Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Sunday Reflections: Making it Unaffordable to Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes, what the death of the mass market paperback means to struggling teens

sundayreflections1Last summer, before The Teen could enter into the middle school AP reading class, she had to read and annotate the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio. If she didn’t show up on day one of the school year with the project in her hand she was automatically kicked out of class. There were no classroom copies of this book. And we couldn’t check it out from the school library because school was not in session.

Our only option if she wanted to be in advanced placement reading was to buy the book and complete the project over the summer months.

Earlier this week, the Harper Lee estate announced that they would no longer be selling the mass market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. In a few months, the only editions available will be the trade paperback edition or hardback, both of which are significantly more expensive than a mass market paperback.

Also this week I had an interesting online discussion with Twitter user @jennygadget where she noted that one of the things that she was concerned about in recent trends in YA publishing is the increased price point of YA titles. The average cost of a new YA book in the U.S. these days is $17.99, up from around $14.99.

To further complicate matters, let’s consider the many Americans living in rural towns – like myself. The closest new book store from my home is a little over an hour. I can drive twenty minutes in either direction and I will run into a Half Price Books. This means I have to have transportation, gas money and time to make the trip.

If I want to order off of Amazon I either have to sign up for Prime, which has a subscription price, or pay shipping. I also have to have a way to pay online, which means a credit card, Paypal account or Amazon gift card. Many families don’t have any of these things.

I happen to live in a town without a real public library. There is a small public library as part of the high school, but its offering are maybe 2% of what you might find in a fully developed and staffed public library. Its children’s section is smaller than my kitchen, compared to those libraries that have entire floors dedicated to children’s books.

Access to a diverse offering of quality titles is sparse in these parts. Even sparser if you can’t afford to build your own private library.

I mention all of this because I want to highlight the stumbling blocks to reading that many families – many teens – face. Keep in mind, 1 in 5 kids/teens go to bed each night hungry. They don’t know how they are going to pay for their next meals, so they don’t always have the cash on hand to drop to buy that assigned book in their classroom. The number of families in my area who qualify for free or reduced lunch hangs around 70%. For some of these families, their middle schoolers couldn’t sign up for advanced reading and successfully complete the Wonder project simply because they couldn’t get their hands on a copy of the book to complete the assignment.

Last month the class was assigned The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. This time there were a few classroom copies available to students who couldn’t get their own copy, but they were passed out and turned back in each 45 minute period. They couldn’t take the book home. They couldn’t do the annotate the book portion of their assignment because they were using a shared book. And if they were a struggling reader who needed more time with the text – or a reader who wanted to spend more time with the text – they were out of luck.

This is just one of the many ways that teens going into middle and high school can be at a disadvantage. Pay to play is another. When The Teen tried out for basketball this year, it was clear that she didn’t make the team because those that did were more experienced players. They had been playing in local leagues – which charge a pretty high fee – from an early age. If you wanted to be on the cheerleading squad, you had to have had years of gymnastics and be able to plop down a clean grand after being chosen for the team. Baseball, soccer, tennis, musical instruments and more – all opportunities that you couldn’t take unless you already had experience, which means money for lessons and uniforms and local leagues. And parents with enough free time off of work that they could take you to practices and games.

So many of our teens come into our education systems with an economic disadvantage. All education, it seems, is not equal. And this doesn’t even take into account economically disadvantaged school districts and how THAT affects education and opportunity. When we lived in one of the highest poverty school districts in the state of Ohio, you could see every way in which the underfunded schools left local residents at a disadvantage. The school library doors were closed and locked. There were no field trips. And the class offerings are dramatically different than what you find in more well funded districts.

As a librarian, we tend very much to care about the concept of access. In order for people to succeed, they need access to the things they need to be successful. In order for our students to be successful readers, they need access to books. New books. A wide variety of books. Assigned books. The classics. And everything in between. But access isn’t as universal as we think. Like public schools, not all public libraries are the same. They have dramatically different funding, which impacts collections, which impacts access.

And then in their own homes, our teens can have huge barriers to access as well. They may not have the funding to purchase a lot of titles for their home. Or the way to get to a bookstore. They may not even have a bookstore near by, but that’s a different rant about the loss of local bookstores. School and public libraries are supposed to be one of the things that help bridge these gaps and level the playing field for our citizens, but we all know that is not always the case.

Many people don’t realize the significance of what it means to hear that the Harper Lee estate will no longer be selling the mass market paperback version of To Kill a Mockingbird; how it will make access to this title a lot harder for many of our teen readers. But I do. And it makes me sad because I know that this is just another way in which our financially struggling teens will be further disenfranchised and have to work that much harder to try and be successful in school. It’s another way of telling our poorer families – our poorer teens – that they have so little value and we have so little respect or compassion for them. It’s just another hurdle that makes it seem like it’s that much harder to climb up the education ladder successfully.

I think the news would make Atticus Finch a little sad because he would have taken a moment to walk in those teens’ shoes and understood how challenging their journey to success is. It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you can’t even afford to buy a pair of boots.