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Sunday Reflections: Not All Educations are Created Equal

I was speaking to someone the other day about the issue of growing poverty in the U.S. when the friend shocked me by victim blaming kids living in poverty. The most surprising part of it all was that this friend is a social work major who is going into the field to help children. She is going to go try and help the very children whose lives she doesn’t seem to understand in any way. 

It’s easy for us, as adults, to look at other adults and see that a better education could help improve their lives. But the truth is, not all educations are created equal and many children are born into this world with incredible educational disadvantages that can be almost impossible to overcome.

To begin with, not all schools are created equal. Many schools rely on local funding, so schools in poorer communities are fundamentally disadvantaged. When we were living in the poorest county (at the time) in Ohio, you could see that reflected in the school system. Because over 80% of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch, the school district applied for and received a special grant so that every child in the area received free breakfast and lunch. Every year the school tried to pass a new operating levy and every year it failed. In the 10 years that I lived there no new levies were passed. It’s not that the parents didn’t care about education, it had more to do with the fact that the average yearly income was around $24,000 and paying additional taxes would mean going without more meals or the opportunity to fix your dying car you need to get to and from work.

In comparison, we moved three years ago due to my husband’s job. Though things are still very tight for us and the people who live in this neighborhood, the schools in Texas have a different funding structure and are doing better financially. Beginning in the 5th grade, every student in this school district gets a laptop to take home every night to do homework. I imagine there are a significant number of students who don’t have Wifi at home, but they can still use the computers to write reports or put together presentations. Due to funding laws here, when the schools recently needed an increase there was no vote necessary, the district simply raised the school taxes.

And yet even with the improvements in this school district from our previous one, I can still see inequalities when compared to the school district my nephews attend. The Tween has never been on a school field trip, because the district here can’t afford it. Primarily, it seems, they can’t afford the busing. However, my nephew has been on several field trips each year to places like the zoo and science museums. As someone who loved school field trips, it always makes me a little sad that The Tween has never been on one.

The funding inequalities of individual districts affects their ability to recruit and maintain qualified, experienced teachers. It affects the types and amount of equipment that they can have in the classroom. It affects the diversity of curriculum offerings – schools with more money can have more special classes like languages, arts, consumer sciences, etc. And it affects the entirety of after school program offerings.

These inequalities also affect the way colleges perceive applications. Because not all schools are created equal, not all diplomas are equal. If you receive a diploma from a poor or failing school district it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as a diploma from a prestigious school with a rigorous academic program. People living in poverty seldom have access to these types of schools.

If they are accepted into a college or university, students who have lived their whole lives in poverty must find a way to pay for that secondary education. Unless they are one of the few who receive scholarships, this often means that they must limit their choices once again due to economic factors.

The myth that kids and later young adults can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get a good education is just that – a myth. Can a teen living in poverty change their life with a good education? Yes, sometimes. But there are very real systematic barriers we need to be addressing to help increase their chances. Mobility among social classes – upward mobility – is difficult due to systemic barriers that prevent kids and teens from achieving their full potential.

When we look at high school drop out rates, which current research indicates are declining though still substantial, it is important to remember that a percentage of those students who drop out do so to get full-time jobs to help feed their families. These aren’t slacker teens, they are teens who are forced to sacrifice their futures in order to take care of very real present needs.

Parental involvement can often be limited in poorer communities as these parents must work multiple jobs with unpredictable hours, frequently leaving their children home alone after school and in the evening hours to make their own dinners and try and complete their homework without an adult to ask for help or guidance.

The community into which you are born and raised can have tremendous impact not only on your immediate life, but on your chances of future success. Yes, there are people who rise above these limitations every day, but we do a tremendous disservice to the children we serve if we don’t recognize how real and overwhelming these systemic barriers are.

In Ohio, the state supreme court ruled more than 10 years ago that the way the state funded schools was unconstitutional because it created the very real economic discrepancies described above. And yet, more than 10 years later, nothing has changed about the way the state funds schools. Every day I read article after article where adults lambast our school systems with open hostility and refuse to invest any additional monies into failing school systems. The rhetoric against teachers has grown to a fevered pitch. All the while, education is being handed over to corporate sponsors who know little about it, care little about our children, and are primarily concerned with putting more money in their pockets.

One of the things I loved about the upcoming LOVE IS THE DRUG by Alaya Dawn Johnson is the way that Johnson was able to address some of these issues in the midst of a very thrilling ya novel about a flu pandemic. The teen students themselves often are forced to grapple with all of these issues as they look at the privileged life some of them lead while scholarship students are treated much differently. And when one character is able to get her cousin into the school it makes a very real difference in his life. These teens are very aware of the inequality in the world that they live in and are forced to grapple with them every day, so I’m amazed when I encounter adults who don’t have their eyes open to these very real issues. 

I’m not a teacher. I don’t work for a school system. But I am a mom and I have seen the differences in our school systems. And as a librarian I have worked with a wide variety of tweens and teens across a wide variety of communities. I have worked in a wealthy district and in the poorest, and it is night and day difference. That difference is not just in things like the types of subjects they study and the amount of homework they do; you can see it in their eyes and in their drive. Kids growing up in poverty often lose that spark, that drive. They are hungry, not for knowledge or future success, but literally hungry. They are tired. They are world weary. We are failing these kids and in failing them, we are failing ourselves.  If you think for one moment that the growing poverty issues our country is facing won’t dramatically impact the future of our country you are dead wrong. If we really want to change our future, we need to start having serious discussions about the inequalities of our education systems and find ways to provide adequate funding that don’t involve lining the pockets of large corporations.

Social Mobility:
Washington Post

Cycles of Poverty:
Breaking the Cycles of Poverty in Young Families
Cycle of Poverty Hard to Break in Poorest U.S. City
The Cycle of Poverty and Poor Health

How Poverty Affects Schools:
How Poverty Affects Behavior and School Performance

Teens and Poverty Series at TLT:

Teens and Poverty: PBS Newshour Discusses Being Homeless and Trying to Graduate High School

As I thought about writing my post earlier today about teachers, I couldn’t help but think of my 4th grade teacher. I remember her name, I remember what she looked like, and I remember the intense hatred I had for her. You see, in the 4th grade my parents separated and divorced. We went from being a doing okay two-income family living in a house in the suburbs to living in two struggling very much separate apartments. Suddenly, I qualified for free and reduced lunch. I remember the burning shame each day in the cafeteria line and how you would pray that the lunch ladies would be quiet and keep it all on the down low so the other students wouldn’t know. Being labelled poor is like being forced to wear a scarlet A.

And I remember being at a parent-teacher conference where the teacher told my parents that I had no friends and she told them (this is not a joke), that they needed to buy me a pair of Jordache jeans so maybe I could fit in. We couldn’t buy me lunch, how was this even reasonable advice?

I eventually became friends with a girl whose family lived in a week-to-week low-cost hotel in a very dangerous neighborhood; one night her family simply disappeared as they moved on to another place. I was always aware that they were just one step away from the edge of what it meant to be homeless. It’s been more than 30 years and I wonder every day whatever happened to her. Life had already been so unkind to her, I hope that her family was able to turn their situation around at some point.

According to Do Something, there are 1.7 homeless teens in the U.S. 39% of the homeless population in the U.S. is under the age of 18. In addition to poverty, teens are often homeless because of abuse or because of rejection (or abuse) from their family because they come out as GLBTQ. In fact, 40% of homeless youth are homeless because of their GLBTQ status (Do Something).

And many more families are just one job less, medical crisis or other emergency away from losing it all. In many homes parents are working sometimes two and three part-time jobs trying to make ends meet while older siblings are asked to make dinner, help with homework and put younger siblings to bed at night.

As part of our ongoing focus on TEENS AND POVERTY, I encourage you to head over to the PBS Newshour for a special report on what Los Angeles is doing to help homeless teens complete high school. While reports come in offer other areas putting up “anti-homeless spikes” – and yes, this is apparently a real thing – other people are investing that money in trying to help people succeed. There are very real effects to children and teens living and growing up in poverty: it affects physical health, it affects mental health, it affects school success, and it affects the future. Not just THEIR future, but all of our future. Helping children and teen succeed makes the world better for us all.

Recently at one of my teen programs, a group of high school students were talking and someone mentioned a boy not at the program. One of the teens present said, “Yeah, he’s okay but man his teeth are jacked up. It’s like he doesn’t even brush them or anything. It’s gross.” And I mentioned to this teen that maybe his family didn’t have the money to take him to the dentist. It got real quiet and this teen remarked, “You know, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of stuff. Like, I don’t see him wearing a lot of different clothes like everyone else. Maybe he is, maybe he can’t go to the dentist.” I don’t know if this was the case or not, but I thought it was important that they take a moment to think of all of the various scenarios as to what may be going on for this young man. Far too often those that know nothing about living in poverty have blinders on to it around them. Whether that boy was living in poverty or not, there are students all around them that are.

Additional Resources:
National Coalition for the Homeless Youth Fact Sheet
Record Number of Homeless Students in the US in 2013
National Alliance to End Homelessness: Youth

Teens and Poverty Series at TLT:
Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please? 
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty 
Working with youth who live in poverty  
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like 
Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries 
Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does
Sunday Reflections: All I Want for Christmas is the Chance to Go to College
Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand
Book Review: PANIC by Lauren Oliver
Book Review: HUNGRY by H. A. Swain

Barnes and Noble: Homelessness and Runaways
The Homeless Experience in YA Literature
Library Thing: Homeless Persons Fiction

About the Books You See in this Post

Tyrell by Coe Booth:

“Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. His girlfriend supports him, but he doesn’t feel good enough for her – and seems to be always on the verge of doing the wrong thing around her. There’s another girl at the homeless shelter who is also after him, although the desires there are complicated. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?” (Scholastic, 2006. ISBN: 9780439838795)

Can’t Get There From Here by Todd Strasser:

“Her street name is Maybe. She lives with a tribe of homeless teens — runaways and throwaways, kids who have no place to go other than the cold city streets, and no family except for one another. Abused, abandoned, and forgotten, they struggle against the cold, hunger, and constant danger.”  (Simon Pulse, 2005. ISBN: 9780689841705)

See also the new title from Todd Strasser: No Place

Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

“Pattyn Von Stratten’s father is dead, and Pattyn is on the run. After far too many years of abuse at the hands of her father, and after the tragic loss of her beloved Ethan and their unborn child, Pattyn is desperate for peace. Only her sister Jackie knows what happened that night, but she is stuck at home with their mother, who clings to normalcy by allowing the truth to be covered up by their domineering community leaders. Her father might be finally gone, but without Pattyn, Jackie is desperately isolated. Alone and in disguise, Pattyn starts a new life, but is it even possible to rebuild a life when everything you’ve known has burned to ash and lies seem far safer than the truth?” (Margaret K. Elderberry Books, 2013. ISBN: 9781416983286)

Sunday Reflection: Torchwood Children of Earth, a reflection on how we think of the poor students among us

After watching all of the Doctor Who reboot, the next logical step is to watch Torchwood, a spin-off involving Captain Jack Harkness.  Learn from my mistakes though, don’t watch it with your children.  Torchwood is no Doctor Who.  However I will say that the Torchwood miniseries Children of Earth may be one of the best things I have seen on TV in a very long while.  It really haunts me.

Torchwood itself is a secret agency that hunts down alien artifacts and activity so that they don’t fall into the wrong hands.  It is headed up by Captain Jack Harkness, who can not die.  A bunch of stuff happens in seasons 1 and 2, and then in season 3 they team comes together(ish) to fight a new alien threat in the 5 episodes mini-series Children of Earth.  A little spoilerish discussion follows . . .

Aliens come to Earth demanding 10% of the Earth’s children or they will destroy the planet.  The question is: can we sacrifice 10% of our children to save the human race, or do we fight knowing that the planet will ultimately be decimated and the human race will probably be wiped out of existence?  I can’t recall the exact number but 10% equaled over 1 million children from all countries. It raises a big question, can we – should we – sacrifice a few to save the many?  And of course the next logical question is: who do you sacrifice?

So we fast forward to a scene where heads of state are deciding what – and how – they are going to handle this crisis and what unfolds is little surprise to anyone who is paying attention, but seeing it actually acted out really makes some of our prejudices quite clear, they are laid naked before us.

To begin with, the heads of state insist that of course THEIR children are guaranteed safety because they matter, they are important.  The question then becomes, who doesn’t matter? Who can easily be sacrificed?  It may surprise you to find out that the answer is, of course, our poorest children, but really it shouldn’t. Our “under performing” children.  So they use their statistical data – school test scores – and determine which are the least effective schools and decide that those students are the ones that will be sacrificed.  These children, they maintain, have little to offer the world because they have the distinction of attending a poorer school that is failing, which must mean that they too will fail.

Character of Denise Riley speaking: “The first responsibility is to protect the best interest of this country, right? Then let’s say it: in a national emergency a country must plan for the future. And discriminate between those who are vital to continued stability and – those who are not. And now that we’ve established that our kids are exempt the whole principle of random selection is dead in the water anyway. – Let me finish! Now look: on the one hand we’ve got the good schools and I don’t just mean those producing graduates. I mean the people who will go on to staff our hospitals, our offices, our factories; the work force of the future. We need them. Accepted, yes? So: set against that, you got the failing schools, full of the less able, the less socially useful, those destined to spend a lifetime on benefits occupying places on the dole queue and, frankly, the prisons. Now look, should we treat them equally? – God knows we’ve tried and we failed, and now the time has come to choose. And if we can’t identify the lowest achieving ten percent of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables for?” (from Torchwood Children of Earth, Day Four)

Before moving to Texas, we lived in a high poverty area and my daughter attended a failing school.  In fact, all of the schools around us were failing.  We got letters every year reminding us that our schools were failing and we had the option of sending our child to a different school.  But, truth be told, they were all failing.  And in the 10 years that I lived there they could never get the city to pass a funding levy.  Today, the poverty rate in the town is so high that they now provide free breakfast and lunch to every student in the district to help address the hunger needs that contribute to some of the issues they have in the schools.

So according to the heads of state, every child in that school district was an easy sacrifice.  Every child.  Including my child, a straight A student with an advanced purple belt in karate and a heart of gold.  Including her best friend, who is an awesome basketball player learning to play the piano.  Including every child that ever walked into my library while I worked in the city’s public library: the readers, the dreamers, the doers, the lost, the lonely, the abused, the neglected . . . Every. Single. One. of Them.  Because they were poor and had low test scores, they would have been sacrificial.  If this doesn’t make you scared of our current emphasis on testing, then I don’t know what will.

Image from FanPop

Torchwood Children of Earth does many things really well, but one of the things that it does magnificently is pull back the curtain and reveal the heart of man and our prejudices against those living in poverty, those seen as different or unworthy.  It reminds us all that we do put labels and price tags on the value of each life.  But more importantly, it reminds us that we shouldn’t.

When a child is born into poverty and their only choice is to go to a failing school – and lower funded schools in poverty stricken areas do have more obstacles to overcome for success – that doesn’t diminish their worth.  It does present more obstacles, but it is up to all of us to help them overcome those obstacles.  These children are not easy sacrifices.  They are our present and our future.  How we treat them today, how we create an environment where they can succeed and learn and grow, affects our future tomorrow.

Book Review: Panic by Lauren Oliver

Harper Collins March 2014 ISBN: 9780062014559

Small town life can be a desperate life.  There is often not a lot to do, so teens get creative – which brings us to Panic.  Panic is a game that only seniors can play.  It takes place over the summer and those who announce themselves as contenders are given a series of challenges to complete.  Last one standing wins the pot of cash that has been collected all year long.  But when people are desperate, and money is involved, friendship can be thrown out the window, backs will be stabbed, and occasionally someone may lose their life.  Bring on the Panic.

Publishers Annotation: Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a dead-end town of 12,000 people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.

Heather never thought she would compete in Panic, a legendary game played by graduating seniors, where the stakes are high and the payoff is even higher. She’d never thought of herself as fearless, the kind of person who would fight to stand out. But when she finds something, and someone, to fight for, she will discover that she is braver than she ever thought.

Dodge has never been afraid of Panic. His secret will fuel him, and get him all the way through the game, he’s sure of it. But what he doesn’t know is that he’s not the only one with a secret. Everyone has something to play for.

For Heather and Dodge, the game will bring new alliances, unexpected revelations, and the possibility of first love for each of them—and the knowledge that sometimes the very things we fear are those we need the most.

The Review:

I sincerely loved this book.  In part because it is such a spot on depiction of the desperation of small town life – that overwhelming desire to escape at all costs, to flee.  It is also such a harrowing depiction of extreme poverty for one of our main characters, Heather.  Heather lives in a trailer, then literally on the streets, and winning Panic is her only chance for survival.  She needs the cash in a very desperate way.  We see her living out of her car, washing up in gas stations, scrounging for food.  Holy crap did this break my heart.

But Panic is also a thrilling read that escalates into some twisted commentary on the lengths we are willing to go to in order to win.  So it is intense, exciting, and – in the immortal words of James Patterson – unputdownable.  

I have read some online criticism about the fact that the police don’t step in and intervene earlier, but I have lived small town life and am never surprised by the local population’s ability to look the other way until way too late.  There was one element that was a stretch for me involving exotic animals, but we have all read about those types of stories in the news so I went with it.

Online Lauren Oliver has done a lot of speaking out and sharing help information about childhood poverty and homelessness (linked below), which definitely goes along with the themes in Panic.  As I said, the thing I loved most about this book was the rich, authentic and nuanced portrayal of both small town life and the desperation felt by those living in poverty.  The thrilling action is icing on the cake.  I think this one will be a big hit and many teen readers will identify with what is happening and why in the story.  Pair this with Dare Me by Eric Devine.

Awareness/Resources for Teen Poverty, Hunger, Disabilities, and Children of Alcoholic Parents

Teen Homelessness and Hazing Awareness

More on Teens and Poverty at TLT:

Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please?
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty

Working with youth who live in poverty

Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like

Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry

Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries
Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does

Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand


Karen’s Top 10 Posts for 2013

Ah, the end of the year. Time to reflect on all that we have accomplished in 2013 (or not).  Or, really, it’s time to go on vacation and I need a quick and easy post.  Plus, we have new followers (**waves hi**) and you may have missed these posts, which we really like and want to make sure you have seen.  So here are my Top 10 Posts for 2013 . . .

The one where I share what I wish my library patrons knew.

The one where author Kim Purcell tells us how we can help get teens involved by raising awareness about human trafficking.

The one where my friend and school librarian Amianne Bailey shared about how one book made a kid think differently about a nonverbal kid in her library and made our eyes leak.

The one where I discussed what it means to tell boys that they should only study boys and girls that they should only study girls, and maybe got a little ragey. Because feminism.

The one in our ongoing series on youth and poverty where I reflect on the fact that poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does. As poverty is growing, we need to be aware and we need to work towards change.

The one where Heather reminded us all of the ways that teenagers are like cats.

The one in which author Mike Lancaster kindly opened up his life to us and shared what it was like to grow up watching Doctor Who for Doctor Who Week, it was such an amazing gift to be invited on this journey with him.

The ones where we discussed the implications of the newly proposed electronic badging process and then Christie got her snark on and proposed some other badges we could earn in part of our Things I Never Learned in Library School series.

The one where Jonathan Maberry helps me impress The Mr. and asks him, “Haven’t you learned that wives have superpowers?” Bam, take that Mr.

And the one where I discuss why The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa is more than just another vampire book because it is a reminder of the dangers of banning books.  Because education and the freedom to read are vitally important.

Sunday Reflections: Dasani, Poverty, and Education (by Robin)

This week, the New York Times brought us an unparalleled view into the life of the homeless youth of America with it’s story “Invisible Child” by Andrea Elliott. The entire five part series is a bit overwhelming in its devastatingly honest look at the life of one child who represents so many of our children today. While I highly recommend reading it in full, please take your time – it is a lot to digest.

What I really want to focus on, though, is this reaction to the story from the New York Post (“The New York Times’ ‘homeless’ hooey”.) Please go read it. The author seems to believe that the city has been too generous with Dasani’s family – that in providing  a ‘roof over their heads,’ subsistence level financial support, and basic medical care, the city has removed all incentive for Dasani’s parents to take responsibility for their 8 children. The author’s assertion that the sum of money spent on benefits for this family over the last 14 years, while seemingly large, has provided them anything approaching ‘comfortable lives’ is patently ludicrous. I would assert that, contrary to the editorialist’s beliefs, the city has not spent enough. The programs that serve the poor of our country are overwhelmingly underfunded, to the detriment of everyone. Fully funded, well administered services are effective in helping those they serve to reverse the course of their lives. They provide a safety net to keep the disadvantaged from falling even further, give them the resources and skills they need to become fully contributing members of society. What we have today are marginally funded services, administered by professionals stretched beyond their limits due to budget cuts.

I can only assume that this brief response was meant to stir people up and provide ‘click bait’ for the Post, but it does highlight a rather pernicious belief common to our country. That is, specifically, that we are not collectively responsible for the welfare of our nation’s children. Indeed, in an article by Bill Moyers, published on the Salonwebsite, we read that “with the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percent of kids in poverty than we do.” Why is this? Why can we not, as a country, agree that investing in our citizens in order that they might become fully contributing members of our society benefits us all? I am at a loss.

I do know that one place we can start is with our public schools. I strongly encourage you to watch this video and consider the points it makes.


[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf9UVg-TdH0]

Sunday Reflections: Imagining Others Complexly (by Robin)

I have to admit, I’ve been really discouraged lately. All of the recent events in Washington DC, with the roll out of the Affordable Care Act website and the government shutdown, with it’s corresponding misinformation and lack of information, bringing our country up to the very brink of default for no particular reason, etc., has really caused me to question the direction our country is taking. I feel like we should be…beyond this? Maybe it’s just me.

In terms of the healthcare ‘debate’, I have a difficult time understanding how people can NOT see how this will benefit everyone. Yes, it might make your insurance costs or your taxes go up (slightly). But, in the long run, it will decrease the amount we pay for healthcare because we wont be subsidizing emergency care for people who are unable to pay. If everyone has access to regular preventative care, fewer people will need to access emergency care. People in general will be healthier, productivity should go up, the amount of people who rely on disability will go down. It’s a win-win.

I feel the same way about education spending, and not just because I work in public education. I look at my own state with it’s recent cuts to education funding, especially to our once flagship More at 4 program and wonder, “Do people not see how a (relatively) small investment now will save us SO MUCH in the future?” Forget the fact that it’s the right thing to do. The simple fact that it is so much more of a drain to our economy to have an undereducated populace, in terms of financial support, lack of productivity, and expenditures on incarceration, should be enough to convince people of the importance of fully funding public education.

And then a couple of things happened. First, there was this simple exchange I had with someone I follow on Twitter:

Once I got over my initial bout of flabbergasted rage over people’s inability to understand the complexities of living in poverty, I began to really think about the problem. What is really at the root of this lack of understanding? In simple terms, it’s generally attributable to a lack of ability to imagine others complexly (a concept I first encountered through one of John Green’s Vlogbrothers videos.) It’s a failing I encounter daily, even within myself, and I make a concerted effort to do it.

Second, there was the widely reported study on the impact of reading (literary) fiction on our capacity for empathy. If you’ve missed it, I would start here with NPR’s coverage. But, you can also find information about it here, or here, or here. Choose your poison.

And what I realized was, “This is how I can make a change.” Because that’s what it really boils down to for me. When I get really discouraged about the state of our world what I really need is a way to make a change. Every time we make an impact, no matter how small, is a force for good in our world. That’s what I have to hold on to on a daily basis.

If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend the novels of A.S. King and Laurie Halse Anderson. I was recently able to procure an electronic advanced reader copy of Anderson’s upcoming The Impossible Knife of Memory, and I have to say it completely blew my mind. I’ve heard, over and over, about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress on military personnel and their families, but this book made it REAL for me. In our efforts to promote literacy in our youth population, we will hopefully also impact their capacity for empathy and their ability to imagine others complexly.

The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand (Book Review)

The economy went bust in 2008 and people everywhere are struggling.  The news keeps reminding us that more and more people are making less and less money, children are going hungry, and recovery has been slow.  But you wouldn’t know it from a lot of the books being written for middle grade and teen readers; there it seems to be business as usual. In fact, I rarely read about teens and their families struggling financially in the teen lit I read, unless it is a dystopian or post-apocalyptic book, which is an entirely different deal.  If anything, there seems to be a flood of titles where teens are actually being raised in affluent homes with gated communities or being sent to boarding schools.  See Winger by Andrew Smith and When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney for just a few examples (both good books).  Don’t get me wrong, there are teens growing up in wealthy families and they deserve to see themselves in ya lit, but is the literature representative of the reality?  Of course you could also ask the question, do teens struggling with a life of poverty want to be reminded of their poverty in the books that they read or do they want to escape reality for a little while?  An equally interesting question.

And then I came across The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand.  I am, in fact, a LeGrand fan.  Her debut work The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls has a great eerie, gothic vibe to it that just creeps you out (a great October read by the way).  And it seemed clear from the title and cover that The Year of Shadows promised more of the same.  It did not disappoint.

The Year of Shadows is the story of Olivia, whose mom has left her without a goodbye or a forwarding address.  Her father is a musical conductor of the local failing symphony and in a last ditch ever to save the concert hall, he moves Olivia and her Nonnie (grandmother) backstage.  Gone is their lovely house full of warm family memories, now they are sleeping on cots in a concert hall with no shower and eating of food prepared on a camp stove.  It soon becomes clear that the concert hall is full of shadows, much like Olivia’s life itself is, but together they might just find a way out of the darkness and into the light, but not into too much light because this is, after all, a gothic story.

The Year of Shadows is a delightfully depressing tale; it tells a beautiful story about a resourceful young girl who is struggling with a very real darkness – both the darkness in her life and the darkness inside her heart as she wrestles with the emotions that come from literally losing everything.  It’s definitely more Tim Burton than Disney, but still manages to end on a hopeful note.

There are many great things about this book:

1) Olivia herself is a dynamic girl with an artistic soul that burns with a variety of complex and fiery emotions.

2) There is what has to be the best cat ever since the Cheshire cat in this book that goes by the name of Igor, that Olivia has the most fun conversations with.

Igor: “When will you stop talking so I can go back to sleep” (p. 78)

3) Olivia explores what it means to be a friend and a family with a delightful cast of characters, many of whom happen to be ghosts. (This is the only thing I struggled with as a reader of this book, I have apparently watched too many episodes of The Ghost Whisperer in syndication and sometimes couldn’t help comparing the two.)  All of the relationships in this book are interesting, the supporting characters developed, and I loved seeing everyone wrestle with their pasts.

4) There is a love and celebration of the arts, something that can often get lost in our STEM focused culture. 

5) LeGrand has a tremendous talent for writing creating a rich atmosphere, beautiful sentences, and characters that grow and experience a wide range of  emotions.

But my very favorite thing is how LeGrand chooses not only to let the economy be realistically portrayed in this story, but how she personifies it in a way that helps us better understand the world our kids are living in today.  In fact, Olivia always refers to it as “The Economy”, making it clear that it is a real and important thing in her life.  It is clearly a villain, one of the causes of her many woes.  She doesn’t fully understand what it means, what its implications are (as most adults don’t), but she understands that it is important and, in her view, bad.  Because of The Economy she is living in a place that is not a home and fears that soon her home will be a cardboard box under a bridge.  She shops at the local charity store.  And she is mortified when she fills in all of the pages of our sketch book and is forced to draw on discarded napkins and old sheets of paper.  The effects on The Economy in the life of Olivia are real and visceral and immediate, just as it is in the lives of many of our kids.  By recognizing the villainy of The Economy in the life of Olivia and giving it this presence and voice, LeGrand is speaking to the hearts of every one of those children out there who are wondering whether there will be dinner on the table tonight or if they will soon be forced to live in a cardboard box somewhere.  This fear has a presence, a weightiness to it, that can not be ignored and LeGrand gives it the voice that it deserves.  Many kids will read this book and be thankful to know that they are not alone and that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The Year of Shadows is one of my favorite MG titles of 2013.  It is an entertaining ghost story that resonates with some rich undertones about family, forgiveness and survival.  The overall vibe is melancholy (yet occasionally hopeful) and Gothic. Enter into The Year of Shadows with Olivia, you won’t be disappointed.  Fair warning, I cried.  4.5 stars out of 5.

In Our Mailbox: Feeding Teens at the Library and Joining the Fight Against Hunger

Read More About Hunger Action Month at TLT and Feeding America

Readers of this blog know that we have a heart for hunger and poverty in the lives of our teens.  In fact, as I write this post, yet another job situation in my personal life means that without drastic changes, we will be unable to feed our children at the end of November.  And like so many families out there, it can be a struggle to find a way to take care of the basic necessities of life.  And my life is no different than the patrons that we serve every day, which is one of the reasons why I am such a strong advocate for libraries, and for teens, and for fighting hunger and poverty.  September is Hunger Action Month, a month that asks us to go orange and forces us to confront what is happening in our world and to try to make a difference.  It is probably my very vocalness on this topic that prompted someone to reach out to me via email me asking how she could approach her library administration and propose creating an after school program to help feed the teens in her community.  So here are some thoughts I have on the topic.

Libraries are community centers that support the educational needs of the community.  Education can not happen when our teens are too hungry to think of anything else but the hunger in their bellies.  And we can look at the health and obesity rates in our nation and see that we need more education when it comes to things like diet, nutrition, food choices and more.  Food can be a great springboard for library programming.
Step 1: Research What is Happening in Your Community
First, develop a really good community profile to help state your case.  Local statistics can help you identify the poverty rates in your community, the average annual income, unemployment rates and more.  The school districts you serve can let you know what percentage of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch, identifying kids who probably also have less access to after school snacks and meals.  This statistical profile will help you identify the need and be able to make a strong defense for your initiative to your admin and community.

Once you have established a need, take a look around and see how other community organizations may be trying to address this need.  Does your local public school have a summer lunch program?  A lot of them do now days, they are unfortunately necessary, and they often write grants.  A quick look around reveals that there are a few grant opportunities out there to help improve the hunger problems in our local communities.

If the local schools already have a food supplement program, you can investigate partnering with them.  My previous library in Marion, Ohio partnered with the local schools to do some storytimes and programming at various parks throughout the city during the summer where meals were provided.  The library didn’t always provide the food, but provided support for the program and education.  In fact, this summer the schools wrote an additional grant and provided bags of fruits and vegetables for the kids to take home for the rest of the week.  The meal was only 1 day a week, but this allowed families to have access to additional food during the rest of the week.

Federal Poverty Guidelines
Federal Poverty Threshholds

Step 2: Identifying Why Hunger is an Issue

It’s not enough to let others know that hunger is a problem in your community, they often need help understanding why it is an issue, and why libraries should get involved.  Hunger has tremendous physical implications; it can be painful, distracting, and effects development.  Hungry kids often do more poorly than their well nourished counterparts in school, because of the hunger itself but because hungry kids also have other issues happening in their lives.  They may have parents working two or more part-time jobs to make ends meet so they are often home alone or taking care of younger siblings.  If they don’t have the money for food then they often don’t have the money for other basic life necessities, like school supplies and clothing, let alone things like consistent access to good technology.  If we can help our patrons relieve some of their worries and concerns regarding this basic need, we free them up to use our resources more effectively. Communities as a whole benefit when we work together to meet the nutritional needs of our youngest and most at risk populations.

Here are some good resources to help us understand the scope of the hunger problem and its affects:
No Kid Hungry
Feeding America

Step 3:  Putting Together a Plan

With your background information in place, you now are reading to format a plan.


Once we understand the issue, we need to have an action plan.  Like all good action plans, we need to start with specific goals.  Once you have defined your goals, we can then look at how we want to achieve them.

If your goal is to provide snacks or meals to teens in your community, then we need to consider how many meals, how often, and how many teens.  Then we figure out how we are going to fund the program and obtain and distribute the food.


For example, you could also contact a local organization or grocery store to request either funding or food donations.  Perhaps a local church or food pantry could help supply food.  Many communities have local grant opportunities.  If you have a local Friends of the Library Group, they may be a great source for funding.  And we have already discovered that there are bigger grant opportunities out there as well.  Even if you don’t get funding but choose to use library, or Friends, funding, you can investigate wholesale food discounts with larger supply places like GFS.

It looks like there are some good resources out there:
“The Summer Food Service Program (Summer Meals) is a federal child nutrition program that provides funding for meals and snacks served to children age 18 and younger during the summer. The program was designed to replace the school breakfast and lunch programs during the summer, so low-income children would have access to the same nutritious meals they rely on during the school year. (citation: Food Research and Action Center)” Summer Food Service Program

Food Distribution and Programming 

Will you distribute the food freely?  Will it be part of a after school/summer program?  Will there be additional programming involved, like a homework help center for example?

Pair your proposal and program with these titles that can help others understand what poverty is like

You could even put together a series of programs that have an Iron Chef theme to them, include some basic nutrition education, and have the food distribution be more immediately tied into your actual library programming.

I also know that my daughter’s preschool wrote a grant (check here http://gardenabcs.com/Grants.html) that allowed them to plant a garden and coordinate it with education, which I can see a library doing if they have the space.  Many schools are already creating gardens and I can see libraries doing this as well. (See also School Garden Grants)

Note: If you apply for a grant, you’ll have to make sure and follow the terms of the grant.  You may also want to check in with your health department to investigate any rules or conditions you may have to follow.
Looking at What Other Libraries are Doing

It’s always easier when you don’t have to start from scratch.  There are libraries already doing these types of programs and they help bolster our cause and provide good examples for us to follow.  Here are just a few libraries already joining the cause to help fight hunger:

Detroit Public Library
This is an article in School Library Journal that highlights Detroits plan.
Cincinatti Public Library
This article has links to a few other good resources
Oakland Public Library 
Do a Google search for Summer Meals at the Library and California for some really good resources outlining the project, including a powerpoint.

Brooklyn Public Library
Brooklyn uses volunteers to help with their program and they have a good outline of volunteer responsibilities.

Librarians are good at sharing, I am sure if we contact them they would be happy to talk to us about what they are doing, how it is going, and how to get started.  And now is actually the perfect time to start planning for summer 2014.  

Some Programming Tie In Ideas:

Have a food related book discussion group.  For example, you can read Pie by Sarah Weeks, share pie recipes, eat a meal and then have pie.

Cooking competitions 

Create an “In the Kitchen” program where you share recipes, discuss nutrition, etc.

Have tutors available, or games, or watch movies 

More on Poverty and Hunger at TLT:
Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please? 
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty 
Working with youth who live in poverty 
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like
Sunday Reflections: Going to be hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries 
Sunday Reflections: Are Schools Discriminating Against the Socioeconomically Disadvantaged?

September is Hunger Action Month

September is Hunger Action Month.  Since 2008, the number of families facing Food Insecurity has risen dramatically.  Last night on NPR they stated that 54 million families and 17 million children in the United States don’t know where their next meal may be coming from.  And yesterday morning in church they announced that the North Texas Food Bank was closing for a month because they ran out of food.  They just couldn’t keep up with the decreasing amounts of donations and the increasing amounts of families asking for help.  You can find out more about Hunger Action Month at Feeding America.  For more information you can also visit No Kid Hungry.

Also, be sure to read our ongoing series on poverty in the lives of teens.

Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please? 
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty 
Working with youth who live in poverty 
Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like
Sunday Reflections: Going to be hungry
Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries 
Sunday Reflections: Are Schools Discriminating Against the Socioeconomically Disadvantaged?