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Sunday Reflections: Are Teens Reading Less?

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I have come across several conversations recently on Twitter that suggest that YA fiction is selling less, which often translates to teens are reading less. It’s important to note that these figures are referring specifically to the UK sales figures of YA, so the data may be radically different for the US. And as always, the conversation is more complicated than it seems. Are YA sales figures down? I don’t know, and I don’t know that that data tells us what we think it does. But if you find yourself asking are teens reading less? The short answer is no. The longer answer is slightly more complicated then that.

As someone who has been doing this for 26 years now, the hand wringing over teens are reading less is not new. There is a strong sense of been there, done that in these conversations and the correct answer is often this: it’s not that teens are reading less, it’s that teens aren’t reading what adults wants them to be reading in the ways they want them to be reading it, and that is an entirely different argument. The teen reading landscape has changed several times in the last 26 years, it’s changing now, and it will change again and again. What causes that change, what it means, and how we respond it it are an entirely different conversation.

If we’re being completely honest, it is true that teens are reading very differently and I understand that these changes are causing some fear among authors, publishers, teachers, and adults in general. Because the shift in teen reading habits impacts those groups in several ways: in sales and income, in how we can (or can’t) measure teen reading, and in how we can (or can’t) influence, monitor and control teen reading. Everyone having these conversations have different motivations, and that matters too.

You see, it’s not that teens are reading less I find, but more that teens are reading differently, and digital media is a huge influencer of this change. Today’s teens typically have devices (newest Pew Center data suggests that around 95% of teens have a mobile device of some sort) and these devices give them access to a whole new world of reading opportunities, which teens are availing themselves of. Wattpad, online fan fiction, and free downloads via either libraries or places like Amazon make it easier for teens to get the reading content they want, with immediate gratification and more anonymity than ever. Today’s teens don’t have to ask an adult to buy them the books that they want, or ask a librarian to help them find the titles on the shelves. In fact, online reading helps teens cultivate teen friendly spaces with little (known) adult monitoring and interaction. There are pros and cons to this development, depending on how much you want to monitor teen reading.

In addition, in the early 2000s the YA publishing market exploded while research suggested that more adults were buying YA than teens, which pushed the YA market more towards adults than YA when developing new authors and titles. Over time, the YA market aged up, adults became proud readers of YA, and the pop culture references on the pages of YA became more and more dated and less teen friendly. Many teens felt like YA was no longer their space, and so they abandoned it for new teen spaces. And with the explosion of technology and online creative writing forums, this task was easier to do than it was in the past. So teens carved out for themselves new teen spaces and once again, the reading landscape is changing.

This is coupled with the fact that we don’t really have any real way to measure teen reading. We do testing, which really only measures how well a teen can perform on a test about reading. Sales figures tell us who is buying a book, but not who is reading it, or how many people read one book. The same is true for circulation statistics. These are all imperfect measurements that tell us more about who buys or checks out an item and less about whether they read, like or recommend an item. Let me be very clear about this: we have no real good way of making quantifiable statements regarding teens reading for pleasure. Many of us who work with teens can tell you a wide range of anecdotal stories that have value, but there aren’t any real facts and figures that we can talk about because our measurement tools are deeply, inherently flawed.

When considering sales figures it’s also important to remember that as the economy shrinks, people have less disposable income and are less likely to buy books, which is not the same as being less likely to read books. In fact, overall public library use seems to be up, though many of my colleagues seem to suggest that while the circulation of physical items is down slightly, the circulation of digital content is up significantly. I myself am one of the last to adopt digital reading, but even I find myself reading more with a device in hand then a physical book in hand. It’s been a long time since I have checked out a physical book or a movie from my library, and I go there 5 days a week. Again, imperfect data.

We also have to look at a ton of other factors: competition for teens time and attention, our marketing and merchandising, the growing mental health issues we see in today’s teens and the amount of work causing it, etc. So. Much. Homework. And whether we like it or not, between Brexit and the growing white nationalism happening here in the US, which our teens *are* aware of and effected by, our teens are growing increasingly anxious, dismayed, and overwhelmed. Some teens are rejecting things like realistic fiction (too similar to their current real world experiences), while others are reading them with a fervor and choosing to be political;y active online and in the real world. Some teens are too busy marching to end school violence to read the latest literary tome that adults feel they should read. With growing incidence of racial and sexual violence, the under-funding of public education, and the fact that 1 in 5 kids and teens go to bed hungry, many people – teens included – don’t have the emotional energy or time necessary to read a book for fun, they’re too busy trying to just survive. The adults in the room are creating an environment that are putting up more and more obstacles for teens when it comes to having time for pleasure reading. So for those adults wringing their hands about teen reading I say this: change the environment, it will help a lot.

But even this is not a death toll for libraries, because though some libraries are reporting that the circulation of physical items is down, it’s not zero. And our libraries seem to be fuller and busier than ever. A majority of public libraries are thriving.

I think it’s good to have conversations about sales figures and circulation statistics and to try and figure out what those fluctuations mean and how they can help us better serve our patrons. But do I think teens are reading less? No, and in 26 years the answer has always been no when the question is asked. It just often means that we need to examine our practices and adjust to a new generation of readers and a changing market. In other words it’s not them, it’s us.

Editor’s Note: I did not link to the actual online conversation that started this discussion because it was problematic in many very real ways.  For example, the original article indicated that publishers should avoid publishing “issue” novels while having a primary graphic of author Angie Thomas. Angie Thomas is a women of color and the author of The Hate U Give, which has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for now over 100 weeks. Using Angie Thomas’ picture contradicted their main argument and is probably a racist dog whistle. Though I did not want to link to the article that ignited this conversation, I did want to address the concerns about teen reading.

Some Additional Resources to Consider:

Sunday Reflections: My Wild and Weird YA Librarian Resume

I was recently speaking with a friend when it occurred to me she didn’t really have any idea what I did as a YA librarian. Spoiler alert: we do not get paid to sit around all day in quiet and read. At the same time, I was going through and cleaning up my “office” space, which is really the dining room, and started really going through a bunch of old notebooks and papers, which made me spiral down a black hole of statistics. Given the lowest numbers, I came up with the following:

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These are low estimates as they don’t account for the years where I had daily after school programs or the years that I had programs every Tuesday with anywhere from 50 to 110 teens in attendance. They don’t count the years I had a Teen MakerSpace that was open daily and on the weekends. It doesn’t include all the school visits and tours, outreach events, and more. It’s just a very basic beginning look of stats I put together to help my friend understand on a very basic level exactly what it is that I do and why it meant so much to me.

But then I got to thinking, if I was going to put together a realistic resume, I could include a lot of fun things.

For example, I can make or modify a t-shirt in no less than 22 ways.

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I can write my name in Lego form.

I can turn a toothbrush into a mini-robot.

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I can write an interactive murder mystery, from scratch.

I can make slime in no less than 10 ways.

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I can make my own board game.

I can turn a beloved TV or book character into a party theme, complete with character themed decorations and food.

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I know more than 10 creative ways to use Shrinky Dink film.

I can turn trash into art.

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I know all the lyrics to High School Musical, Hamilton, and many other musicals.

I can turn a simple fingerprint into an epic button.

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I can make a stop animation movie using a variety of artifacts, including clay, Legos and paper art.

I can turn a blank canvas into art in now less than 20 ways.

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In short, the life of a YA librarian contains multitudes. I’ve done a lot of cool things, learned a lot, and feel really blessed. If we were to truly make a resume that showed everything we could do, it would require reams of paper and would be a pretty creative document.

What unique skills would you put on your resume? I think it would be fun to see what we’re all putting on our next resume.

Sunday Reflections: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

We are very excited to share with you the first post by new TLT contributor Elliot in this Sunday Reflections. If you feel so inclined, please consider leaving them a comment below. Don’t know who Elliot is? Check out the bio at the end of this post. Elliot is a senior in high school who wants to major in journalism so they’re joining us here at TLT.

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The holidays may be known as “the most wonderful time of the year,” however that statement is not true for everyone. People everywhere struggle with debt, abuse, depression and so much more during this time of the year. The issues surrounding this wintery time are often overlooked and I would like to bring them to light.


To start off with, there are a tremendous amount of unspoken “requirements” for people to have a good holiday. Most of what is expected of people during the holiday times require a mountainous amount of money. Houses in poverty often can’t afford extravagant decorations, a feast fit for a king, clothes to protect them from winter’s frosty bite, or the stacks of presents that this time of year is often associated with. While some families are buying a new Nintendo Switch or a fancy little Apple Watch, other families are worrying whether or not they’re going to be able to even afford their December rent and food let alone presents or decorations. Workers will take on a ridiculous workload in order to even just attempt to reach their holiday goals. The holidays focus far too greatly on money and gifts rather than truly having a happy holiday.


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For some families, the gifts and the money are all just a disguise, an excuse to cover up the dark truth in their homes. Abuse doesn’t just magically vanish during these “happy holidays.” In fact, according to national domestic abuse studies, the recorded incidents of abuse actually spike during the holiday seasons. Some explanations for why abuse might worsen over the holidays is an increase in stress, increased alcohol consumption, and more time for the abuser to be home with the victim. Abusers often feel as though they can cover up their abuse with presents and saying “I do/get so much for you.” However, the holiday presents can never cover up the scars that abuse can leave.


The holidays are obviously not always as joyful as the cheesy T.V. commercials make them seem. This season is often the most difficult time of year for those with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. Culturally, people are pressured to do a lot of work, go to a lot of parties, and be around a lot of people. All of these holiday activities leave people with very little alone time and very little opportunities for self care. This constant activity leaves people drained and unhappy. The holidays make it to where people are expected to be happy, so when people with depression can’t find joy during these times, they often start feeling worse because they aren’t fulfilling society’s expectations for happiness.. It becomes a loop that constantly makes those who suffer from depression feel worse and worse due to the unrealistic expectations of holiday cheer.


The holidays are not always the joyful image that you see in the movies or in magazines. Like everything else, there is a darker side to these joyful times that should be taken into consideration because you never know who is experience the sad side of Christmas.


Meet Elliot, the new regular contributor to TLT:


I am currently a student at [Name redacted for safety reasons] High School who wishes to pursue a career in journalism. I have been an avid writer and a human rights activist for as long as I can remember. My goal in life is to help other people and I believe that one of the best ways to help someone in a bad situation is to share their stories. Sometimes the only thing that a person needs is a voice; however, not everyone has the opportunity for their voice to be heard. I want my writing to be a voice for all of those who are kept silent and I want my writing to make a difference in our slowly declining world. Although times are tough, I believe that there is always hope: you just have to find it.

Sunday Reflections: It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye

This past week, I started a new job at a new library. I didn’t make a big announcement in part because I’m so very bad at saying goodbye. And although this new job is a great opportunity for me professionally, leaving my old job was harder than ever for me.

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I began my library career at The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County, where I worked for the first 7 years of my career. With another co-worker, I built that program from scratch at the tender age of 20. When I left the first time, I cried for an entire year afterwards. I didn’t want to leave it then and I didn’t want to leave it now. Getting asked to come back was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And professionally, turning the teen program into the Teen MakerSpace was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I had in many ways hoped to retire at this library, ending it all where it all began. Plus, it was an honor to work once again with my mentor and friend. She’s retiring at the end of this month and I wish her nothing but the best.

My library mentor

My library mentor

It’s not just the program that you come to love, it’s the people. Coworkers. Teens. I’m a very relationship oriented person and leaving a workplace can be difficult. And as you know, I genuinely care about the teens I serve. As a teen services librarian, you have to say goodbye every year to a small cohort of your teens as they go off to college or whatever comes next. There’s a lot of goodbye built into being a teen librarian.

I'm not gonna lie, I took a picture of my Teen MakerSpace manual and put it up at my new desk. I will miss you TMS manual! Though I'm already making a new one.

I’m not gonna lie, I took a picture of my Teen MakerSpace manual and put it up at my new desk. I will miss you TMS manual! Though I’m already making a new one.

This past week, I began a job as the Children’s and YA Materials Selector at Fort Worth Public Library. This is hands down the largest library system I have ever worked at and it in right in the middle of a big city. So there is a lot of change happening here. I’m going from a medium sized Midwestern rural library to a big big big city library system. I’m going from a position where I’m in charge of anything and everything teen related to being the collection development person. I’m going from being in charge of a staff to being in charge of, well, no one. And did I mention it’s big? Like, super big.

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Like I said, it’s a lot of change.

There’s a huge learning curve here. I have to learn new people, new demographics, new systems, new processes and more. I’ve already met a ton of people and, although they’re very nice and I will eventually make meaningful connections, those first few weeks or months when you are a stranger in a strange land are always so very hard for me.

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In larger systems, everyone has very specific job titles with very specific jobs and very specific responsibilities. This is not always the case in smaller systems when you are just in charge of everything. In my new position, I’m a collection development librarian. Like many larger systems, there are programming or collection development librarians and I am working with collections. In order to help fulfill my desire to work with and serve teens hands on, I am also working with the local arts council to help create a Teen MakerSpace as a volunteer at the public library in the town that I live. So I will still get to do some programming. I will still get to connect with teens. I will still get to serve and advocate for teens in the area of programming as well. I feel blessed in that I get to learn and grow and still do all of the parts of teen librarianship that make me feel the most like me.

25 years as a Teen/YA Librarian. I've met a lot of people I love along the way.

25 years as a Teen/YA Librarian. I’ve met a lot of people I love along the way.

This fall I begin my 26th year as a Teen Services Librarian, and I’m beginning it at Fort Worth Public Library. It’s a new and exciting adventure that I am looking forward to taking. In my previous 25 years as a Teen Services Librarian I have started 2 teen programs from scratch, revamped 2, created a Teen MakerSpace, managed a small staff twice, built several collections, served literally thousands of teens, published a professional book, and started Teen Librarian Toolbox. It’s not a shabby resume and I’m looking forward to see what happens next. Let’s do this.

Sunday Reflections: It Was a Rough Week to be a Teenage Girl

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault and Violence

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This past week, John Kerry said that Trump had the “insecurity of a teenage girl.” Are teenage girls insecure? Some of them are, perhaps in part because we continue to use being a girl and femininity as an insult. Or perhaps it’s because teenage girls are told that they have to be sexy, but not too sexy because then you’re asking for it. Or perhaps it’s because teenage girls are told that they have to be smart but not too smart because then they are intimidating. Or perhaps it’s because teenage girls are told they have to speak up but no too loudly because then they are shrill and bossy. Or perhaps it’s because teenage girls are told that they have to be perfect and bear responsibility not only for themselves, but for the education of the boys around them (dress codes), for the future of the human race (pregnancy and maternal instinct) and for, well, everything it feels like.

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But if teenage girls weren’t already feeling insecure about being used metaphorically to take down a sitting president by pointing out their, well, insecurity, they were also told repeatedly by political, cultural, and spiritual leaders that their safety doesn’t matter. Especially if it means that we might have to reconsider our current Supreme Court candidate and have to put pushing a political agenda on hold to try and find a conservative Supreme Court candidate that hasn’t been accused of attempted sexual assault. That’s right, teenage girls got to spend the entire week hearing about how their sexual safety really doesn’t matter, which definitely won’t make them feel insecure, am I right? Boys will be boys and we just have to accept that, even if it means that we have to sacrifice the long term emotional well being of our daughters. Even if it means we have to place yet another alleged sexual predator on the Supreme Court. If the current version of the future plays out the way the GOP wants it to play out, that means that teenage girls will get to grow up in a world where two sitting Supreme Court justices have been accused of sexual violence and harassment. If that doesn’t make you feel insecure and fearful about your place in the world, I can’t really figure out what would.

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In the meantime, they got to hear elected representatives, including our own personal self-confessed sexual predator president, talk about how the pain of teenage girls doesn’t really matter. Of course, we shouldn’t find this surprising from the man who confessed that he liked to walk in on teenage girls changing clothes in the dressing room of the beauty pageant he owned. So I’m not going to lie, as a former teenage girl who was sexually abused, I don’t really care what this man has to say about sexual abuse and harassment. Self-confessed perpetrators don’t get to tell survivors of sexual violence how they should think or feel about what has happened to them.

Then the hashtag #whyIdidntreport started trending. It’s important to note that this is not the first time a hashtag of this nature has trended and it, most infuriatingly, won’t be the last. Why don’t victims of sexual violence immediately report their abuse? Because we know that 9 times out of 10 we won’t be believed and even if we are, the men who victimize us will pay very little consequences. Remember Brock Turner? There are thousands of Brock Turners who are serving too little time for violating us. And there are far too many people in our culture who worry about the effects of jail time on men like Brock Turner’s future then there are those that worry about the long term effects of sexual violence on the girls that men like Brock Turner rape. Maybe teenage girls are insecure because we keep telling them that their pain doesn’t matter and that they are the sacrifices we are willing to make to sustain the lives of men.

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When you think about the world that teenage girls are growing up in, and I mean really think about it, they are doing a bang up job in all honesty. They are out there marching, demanding to be heard, learning, growing, and more. They are rising up, as they always have, against a patriarchy that continues to claim that they are somehow lesser, so much lesser that even some of our most progressive elected representatives still find it far too easy to use them as a negative comparison to make a political point. Yes, I’m side eyeing you John Kerry.

It was a rough week to be a teenage girl, as most weeks are when you live in a patriarchy. I don’t blame teenage girls though, because it is the adults that are making life hard for them. When I marched in the Women’s March one of the signs I kept seeing was a sign that said, “I can’t believe I’m still marching for the same shit.” That’s what this week has felt like. Why are we still here? Why are we still willing to sacrifice our daughters for the sake of our sons political careers? It’s 2018, maybe we can find someone who hasn’t been accused of sexual violence to serve in the highest court of our land. Maybe, just this once, we can send a different message to send to our sons and daughters and let them know that character matters and female pain isn’t an acceptable sacrifice.

My daughters aren’t an acceptable sacrifice for your political agenda.

Sunday Reflections: Stop the Massage Train, we don’t need to be asking professionals to touch one another

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I often like to follow a conference tag on Twitter when I can’t attend a conference because I still tend to learn from them. I will screen shot tweets and send them to people I know who have been discussing the issue or save ideas for future consideration. This is what was happening when I was following tweets from #ASRL2018 the past few days. But then a tweet about staff development stopped me cold in my tracks:

I initially thought that this tweet was about doing this activity in a staff development training at the library, but this activity happened at the conference in a session about staff development and training. A group of people who paid to go to a professional conference were asked in a professional setting to engage in a massage train. I imagine given the way that these conferences work that this was also suggested as a possible activity for a staff library training or staff development day, though I can’t guarantee that it was as I was not there.

This tweet seems to be suggesting that asking staff or conference attendees to participate in a massage train is a good idea for staff development and team building. To clarify, this would mean asking your staff or conference attendees in a professional development environment to touch others in very intimate ways. This isn’t a professional handshake, this is reaching out and massaging the person beside you. I want to state this in plain and specific terms: do not ask your staff or other professionals to touch each other or put them in a position where they may have to publicly refuse to do so.

The first thing I want you to understand about this is that light, playful massage is often a grooming behavior of sexual harassers, assaulter and predators. Massage and “playful tickling” are chosen because it helps to break down barriers and it’s hard to accuse someone of assault when it can easily be dismissed as “a light massage”. If you Google Harvey Weinstein and the word massage, you will find stories that highlight the ways in which massage is used in workplace sexual harassment cases. You’ll find more of the same if you Google the words massage and grooming. This is a very common practice among sexual harassers and it should never be encouraged in the workplace, especially in the year 2018.A large number of woman have had to find ways to prevent themselves from being “massaged” by the skeevy coworker who wants to expert power over them and wants to touch them without their permission. There are very real reasons why massage is often the touch of choice and it behooves us all to spend some time researching why that is.

Let’s flip the script. Imagine you are that pervy person who is always looking for a reason to touch other people and now you’ve just been handed a buffet. What’s more, you have reinforced their belief that this is normal and acceptable behavior and fed into the foundational beliefs of a serial harasser or abuser. You have normalized what should not be normalized behavior. You are now complicit in this person’s ongoing harassment of their coworkers.

Many of our staff members and conference attendees are themselves sexual violence survivors. If we go by the most current statistics, 1 in 4 of them are. That means that many of the people we are putting in this situation will be triggered by this activity and they now have to figure out how to deal with it. Do they publicly opt out? If they do so, how will it affect their work relationships? Imagine you are the person in the room that your coworker has just refused to let touch them when everyone else in the room had no problem doing this activity. There are so many group dynamics and ramifications happening here. It’s not a good look for anyone.

It’s important to note that this is not just about sexual violence either. Some religions and cultures have very strict rules about touching, especially touching between people of differing genders. Other people just don’t like touching people period. Others have OCD issues and serious germ phobias. There are a lot of reasons why people may not want to touch other people and it is, quite frankly, completely unnecessary for us to ask our employees to do this.

But this isn’t just about employee comfort and safety, it’s about workplace liability as well. In the year 2018 and in the midst of the #MeToo movement, any workplace who asks their staff members to engage in this type of activity, even if we are suggesting that they can opt out if they wish to, can be seen as putting staff in a harassing environment. There is no scenario in which I would ask my staff to touch each other as a part of their job or job training because I don’t want to be sued for creating a sexually hostile work environment nor do I want to appear in the press for doing so. It’s a bad look.

It was suggested in the discussion that participants can opt out or in as they wish, but we all are aware that peer pressure is a real thing as are group dynamics. Even if someone is told that they can opt out, they may not feel genuinely safe to do so because they have to measure what the true social and professional cost will be to them. There is a social and professional cost to being the staff member who refuses to participate, especially publicly, in an staff training or staff development activity. Even if management claims it is okay, we all know that it is now possible that management has now internally labelled this staff member as an outlier, someone who is not team oriented or wants to cause problems. This sets up all kinds of potential internalized bias for a staff member all because they want to protect their bodily autonomy.

I can think of very few scenarios in which we should ask our employees to touch their coworkers or fellow conference attendees, and most of them involve saving their lives. But a massage train? It’s completely unnecessary. Whatever we believe may be accomplished by this activity can be done so in another way and in a way that respects our employees bodily autonomy and keeps us safe from liability.

Don’t get me wrong, I have hugged tons of my professional peers at a conference and sometimes even at work, but this is always because the other person and I choose to engage in this activity. We have full bodily autonomy and mutual consent, it’s not being privately or publicly suggested by a person in a position of power outside of the two of us, and there is no cost to us if we refuse to do so. In a professional environment, there is little reason to ask people to touch each other. Please don’t do this.

Sunday Reflections: The Fight for Our Children is Exhausting, but Important

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It seems like every day now there is a new assault to be concerned about. Some lawyers want to know, is literacy a fundamental right? My gut reaction is yes, but the more important question is what happens when literacy rates go down? Spoiler alert: one of the answers is increased crime and incarceration rates.

Many are once again trying to take away healthcare, especially healthcare that covers pre-existing conditions, from the American people. Not only is it generally in-humane, it once again puts communities at risk of higher poverty and crime rates. It puts children at risk.

Many people are complaining because the Houston ISD is offering free breakfast and lunch to all of its students because this is of course tax funded. But what happens when children go through every day hungry? It puts communities at risk for higher poverty and crime rates.

Hundreds of children are sitting in cages that will probably never be reunited to their parents because their parents dared to try and bring them to a better life for safety and hope.

Children in Flint are drinking poisoned water that will have life long health effects.

You probably see a theme here.

It’s especially hard because a lot of these assaults are at the expense of children and as someone who has dedicated their life to working with children, particularly teens, I know first hand the impact that poverty, poor healthcare, poor nutrition and a lack of community support has.

We are failing our children. And in failing our children, we are failing ourselves. No good will come from all of this hatred, greed, selfishness and a lack of caring and nurture for the next generations. None.

It’s easy to despair in the year 2018. I do so frequently, if I’m being honest. I can’t even understand what some of my dearest friends and family are thinking when I hear some of the things they are saying. As a nation, as a culture, we have seem to have lost our heart. We failed to learn from the past.

But there are many who are continuing to fight, and every day more are joining in because this fight matters. The fight for our children, for their health and well being and safety, matters. Not just because it is the humane and moral thing to do, but because it has real consequences.

I’m not going to lie, yesterday I never even got out of my pajamas. I took a day to do nothing, to recharge my batteries. Because it’s easy to read the news, to go to work and see the world around you, and to be completely overwhelmed. Sometimes I don’t even know where to start making a different, it seems like too much is wrong, that I don’t understand the questions, and that this is all so much bigger than me, bigger than any one person.

And it is. It’s bigger than any one person. Which is why we need to be in this together.

We need each other.

And our children need us, to work for them, together.

So I’m getting out of bed today and trying again. I hope you’ll join me on the days that you can.

Sunday Reflections: When Darkness Means You Can’t Read – Reflections on Mental Health and Reading

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TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses depression, anxiety, mental illness and suicide

Recently, Time magazine reported that less 1/3 of teens don’t read for pleasure. At the same time, a lot of YA/Teen librarians are looking at their circulation statistics and wondering why they’re going down. I did a completely informal and unscientific Twitter poll, and about half of the 88 respondants indicated that their circulation stats were going down. This was not surprising to me because it’s something that I see a lot of my peers talking about and working to fix.

There are a lot of possible reasons as to why. For one, we know that more teens are reading digitally and these circulation statistics aren’t counted in traditional ways. If you use Hoopla, for example, they don’t separate YA books out in their reports. But we know that a lot of teens are migrating to digital content, both ebooks and audiobooks. In addition, a lot of teens are abandoning traditionally published fiction and embracing fanfiction on forums such at Wattpad. It’s not that teens aren’t reading, they’re just reading differently. And of course, we can’t ignore that a lot of teens are spending more time engaged with social media just as adults are.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent. (Source: http://theconversation.com/with-teen-mental-health-deteriorating-over-five-years-theres-a-likely-culprit-86996)

But I would like to suggest that another reason for the decline in reading pleasure would be the increase in mental illness. Statistically, we are seeing a growing number of teens report episodes of depression and anxiety. The Center for Disease Control reports that incidents of depression, anxiety and suicide having been steadily rising for teens, and I think this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed for a lot of obvious reasons, but also because I think it affects reading.

I am an adult human who struggles with depression and anxiety. I am prone to panic attacks and have some serious moments of suicidal ideation. As such, I find myself involved in a lot of online forums with others who struggle with these same issues. One of the things that seems common for a majority of us is that when we are in the midst of a depression or anxiety spiral, reading is hard. Full, immersive reading that requires a type of physical and emotional investment can be hard for people struggling with mental illness. Let me explain.

For a lot of us with depression and anxiety, the most basic of functions can require an amount of energy that can be hard to muster. Your body can feel heavy, weighed down. You’re tired a lot. And if you are in an anxiety spiral, there is a lot of negative self talk that is happening in your head that takes a very dominant position. All of this is a type of clutter in the mind and body that makes everything else so much harder. So your goal is to survive and, if possible, dull the static noises inside of you. For me, and many others like me, scrolling through social media and looking at pictures or reading fluff headlines while watching fluff tv in the background can sere as a means to try and help drown out the noises. It’s a type of survival technique to help get you through the moment. I personally find that Food Network or mindless comedies are great for this. They’re not heavy, they don’t require invested attention, and the fluff of it helps me to cope. And the act of scrolling and reading on the Internet takes up a space that darkness is trying to occupy.

These are coping techniques. I’m not saying that they are healthy ones, but I find them to be employed by a lot of my fellow depression and anxiety sufferers. For many of us, there are periods of time when reading for pleasure is just simply not an option.

In the height of my worst depressive episode, I went three months without being able to read a book. I typically read about 3 books a week, but there are often times when I can read no books at all because I can’t get my mind settled enough to commit to the act of reading. I have reason to believe that I am not the only person that this is true for.

Yes, it is different for some people and for them, reading is the escape that they need. Reading can be the coping mechanism that some need while for others it is an insurmountable hurdle. No two people struggle with the same mental health issues in the same ways. But I think it is important that we acknowledge two things when considering a decline in reading:

1. We live in a world where many people are facing increasing struggles with depression and anxiety.

2. For some people, un-managed mental health issues can result in the loss of the ability to read for periods of time.

I believe that it is important that we talk more about and provide better treatment and support for mental health issues in our world. I also think if we truly want to explore things like education and reading for pleasure, this is another reason we need to look into mental health more closely. Not every teen who chooses not to read is struggling with mental health issues, but I believe that some of them are and recognizing that will help us better understand the problem and get us talking about mental health, coping strategies, support and treatment. What if part of the reasons teens are reading less is because they are hurting more? It’s a question we should investigate.

Sunday Reflections: Classroom Libraries are a Stark Reminder that Not All Schools are Created Equal

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Tomorrow I will get up and take my daughters once again to their first day of school. The Teen will be starting her Sophomore year of high school and Thing 2 will be going into the fourth grade. So like most parents, I’m feeling reflective and contemplative. I am, as they say, having the feels.

There are pictures going around Twitter of people setting up their classrooms and stuffing them to the gills with a wide variety of books for kids to pick out. These pictures are being hailed as examples of good teachers who create rich learning environments that inspire reading. How can kids not want to read in a classroom that looks like this?

Let me start by saying this: I agree, this is an amazing looking classroom that would definitely encourage reading.

But most teachers and school districts can’t afford this.

My oldest child started her public school education in the state of Ohio in a city that is struggling financially in the year 2008. Here’s a thing you should know about the state of Ohio, for 20 years they have been supporting public schools with a financial model that was deemed unconstitutional. That’s right, the way that the state of Ohio funds public education was declared unconstitutional 20 years ago and they changed exactly nothing. This funding model has a lot to do with local property taxes, which means that poor kids living in poor neighborhoods go to poorly funded schools while rich kids living in rich areas go to richly funded schools. We were a poor family living in a poor neighborhood going to poorly funded schools. In fact, for the last few years that district has given free breakfast and free lunch to every single student because more than 80% of the students qualified.

One of the surrounding districts closed their school libraries due to a lack of funding. Those students will never get to know the joy of popping into their school library during the day to pick up a book to read. And in a world where the research has shown time and time again that school librarians help ensure higher student success rates, these schools have closed their school library doors. These students are starting their education journey at a severe disadvantage.

Poorer districts tend also to have lower paid teachers. This can also mean that they have higher teacher turnover as teachers leave to go to higher paid districts. But you know one thing that lower paid teachers in lower funded public schools can’t do? Set up a classroom library full of books and books of shelves. Those books have to come from somewhere and they cost money. To have a wide variety of new, engaging titles to line the walls like this, you would need a lot of money from either the district or your own personal bank account. I admire any teacher or librarian who wants to invest personally in this way, but I’m also not going to shame any teacher who can’t or chooses not to.

Teachers and librarians work in service oriented professions, and we are asked to sacrifice a lot for the noble good. We’re supposed to care for our students, patrons and communities so much that we are willing to make personal sacrifices that we don’t ask other professionals to make in order to be successful at our jobs. Our unwillingness to make those sacrifices are often interpreted as not being good at our jobs or lacking compassion. Failure to make the noble sacrifice is seen as a negative, whereas I would argue that being asked to make the noble sacrifice to begin with is the true negative. I fully and proudly maintain that everyone should refuse to make those personal financial sacrifices so that the public understood what the cost of a real, quality public education truly was and agreed to fund it. Teachers and librarians deserve to make adequate salaries and students deserve to go to stably and fully funded schools.

I’m tired of already underpaid teachers and librarians being asked to take one for the team because no one wants to truly support and invest in our children. Public education is an investment. It’s an investment in our children, it’s an investment in our here and now and it’s an investment in our future. The return on investment is high: we get educated citizens who take care of us and our country. Failure to invest in public education has other disastrous and expensive results as we end up with higher rates of crime and lower health rates which means higher costs for incarceration, health care, and more. We end up paying one way or another, and I think we should pay up front by investing in better education as opposed to paying in the end by building more jails and trying to find ways to solve health, mental health and opioid crisis.

I am a public librarian and I have never worked in a school library. I do, however, know a lot of school librarians and I know that some of them barely have money to buy new books during the course of a school year. It is not unusual for a school library budget to be as low as $3,000 per year. If you break that down into a discount rate of about $10.00 per book, that’s roughly 300 books year. I most cases this would not even mean 1 new book per student per year, depending on the size of the school. My high school had a graduating class 330 students which means that with a budget of $3,000 per year at roughly $10.00 a book, my high school wouldn’t even have been able to afford 1 new book per year for the graduating senior class, let alone the entire school.

As this new school year begins we have already seen a ton of Donors Choose requests asking for donations to help teachers to fund projects in their classrooms, asking to buy books for book discussion groups, and asking for money to buy books to place on almost empty school library shelves. These requests for funds get tweeted and retweeted and we celebrate each other when they are filled because look at us, we’re doing a great job supporting one another. And while I appreciate that a thing like Donors Choose exists and that these teachers are getting the funding they need through it, I resent that we live in a world where this has to happen. It’s not a good thing, it’s a statement of how much our public education system lacks funding. This is not stable funding, this is not a solid investment in our children, it’s a patchwork attempt to fill gaps that is dependent on being seen and the generosity of those who see your request. It’s a hope, it’s a request, it’s a pleading with the general public to fill a financial need in a world that has abandoned their children by refusing to invest realistically, solidly, stably, and consistently in public education.

Last week alone I read stories about someone having to get donated sick leave to fight their cancer, an employer who bought their employee a car so they didn’t have to walk to work, etc. What if, instead, we demand that that employer pay their employee a livable wage so that they could buy their own car and consistently feed their family? What if we demanded that all employees no matter how many hours they worked received benefits such as sick leave and vacation time? What if we demanded more of each other. What if we choose to truly invest in livable wages, public education, work/life balance, and general overall health?

What if we demanded that every school was properly funded and teachers were adequately compensated and we truly invested in and supported public schools? What if we had real school library budgets and classroom library budgets? What if we didn’t have to beg each other for books?

I do not write this post to shame any teacher setting up a classroom library in any way. In truth, those classrooms look excellent. I imagine as a student it would be awesome and inspiring to sit in one of those classroom. I do, however, want to make sure we aren’t using these classroom as a barometer to shame other classroom teachers, because those classroom libraries are not cheap and there are a lot of reasons why every classroom doesn’t look like those. Actually, there is one main reason, and that’s money.

As we go into this school year, it’s important that we all remember that not all schools are created equal. Our children aren’t all being given the same opportunities, the same resources, or the same investment to achieve. Children born into poverty face a lot of obstacles that are designed to keep them there, one of which is a poorly funded public education. They will rely on the generosity of strangers and Donors Choose campaigns to meet even their most basic education needs in their school systems because they live in areas where adults can’t or choose not to invest in them.

Classroom libraries are awesome, but until we live in a world in which every classroom can look like those pictures, we must continue to advocate for better and consistent funding for public education. Our children desperately need us to.

Sunday Reflections: Wrestling with Local History

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This weekend, the city of Mount Vernon, Ohio is awash in the arts as we celebrate the annual Dan Emmett festival.

2018 Ohio Festival Schedule | OhioFestivals.net

If you’ve never visited the Midwest, the local small town festival is a glorious affair that celebrates, well, anything. In Fredericktown the celebrate the tomato, in Marion it’s popcorn, and in Circleville it’s pumpkin. But throughout the summer and fall, you can finally find a small town festival somewhere to celebrate something and it’s really quite charming. You wander from booth to booth, there are a few rides here and there, local talent shows, and my personal favorite, fried fair food.

dixie

In Mount Vernon, we celebrate the arts and our local artistic claim to fame, Dixie song writer Dan Emmett. Dan Emmet is said to have written the popular anthem Dixie, though there are also claims that he stole the song from a local black family, the Snowdens. He also was a regular participant in minstrel shows, which were popular during the time but now (most of us) recognize that black face is unacceptable and that a lot of the popular art that we celebrate when we celebrate Dan Emmett is, in fact, really quite racist.

The first day of the Dan Emmett festival this year, a man came in asking for a print out of lyrics to the song Dixie because he wanted to prove to his wife that the song was racist.

Civil War songs: Dan Emmett’s legacy in Knox County

At the library, we have a display case up with a variety of items celebrating the life of Dan Emmett and the Dan Emmett festival. One of the items in that display is the very old sheet music to the song Dixie, which has a picture of four men wearing black face on its front cover.

Earlier this year, a local group exploring the issue of racism in our community met to discuss whether or not having a Dan Emmett festival is racist in and of itself.

Mount Vernon’s Blackface Minstrel – The Collegian Magazine

I currently work in a community which is 97% white. I previously worked in a community that was much more diverse, but was also at one time considered the headquarters of the KKK. That’s a lot of local history to wrestle with.

This weekend, White Nationalists met to reconvene one year after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlotesville. Although they may not recognize it yet, this community too will have a lot of complicated local history to wrestle with.

The truth is, most towns in this country have a lot of local history that they have to wrestle with, and in the year 2018, we see this happening on a national level. I never imagined that I would actually live in a time where we discussed race riots as something other than in the past, but these past couple of years we have seen the resurgence of white nationalism, neo-nazis, racism, hate crimes and more. Make no mistake, these things have always been present, they have just been more well hidden in my lifetime to white people like me than they are now. Today, these issues are once again front and center, making it harder for comfortable white people like myself to pretend that we live in a just world or that racism is anything other than it is: real, hateful, and deadly.

Public libraries serve their local communities. We are steeped in local culture and history, we preserve, protect and celebrate it. But what happens when that history is full of racism?

In Mount Vernon, there are people who want to rename the Dan Emmett festival. Some people want to adopt a new name that incorporates the history of the Snowdens into the festival as well. Some people just want to drop any human from the name of the festival at all. I’m not going to lie, as we reflect on our country’s history and discuss things like statues named after Confederate soldiers, I see the wisdom in celebrating tomatoes and popcorn as opposed to people. People are complicated and even the best of us are not perfect.

I have walked the streets of the Dan Emmett festival. I have watched friends sing. I have eaten funnel cake and buckets of fries. I have felt that sense of community as I nodded hi to people that I recognized from the library or stopped to pet that cute dog on the leash. There are lots of charms to living and working in a small, rural Midwest community. In fact, Mount Vernon, Ohio has a rich and thriving arts community and it is definitely something to be proud of.

There’s also a lot of ugly history to wrestle with, as there is everywhere. And you would be surprised how often librarians are asked to do this. How do we preserve that local history? How do we talk about it? How do we present it or display it? Should we include Confederate flags or figures in our local history displays? Should we put up sheet music with black face characters on the cover? Should we ignore it? Pretend it didn’t happen? Put it on display without comment?

Working with local history can be a complex challenge because people are invested in their local communities. On a global scale, we have never figured out how to talk about the violent and racist past of United States history. We can’t do it on the macro level, and we certainly haven’t figured out how to do it on the micro level. This falls under the umbrella of things I never learned in library school. Where are those conversations about how to deal with local history in local public libraries?

Four years ago, on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson. Protests broke out in the surrounding community. The Ferguson library became a haven for the local community, staying open. They are now tasked with preserving the history of that time in the local community. What they do in this project of preservation matters.

‘In This Together': Ferguson Library Stays Open Amid Violence

When we talk about the Nazis and World War II, we often reflect on how we personally might have responded. Racism today is no less urgent, those conversations are happening. I think often about what I want the history books to say about me, about who I am right now and the choices I am making. I want to be on the right side of history.

History, it turns out, doesn’t stay in the past. It’s time once again for public libraries to think about what it means to be neutral or not and how we engage in current events by how we talk about and present history in our libraries.

We have to wrestle with our local history because our local futures depend on it.