A Year of Silent Reading

As a young child I loved reading by myself. I didn’t talk to other people about the books I read– I just plowed through piles of books. In fact, I challenged myself to read the entire Children’s collection at the Jefferson Market Library, a branch of the New York Public Library System. I completed the challenge without telling anyone about it except my favorite Fifth Grade teacher, Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith loved books, stories, and language the way I did. He often opened his lessons each morning with poems by Langston Hughes and Phillis Wheatley, asking us to “sit quietly with their words.”

When I became a Children’s Librarian in 2012, I was enmeshed in a delightful in-person and online communities of readers which included but was not limited to: librarians, booksellers, humanities educators, authors, agents, and publishers. I was a voracious user of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook primarily to share my love of reading and books, placing special emphasis on marginalized #ownvoices narratives for young readers.

Since I have a two-bus commute to my teaching position each day, there was ample time to post, re-post, and tweet. Through my engagement with the digital reading communities, I worked on refining and extending my school’s collection, developing new curricular and programming initiatives, and engaging with ideas and analyses that enriched me professionally and personally. I got off the bus each day inspired and ready to evangelize reading and books for everyone with whom I came into contact.

Jump cut to 2019 and I am an eager and grateful elected member of the John Newbery Book Award Committee. Books line every surface of my workspaces at home and at the school where I teach. I read in every spare moment between exercising, sleeping, teaching, and sharing meals with my family. There’s one problem, I am not allowed to talk about and/or post about any authors or books that could be considered for the award during 2019. Since the award is for readers ages 0 to 14– this includes picture books, elementary, middle grade, and young adult books.

During our initial Newbery committee meeting in January, members were told that we couldn’t appear to have any biases. When the lines of my browed furrowed, our Chair said gently, “Of course, if you can’t keep yourself from talking or posting, you don’t have to be on the committee.” And I nodded quickly and looked down deferentially. I said to myself, “Alpha, you can do this, you don’t have to share your reading practice on social media. You don’t have to share your reading practice with your fellow librarians or colleagues. You can be silent and just take notes–it’ll be okay.”

Now the reading by myself is hard, I want to shout the titles I love from the digital rooftops. I want other people to experience the joy of a new voice and a new story and I want to share in their experience as they share in mine. I am using Mr. Smith’s guidance as a mantra: “Just sit quietly with their words.” Mr. Smith, I am trying– I really am.

Dr. King’s Words On My Mind

As I sit down to refine a post which was written in honor of the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. my brain is burning with the image of Omaha elder’s Nathan Phillips’ face as he played his ceremonial drum while a group of primarily white teenagers mocked the sacred song he was singing to honor community members during the first annual Indigenous Peoples March. This event took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The teenagers were surrounded by adult chaperones who did nothing to stop the teenagers’ cultural violence. Phillips’ simultaneously peaceful and defiant weariness breaks my heart. I hope that as teacher-librarians we will take this occasion to open up a conversation in our school communities about the intersections of race and religion in American politics especially as it relates to both the work of the Indigenous Peoples Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to facilitating a school-wide discussion that includes staff and senior administrators, it is critical to initiate and/or continue an ongoing, intentional, and thorough analysis of our school library collections, programs, and services. One of best resources I know of with which to do this has been created and maintained by scholar Dr. Debbie Reese. Her website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, includes articles, presentations, and general guidance. Her July 2018 article for NCTE: Critical Indigenous Literacies gives an overview for the urgency of this type of work. Another recent article that is very useful is Sonja Cole’s Classroom Connections: Authentically Representing American Indians, published in Booklist (January 2019). Along with refining our collections, programs, and services, it is necessary to keep current and contribute to living conversations related to creating space for a wide range of experiences and voices. We can use the hashtags to search, follow, and participate in critical dialogues on Instagram, GoodReads, and Twitter: #NativeKidLit, #diversebooks, #diversekidlit, #ReadYourWorld, #WNDB, #kidlitwomen, and #ownvoices. Our active participation will allow us to make the collective connections and do the work that will prevent Saturday’s event from happening in the future. In Selma, Alabama, on March 8, 1965, Dr. King said, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice.” This moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial provides a chance for all of us to “stand up for what is right” and it is in our power as teacher-librarians to view it as an opportunity for difficult but necessary change.

Feeling Grateful

This is my first AISL blog post. I am excited to write for a new audience especially during a week (in the United States) predicated on gratitude and connection. This is my second career, I came to librarianship after a stint in academia as both a scholar and an administrator, and every day I am thankful for my new profession. I am not exaggerating. I love the opportunity and the privilege to excite students about reading and research. I love helping students to find new stories and information that open up spaces, emotional and intellectual, spaces in which they can experiment, imagine, and grow. I am grateful for all of the librarians, at conferences, on Twitter and Instagram, and in my regional circle, who teach me new ways to think about our profession and re-invigorate foundational practices such as storytelling, reader’s advisory, the reference interview and collection development. I am grateful for the generous spirit that runs through librarianship which I first encountered during my first American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans in 2011. In the past conferences were difficult experiences filled with endless moments of pretension, arrogance, and what seemed to border upon ridicule. From the moment I walked onto the ALA conference shuttle and was invited to sit down, I knew I was in a different kind of community. This was a community where people built each other up rather than cut each other down. This was a community where people were excited to share what they knew and learn from others. This was a community of hope, dialogue, and connection. In my second year of library school I interviewed for my first teacher-librarian job. Initially I thought of it as an informational conversation. After several weeks, multiple conversations, and an on-site visit, I received a job offer. I have worked at St. Thomas School in Medina, Washington for the past seven academic years. St. Thomas School is a place, like independent schools in general, that believes in the power of librarians and libraries to change the world. Working there has been one of the greatest gifts I have received in my adult life. Thanks to each of you for being devoted librarians, generous colleagues, and inspired citizens. It is a great privilege to work among you.