Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Mirrors and Windows

BOOK COVER SHOWS MULAN WEARING ARMOR ATOP A HORSELast year, my second grader came home one day and started telling me about Malala. Her teacher had used a biography of the recent Nobel Prize winner as the example book at the beginning of their biography unit. This week, my now third grader came home with assignment inspired by The Ballad of Mulan by Song Nan Zhang as they discuss perseverance and challenges. And there you go — it can be just that easy to begin to incorporate diverse books into a curriculum. The assignment reads:

Dear Parents,

This week we have been reading the folktale The Ballad of Mulan. In the story, Mulan overcomes stereotypes, proving that women can also be strong and courageous in war. Throughout the unit, we will be talking about overcoming challenges.

Have your child conduct an interview with a woman in their life who has overcome a challenge, obstacle, or broken barriers. Think of a family member, grandmother, aunt, teacher, or role model who has overcome something throughout their life through determination and strength. Think outside of the box and look around, you will be surprised how many women have overcome some sort of challenge throughout their life! The questions on the following page should be used to guide the interview, any other questions that come up through conversation are always encouraged! After the interview they can draw a picture of their special woman.img_20160927_220445

I’m so pleased that all of the kids in my daughter’s grade are being introduced to heroic figures from around the world, that they’re being inspired to connect a book to the world around them, and that they’re encouraged to take another look at the women they know, learning about and acknowledging their challenges and triumphs. Not only that, but they’re looking to a the attitude and accomplishments of a woman from Chinese history (and not even the Disneyfied version of it) as their inspiration. Books are mirrors, they are windows, and here they are both. My daughter knows women who have overcome poverty, loss, childhood abandonment, language barriers, abuse, discrimination, and more. This weekend she’ll get to sit down with some of them and hear their stories. And so will the boys in her class.


Middle Grade Monday – The Fight for Diversity

I struggle with finding books for my little friend Aaron. My good friends qualified as foster parents a few years ago and were given care of one of the sweetest, most delightfully loving babies I have ever had the opportunity to know. As time went on and it became apparent that Aaron’s family was not going to be able to care for him, he became eligible for adoption, and my friends were thankfully able to adopt him. One of the greatest joys in my life is picking out books for all of my friends’ children, whether I’m taking them to the library or shopping for them at my local book stores. It’s been no different for Aaron; he loves books and being read to is one of his favorite activities. So, what’s the problem? Aaron is African American and his parents are white.

Early on, I purchased this board book for Aaron; he was delighted with the page that shows a child’s palm and insisted on giving the book a ‘high five’ every time that page was shown. I explained to his parents how important it is for children to see themselves in the characters they read about. I provided them with articles on diversity in children’s literature, lists of authors and illustrators who focus on portraying African American children, and online resources for updated lists.  They were very receptive to my urging and have done a wonderful job providing Aaron with a continuous stream of reading material. I also continue to forward them articles about the topic and list of books I find. But now Aaron is almost 3 and I wanted to purchase some board books for him for Christmas.

My local book store is a treasure and has a vast collection of children’s materials from which to choose. They even have a special section devoted to displaying works by and about African Americans. It’s an excellent resource – it’s where I got I like Myself, which was on their oversized board book spinner rack.  I started there again, then moved on to the African American section, then to the display full of regular sized board books. Here’s my dilemma, there just aren’t enough! Sure, I could get him an Ezra Jack Keats title, but I know he has all of them. As I continued to look through the books, I was disheartened to find that almost everything that was available Aaron either already has or is too young to read. Most of these books are stunningly beautiful, but they are too old for him. They have complex language and pictures that are not appropriately interesting for his stage of development. An so many, so, so many about are about history – historical events, historical setting, topics, and people. He’s 3 – I just want a board book with at least a few little black faces to stare back at him! Where are the books with characters who just happen to have black or brown or yellow skin? And why am I writing about this for Middle Grade Monday?

Because it’s the same for Middle Grade titles. Where are the novels about kids in the middle grades who just happen to be African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, etc.? There are so few of them. History, yes, that is there, and books about what it is like to be non-white in America. There are not even enough of these, to be sure, but I am hard pressed to think of more than a handful of titles that prominently feature minority characters that are not specifically about the minority experience. We need these, as well, but we need more. We need so much more. More books like Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist, or Coe Booth’s Kinda Like Brothers, and even more like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. We don’t just need diversity, we need diversity within diversity – fantasy and science fiction and mystery and horror novels that feature minorities as main characters. The historical and realistic fiction we have is great, but there isn’t even enough of that. I want a bounty of choices! When I’m doing collection development, I want to have to DECIDE BETWEEN two great series that feature minority characters instead of continually purchasing multiple titles of the few books available. (Ideally I’d love to do both, but that’s a budget issue…)

If you’re similarly interested in making a difference in this fight, I’d urge you to check out the We Need Diverse Books Campaign web site. Continue to promote and purchase books that feature diverse characters, and do what you can to support the development of new voices in young people’s literature. It’s up to us.

Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

by Amanda MacGregor

Jefferson High School, Davisburg, Virginia. 1959.

In Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, it’s been two years since the Supreme Court said all schools must integrate. The people in Davisburg have done everything they can to resist this order, including entirely shutting down their schools for months.

High school senior Sarah Dunbar is about to make history. She is one of ten black students who will begin attending an all-white school. Sarah and the other students arrive to find a large crowd of angry white people screaming at them, bellowing hateful words, and spitting at them. Sarah knew integration was going to be hard, but she had no idea it was going to be terrible. Day after day, Sarah and her friends are bullied, harassed, threatened, and attacked. The teachers don’t make it any better, choosing to ignore the way the white teenagers are acting, and usually being overtly racist and hateful themselves. Sarah, an excellent student who was on the college prep track at her old school and will attend Howard in the fall, is placed in remedial classes. In fact, all of the black students are in remedial classes, because of the assumption by the administration that the black students are intellectually inferior and have no place in more challenging classes. Through it all, Sarah is determined to hold her head high. She knows the movement is counting on her, that she can’t let it show that people are hurting her. She’s been told to look straight ahead, not talk back, not be caught alone, and just keep walking.

One of the most outspoken white students is Linda Hairston, who writes editorials championing segregation for the school newspaper. Linda mostly just mimics everything she’s heard her father, who is the editor of the local paper, say. When Linda and Sarah (along with Linda’s friend Judy) get paired up to work on a class project, Sarah begins taking Linda to task on her ideas and behavior. Unafraid to be outspoken, Sarah accuses her of not thinking for herself, suggests that deep down she doesn’t really share these same viciously hateful feelings that her father espouses. Sarah isn’t wrong. Suddenly, Linda is starting to feel shameful about the thoughts she’s been having about integration. She realizes she sort of likes and admires Sarah, but justifies these feelings by thinking that Sarah is special, that she’s better than the rest of “her people.” I don’t think characters need to be likeable or have redeeming qualities, but I will say that I initially balked at the narrative switch to Linda taking over the story. Talley does a fantastic job of getting in the mind of this young woman and letting her be hateful, ignorant, uncertain, curious, and complicated.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to another piece of this plot: Linda and Sarah’s growing attraction to each other. Sarah gives many hints early on that she’s been struggling with her sexuality. When she first notices Linda, she reminds herself that she’s supposed to force those feelings down, to act normal. When she thinks about kissing, she’s worried she’ll think the wrong things. Meanwhile, Linda has been spending a lot of time thinking about Sarah. But they’re just thoughts Anyway, Linda will marry Jack, her 22-year-old boyfriend, as soon as high school is done, escape her father’s house, and everything will be fine. Or at least that what she keeps telling herself, until she realizes that she can’t keep lying. She thinks, “I want Sarah the way I’m supposed to want Jack.” Both girls can only fool themselves for so long. When Sarah kisses Linda, their worlds break open. Suddenly, Linda and Sarah are questioning everything: their feelings for each other, their futures, the school integration, even the expectations from their families.

To call this novel powerful is an understatement. Told in alternate narration, the views Sarah and Linda give of this time in history are poignant. The unrelenting racism and violence is difficult to read, which is hardly surprising. The story is just as much Linda’s as it is Sarah’s. Both extremely stubborn girls confront their many preconceived notions. Both learn, change, and grow. Neither seems there simply to “teach” the other about the opposing side. Talley does an excellent job of showing how two young women do what they think they are supposed to do and act how they think they are supposed to act, only to discover that carving out their own futures might be possible. This book is an essential read. Talley tackles a lot in this novel, combining history, diversity, intersectionality, GLBTQ characters, family dynamics, and so much more. In less skilled hands, it would have been overwhelming. In Talley’s hands, it’s just masterfully knit together and moving.

An author’s note about this era in history and the research Talley did for her writing is appended, as is a section of Common Core-aligned questions for discussion.

Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 9/30/2014
Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss

Diversity Discussions: Diversity is the New Black – by Jayla P.

Diversity discussions have been picking up steam lately. These discussions aren’t just limited to libraries and books. Television shows, technology industries, and more are picking up on why it’s important to include people of color into the mix. My Twitter feed is abuzz with hashtags such as #weneeddiversebooks and #diveristyinYA.
Check out the Official Site of the We Need Diverse Books campaign here:
No doubt you have all heard of the recent backlash BookCon received after featuring an all-white, all-male author line up for one of the conference panels. The conference has since added more diverse authors to the mix, and even included a diversity discussion panel on their schedule, but why did it take all this publicity to do so?

It’s really exciting that such a crucial topic is being discussed. It means we are making progress, albeit it’s a slow process. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me but I can’t help to think that all this diversity talk will soon die down. That may take years, but I like that we are at least talking about these things now.
School Library Journal dedicated their May issue to the topic of diversity. If you haven’t read it yet you need to stop reading this and go pick up a copy! There are a ton of killer arguments supporting diversity in libraries. Kathleen Honnings article titled “Still an All White World” provides a solid base for what I want to discuss in this month’s diversity discussions post. I’d like to share two points from the article that made me stop and think.
“We need people to write diverse books” – – Kathleen Honning hit the nail on the head when she made the comment that publishers can’t make diverse books pop out of thin air. People write books. That’s a fact.  The lack of people of color writing books is one of the things killing diversity in publishing. How can we, as librarians, fix this? There are always the good ol’ fashioned writing clubs. Possibly even a diversity book club? Has anyone has experiences with these? Do you think it’s possible to manage?
“We need to buy, read, and share diverse books” – – Taking to Twitter and using the hashtag #weneeddiversebooks is one thing, but we also need to act on this and pick up books that feature characters and writers of all backgrounds. Make it a point to start reading at least one diverse book a month, if you can. Create amazing diversity displays to feature authors of all types of diverse backgrounds.
Finally, there is the issue of diversity as a word. When I opened my copy of SLJ, I was hoping to find a few articles going beyond the racial spectrum of diversity. Lauren Barack wrote a fabulous piece about LGBTQ support for teens in this months School Library Journal. However, it was the only piece that branched away from the typical racial diversity everyone is talking about. Is it too soon to open up the diversity discussion to include not only race, but also religion and sexual orientation? Maybe it’s time we think about adding these topics to our diversity discussions as well. What do you think?
Jayla P. is a new librarian who got her start in libraries as a work study student in college. It wasn’t until one of the reference librarians told me about library school that I began to toy with the idea of becoming a librarian. She currently holds a part-time position as a YS librarian in South Carolina. You can find her talking about books and book related things over at LadyBlueJay.com and blogging periodically here as part of her new Diversity Discussions column.