community. When I started my job and weeded the picture books a huge number of non circulating titles had POC on the cover. ‘Brown Girl Dreaming?’ That's a hard sell.”
  • “You can have my copy then. Because it won't circulate where I am.”
  • “I just know it's going to be a hard sell.”
  • “We have a copy, but I can count the number of black patrons my library has in two weeks on one hand. It is rural, middle class, white West Michigan. The only black author that Christopher Paul Curtis and that's because some teachers require it. It's not just the race of the characters either. If our young patrons want sports fiction they are going to choose Mike Lupica or Tim Green. The crossover has not circulated even one time since we got it. It's not like Kwame can't write. Acoustic Rooster checks out frequently.”

After reading the full thread and seeing this build-up of negative dialogue specifically around diverse award-winning titles in collections, I responded:

“I find it extremely problematic to suggest that a library doesn't need a book--award-winner or not--that features a minority protagonist on the basis that there aren't many readers of that minority who use the library. To me, that suggests both a bias on the part of selectors as well as a lack of trust in the readers we serve. We know verifiably that young readers do not only want to read about characters whose lives are like their own, and keeping them from even having the option to try a book about a person who is different from them is bordering dangerously on censorship. If a particular child does not want to read a particular book, so be it; but, especially in a public library, children should have that option.”

I am going to expand on that a bit.

First, and frankly, I find the position “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” to be racist. This position implies that we as selectors view diverse books as inherently less-than. If we argue that only black youth will want to read about black youth, we are really saying that the experiences of black youth have no relevance or meaning to youth of any other race. We are saying that the experiences of the youth in the books we do buy have broader relevance and resonance. That is the very definition of otherizing and making a particular perspective, experience, or group less-than.

The position that “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” also denotes a fundamental lack of respect for the children we are supposed to be serving. It suggests that we think our young readers cannot handle, relate to, or be expected to understand an experience that does not mirror their own. Not collecting—and collecting but not promoting—titles with diverse protagonists projects the selector’s own bias onto the reader instead of letting readers freely encounter stories and information.

Also, I feel very strongly that if the excellent diverse books in your collection do not circulate, you are not doing your job of getting great books into the hands of readers. As librarians, we can sell any great book to the right reader. We can find the aspects of a title that will appeal to the range of readers we serve. Diverse books have the exact same appeal factors as the whitewashed majority of children’s publishing. So we can be professionals and make our readers’ advisory about appeal factors, or we can continue to always take kids interested in sports reads to Matt Christopher or Tim Green instead of to Kwame Alexander. But if we do the latter, we are part of the problem. If we omit diverse titles from our RA even though those exact same appeal factors are there, we are perpetuating a racist status quo.

I want to take a moment to step outside of what I have to say on this topic and share what some other professionals have said*:
  • “Good collection development policies should emphasize a variety of things, but one of them should most definitely be diversity. The goal of a public library is not just to serve as a mirror for our community, but to serve as an open door to the world, which includes giving our communities opportunities to walk in the shoes of characters very different from them. This, to me, is part of our education goals, to help our patrons gain a broad perspective of the world. If books don't circulate there are things we can do to help promote circulation, including book displays, book talks, sharing book trailers and more. Yes, budgets are tight every where, but we should absolutely make sure that we actively are working to build diverse collections because it is an important part of helping us fulfill our primary mission to our local communities. And the idea that not one single person in our local communities wants or needs to read books that highlight diversity concerns me because it suggests that we don't have enough faith in our kids to learn, grow and step outside of their comfort zones.”
  • “I think it is a PRIMARY JOB of librarians, specifically youth services librarians, to promote and encourage diversity in our collections, budgets be damned. After all, I spend way too much of my money on crap like Barbie and Disney princesses ... which circulate like *gangbusters*. But if I went on just that, I'd have a very shallow collection.”
  • “The point: if the only way you know how to sell a book is ‘it's got brown people’ then you might've missed the point of the story.”
  • “If you want to champion diversity in a place where people are resistant, sell the story, not the character's color or orientation.”
  • “And I absolutely hate that people use the excuse 'well, they just don't circulate in my library.' That speaks the the librarian's failings.”

When it comes down to it, a major aspect of this topic is selection/collection development, and the fact that selection is a privilege. If you select materials for your readers, you are privileged to get to influence not only what children read, but what they have access to in the first place. And when I read arguments against including diverse titles, or questions about why we have to talk about this topic, it puts into sharp focus for me the fact that we have to recognize our privilege as selectors, and, more than likely, as white selectors for diverse readers.

If you find yourself thinking “I don’t need this title because we don’t really have many X readers here,” your privilege is showing. You have probably never had to open more than one or two books in a row in order to find a character who looks/speaks/lives like you do. That is privilege. And whether we intend it to or not, our privilege influences our thinking and our decisions. This is a problem because our decisions affect the capabilities of young readers to find books in which they can find themselves and in which they can meet new people.

Confronting our privilege is hard. It is uncomfortable. I am acutely aware that, because of my privilege as a white woman, I don’t have to write this post. No one would begrudge me for not speaking up on this topic publicly. In fact, it would probably be a lot easier, and I would seem a lot nicer, if I didn’t write this post.

But that course of action is no longer acceptable to me. I am no longer going to privately roll my eyes when professional colleagues make privileged statements about their exclusionary practices, or when reviewers ignore microaggressions in books for youth. I am going to say something, because ignoring it only lets it perpetuate. And when someone calls me out on something I say or causes me to think critically about my own practice, I am going to try really, really hard not to get defensive and to just listen and reflect and improve. It is hard. And I don’t need to do it.

Except that I do, because the ability of every child I serve to feel valuable and see themselves as a beautiful, complex individual is what hangs in the balance.

This is not about our comfort, or our personal convictions, or what we think we know definitively after doing this job a particular way for so many years.

It is about the children we serve. Every single one of them.

*Because these conversations have been happening in public forums (a public Facebook group and on Twitter), I feel that sharing direct quotations is not a breach of anyone’s privacy. I have made the decision to share these quotes without identifying the speakers, as my ultimate goal is constructive conversation about privilege in selection for youth libraries, not alienating or shaming members of the community.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Come work at Skokie Public Library!

Guess what? My library is hiring a Youth Services Department Manager! Skokie Public Library is a 5-star library and a wonderful place to work. The library is truly the heart of our vibrant village. There are so many fantastic, dedicated folks here, and you can apply to be one of them!

Preschool Play Area (photo by Skokie Public Library,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Job Title: Youth Services Department Manager

Opening Date/Time: Wed. 02/04/15 12:00 AM Central Time
Closing Date/Time: Continuous
Salary: $28.75 - $43.13 Hourly, $56,071.00 - $84,106.00 Annually
Job Type: FT
Location: 5215 Oakton Street, Skokie, Illinois
Department: Youth Services

Job Description

Are you a creative, passionate, and agile leader who has a strong understanding of child development? Do you have a vision for how libraries can provide children and families with an engaging public library atmosphere and spot-on recommendations for books, movies, and music? Bring your experience and expertise to Skokie Public Library as its new Youth Services Manager.

As a member of the management team, the Youth Services Manager will take the initiative to explore new ideas and trends impacting services to children and families. This work will involve frequent collaboration with other leaders in the organization and developing a talented group of staff members. Strong communication skills are essential.


  • Develops, implements, and evaluates a service model for youth from birth through 8th grade
  • Hires, trains, and manages staff and reviews performance
  • Coordinates preparation of annual objectives for service to youth and oversees their execution
  • Plans and oversees implementation of a schedule of story times
  • Oversees an annual Summer Reading Program for youth
  • Works with staff from Learning Experiences to ensure a varied mix of program offerings for youth
  • Works with staff from Community Engagement to provide service to schools, pre-schools, and day care centers
  • Collaborates with members of administration and senior management team to ensure successful library operations
  • Interprets library policies and procedures to public and staff
  • Contributes to public services in the library, online, and in the community
  • Compiles and analyzes statistics and prepares annual report and periodic reports for Library Board
  • Selects and weeds materials in one or more areas for the children’s collection
  • Develops key community and professional contacts
  • Maintains current knowledge of library and other relevant industries (e.g. education, technology, and publishing)
  • Performs other related duties as assigned


  • MLIS from an ALA accredited library school
  • Minimum five years' experience in public library service to children including supervisory experience, public desk experience, programming and collection development responsibility, and experience with technology in the library environment
  • Strong oral and written communication skills with people of all ages
  • Good knowledge of child development
  • Skill in use of computer for document preparation, communications, and scheduling

Click here for more info and to apply.