“And You May Contribute a Verse”: Adapted, Diversified Classics for Teens, Part Two

By Rebecca Moore, c.2020

Welcome to part two of this annotated bibliography of adapted and diversified—sometimes called “bent”—classics for teens. In this context, “classics” are works which have an established presence in the western canon, and are written by named authors. They have been bent by gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and more. Although authors’ motivations are complex and individual, they often include exploring the universality of themes in the original texts, and embodying a Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass (1891) quote: “That you are here—that life exists, and identity/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

Part one covered adaptations of works by Shakespeare. Part two covers adaptations of works by other authors.

Benincasa, Sara. Great. HarperTeen, 2014. 270 p. $17.99. 978-0-06222-269-5.
This modern-day adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) follows Naomi, daughter of a Food Network star, to a summer in East Hampton. Their neighbor, Jacinta Trimalchio, is an enigmatic fashionista and over-the-top party giver. Why is she obsessed with meeting Delilah Fairweather, a casual friend of Naomi’s? Benincasa felt the themes of Gatsby “were incredibly relevant to teenagers” (Benincasa). In gender-swapping the Gatsby character and keeping the Daisy character female, Benincasa, who is bisexual (Flans), “wanted to play with elements of teen sexuality and to talk about the difference between obsession and love, and I wanted to see where those lines are blurred, particularly for teenage girls” (Benincasa).

Cameron, Sharon. Rook. Scholastic Press, 2016. 464 p. $9.99 pb. 978-1-33803-246-8.
In this gender-flipped reboot of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), a far-future dystopic Earth has reverted to a pre-industrial, technology-banning level of society. Disguised as The Red Rook, Sophia Bellamy rescues prisoners from the Sunken City (formerly Paris). Can she accept the help of—and arranged marriage with—Rene Hasard, a Parisian who is more than he seems? The author states: “[I]t’s all about corsets, swords, decapitations and a female spy, and is a huge homage to The Scarlet Pimpernel” (Cameron, Author Interview). As to why the gender flip, Cameron is an admirer of author J.R.R. Tolkien, and appreciates and emulates his theme of: “Anyone, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can make their world worse, or they can make it better. Inner strength wins” (Cameron, Blog Tour). Or, as the book trailer asks: “Who needs a wedding ring when you can pick up a sword?” (Rook).

Hand, Cynthia. The Afterlife of Holly Chase. HarperTeen, 2018. 416 p. $9.99 pb. 978-0-06231-851-0.
Holly Chase, a wealthy Hollywood teen, was such a Scrooge that she got a visit from The Christmas Carol’s (Charles Dickens, 1843) three ghosts—and laughed it off. When she then died, she got recruited as the new Ghost of Christmas Past in Project Scrooge, which chooses one person a year to help. Five years later, the Scrooge is seventeen-year-old Ethan Winters. Author Cynthia Hand loved the original, and wanted to modernize the story to make it about younger, more diverse characters” (Hand). As to making Holly female, she felt that, unlike crotchety old men whom we believe can change for the good, “society is not accepting of teenage girls who aren’t, well, nice.” Thus she really wanted “to showcase Holly as a flawed, growing character—to try to push back against those gender biased expectations” (Hand).

Khan, Hena. More To the Story. Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019. 272 p. $17.99. 978-1-48149-209-6.
This adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) sets the story in modern Atlanta, with a Pakistani-American family. Seventh grader Jameela reports for the school paper, and yearns to cover stories that really matter, like microaggressions. Then her sister Bismah gets sick. Khan was “obsessed” with Little Women in her youth, and wrote, “I think I understood and could even relate to some of the societal and gender norms [the characters] faced as a child of Pakistani immigrants.” She added, “I always thought the story lent itself well to a retelling from a Pakistani American perspective.” She considered her story “a love letter to my favorite book!” (Khan).

Langdon, Lorie. Olivia Twist. Blink, 2018. 336 p. $18.99. 978-0-31076-341-3.
This continuation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) imagines that Oliver was always Olivia, and had to keep her gender hidden as an easily-exploited orphan. Now sixteen and living a high society life with her cash-strapped guardian, Olivia has reverted to her thieving ways to support a group of orphans who know her as Oliver. Then she encounters the Artful Dodger once more, and her life takes a turn. As a child, the author loved imagining that Oliver was really a girl. “This way,” she said, “I could imagine myself as the heroine of the story and the Artful Dodger as the hero. In my childhood fantasies, the two would have endless adventures and eventually fall in love and escape from poverty” (Langdon).

McKinney, L.L. A Blade So Black. Square Fish.2019. 400 p. $10.99 pb. 978-1-25021-166-8.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), this story’s Alice, a Black teen, lives in modern Atlanta. As a dreamwalker, she secretly travels to Wonderland with the help of her trainer, Addison Hatta, to fight nightmares before they can escape into our world. The author wanted to write an adaptation of the classic that was “steeped in Black Girl Magic” (Author’s Note). As she tells readers in her afterword: “To those black kids searching countless shelves and between endless pages, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves in galaxies far away, fantasies long ago, and stories here and now: This one’s for you. Shine on, and drive back the dark.”

McSmith, Tobly. Stay Gold. HarperTeen, 2020. 368 p. $18.99. 978-0-06294-317-0.
With S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) as inspiration, McSmith also sets his book in a Texas small-town high school with cheerleaders, football players, and outsiders. But here, outsider Pony is transgender, going “stealth” at a new school. On day one, he locks eyes with Georgia, a cheerleader who wants more from life than popularity. McSmith, who is transgender, sees books, and especially fiction, as “the ultimate safe space.” However, having rarely found books reflecting his own experience, he put it in the book “so that it creates a safe space for other trans people. And that so other people can read about our experiences and learn from them, and help create more safe spaces” (McSmith). The connection to The Outsiders came from reflections on the book’s toxic masculinity, which equated fighting with manhood, and the hope that “[m]anhood is no longer measured by aggression and force” (341). The original “stay gold” urged Ponyboy to stay innocent. Now, Georgia urges Pony to “Stay gold, Pony. Stay true to yourself when the world pushes against you…because you are exceptional, and everyone will catch up someday” (342).

Soontornvat, Christina. A Wish in the Dark.Candlewick, 2020. 384 p. $17.99. 978-1-53620-494-0.
In the city of Chattana, all artificial light comes from the dictatorial Governor, who reserves light for the worthy—and wealthy. Pong and Somkit, having been born in Namwon Prison, know they will never enjoy that light. Then Pong escapes, and Nok, daughter of the prison’s overseer, is determined to track him down. Having loved Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) in her youth, the author always wanted to adapt it, and found that setting it in a fantastical Thailand helped make it her own. As she said, “It is a love letter to Thailand for sure! The world in the book is based on my dad’s stories of growing up in Bangkok as a young boy. When I was a kid, those stories were so vivid and fairytale-like to me, and that mood is what I tried to bring into the story” (Soontornvat).

Teran, Andi. Ana of California. Penguin, 2015. 368 p. $16.00 Trade pb. 978-0-14312-649-2.
In this adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), Ana is a Latinx teen from Los Angeles, who has been in and out of foster homes and rough situations. At sixteen, her “last chance” is an internship on a Northern California farm run by a brother and sister. The author felt a strong kinship with the original Anne, and with Los Angeles. She chose to make Ana Latinx because, as she said, “I am Mexican American myself, so it was really important that my character reflect my heritage in that way. And I also wanted to write a story for young women with a Latina heroine, because it’s not something that you see typically in fiction” (Teran).

Terciero, Rey, and Bre Indigo, ill. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019. 256 p. $12.99 pb. 978-0-31652-288-5.
This graphic novel adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) sets the story in modern New York City, with a blended and multicultural family. Their military father is serving overseas, and each girl struggles with her own issues at home, including Jo coming to understand her own sexuality. The author, who is white, loved the original in his youth, finding the girls’ struggles “universal.” As to diversifying it, Terciero and the book’s illustrator, Bre Indigo, “wanted to see ourselves in the characters too, which is why we made the family diverse and one of the characters LGBTQ… Being LGBT myself, I’m just happy to be creating a book that I wish I could have read as a young reader” (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy). Indigo, who is Black, says that “some of the character’s surface traits have been changed to allow for some readers to relate in ways they might not have been able to before” (Indigo).

Zoboi, Izzy. Pride. Balzer + Bray, 2019. 304 p. $10.99 pb. 978-0-06256-405-4.
Brooklyn native Zuri, an Afro-Latino teen, is proud of her family and her neighborhood. Wary of Brooklyn’s gentrification, as represented by her wealthy new neighbors the Darcys, Zuri is especially dismayed by the judgmental, arrogant Darius Darcy. Zoboi saw many themes in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) that connected with gentrification. She also wanted to help students of color, forced to read the original, find their own connections to the story. “In the same way that wealthier newcomers to under-served neighborhoods erase the established cultures, this my very own way of reverse gentrifying the Brit-lit canon,” she said. As Austen commented on class and women’s issues, a “Haitian-Dominican teen in Brooklyn can grapple with those same issues” (Zoboi).

Other Works Cited

Benincasa, Sara. “Interview: Sara Benincasa on Young Adult Fiction, Anxiety, and Why Her Imagination Is like a Wild Animal.” Interview conducted by Alex Steed. Steed, BDN Maine Blog network, 10 Jan. 2014, steed.bangordailynews.com/2014/01/10/interview-sara-benincasa-on-young-adult-fiction-and-why-her-imagination-is-like-a-wild-animal/.

Cameron, Sharon. “Author Interview: Sharon Cameron.” Interview conducted by Kaleigh C. Maguire. Authography LLC, edited by Jacqui Lipton, 15 May 2014, kcmaguire.com/blog/author-interview-sharon-cameron.

—. “Blog Tour: Rook by Sharon Cameron – Interview and Giveaway.” Chapter by Chapter, 30 Apr. 2015, www.chapter-by-chapter.com/blog-tour-rook-by-sharon-cameron-interview-and-giveaway/.

Flans, Lauren, and Nicole Pacent, hosts. “Sara Benincasa.” Coming Out with Lauren & Nicole, episode 16, 26 Sept. 2018, comingoutpod.libsyn.com/episode-16-sara-benincasa-0.

Hand, Cynthia. “Question about Afterlife of Holly Chase.” Received by the author, 9 May 2020.

Indigo, Bre. “Rich Interviews: Bre Indigo Penciler: For Meg, Jo, Beth, & Amy: Little Women.” First Comics News, 15 Mar. 2018, www.firstcomicsnews.com/rich-interviews-bre-indigo-penciler-for-meg-jo-beth-amy-little-women/. Interview.

Khan, Hena. “Interview: Hena Khan.” Interview conducted by Bookvillageadmin. MG Book Village, 3 Sept. 2019, mgbookvillage.org/2019/09/03/interview-hena-khan/.

Langdon, Lorie. “Author Interview & Book Release: Lorie Langdon / Olivia Twist.” The Spinning Pen, 5 Apr. 2018, thespinningpen.com/2018/04/05/author-interview-book-release-lorie-langdon-olivia-twist/. Interview.

McSmith, Tobly, narrator. “How Safe Spaces Save Lives.” Harper Stacks, Harper Collins Studio, 25 May 2020. YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeEOfih69YE.

“Meg, Jo, Beth, And Amy Celebrates The 150th Anniversary of Little Women as a Modernized Graphic Novel from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Tapas Media.” Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Hachette, 6 Mar. 2018, www.lbyr.com/hachette-book-group-news/meg-jo-beth-and-amy-celebrates-the-150th-anniversary-of-little-women-as-a-modernized-graphic-novel-from-little-brown-books-for-young-readers-and-tapas-media/.

“Rook by Sharon Cameron Book Trailer.” YouTube, uploaded by Sharon Cameron, 12 Apr. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=17&v=GlSDsV8SuMs&feature=emb_logo.

Soontornvat, Christina. “Author Interview: Magic, Writing & Durians; A Conversation with Christina Soontornvat, Author of MG Thai-Inspired Fantasy, A Wish in the Dark.” Interview conducted by Skye (Shuurens). The Quiet Pond: A Book Blog, 1 Apr. 2020, thequietpond.com/2020/04/01/author-interview-magic-writing-durians-a-conversation-with-christina-soontornvat-author-of-mg-thai-inspired-fantasy-a-wish-in-the-dark/.

Teran, Andi. “Interview with Andi Teran, Author of Ana of California.” Interview conducted by Chris Caraveo. Medium, 9 Oct. 2015, medium.com/@ChrisCaraveo31/interview-with-andi-teran-author-of-ana-of-california-69567b51b741.

Whitman, Walt. “O Me! O Life!” Leaves of Grass, 2008. The Gutenberg Project, www.gutenberg.org/files/1322/1322-h/1322-h.htm#link2H_4_0121. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.

Zoboi, Ibi. “Walk the Jagged Streets of Gentrification with Ibi Zoboi’s Pride.” Interview conducted by Marie Marquardt. Teen Librarian Toolbox, School Library Journal, 20 Sept. 2018, www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2018/09/walk-the-jagged-streets-of-gentrification-with-ibi-zobois-pride-a-guest-post-by-marie-marquardt/.

Imagining Multiple Perspectives: Experimenting with “Priority-Based Perspectives”

This year, our school’s annual, 40+ hour, 5-month-long, co-curricular project with our ninth graders took place over six hours during the first week of January.

During this project students work in groups to research and ultimately present about a social issue of their choice to the grade-level parents. While this year’s nine-person faculty team determined that students would still make a brief Flipgrid video on their topic as a final product, I volunteered to design the week-long mini-course in which they would research and present their topics. I then had to decide what I really, really wanted our students to learn. Since our first run, eight years ago, students have consistently been asked to investigate multiple points of view with regard to their topic, and I have just as consistently been struck with how challenging it is for them to imagine what those viewpoints might be. So, I decided to focus on skills related to searching for and identifying multiple points of view. Specifically, our one requirement for the week was that they identify at least three perspectives on their topic.

Before winter break, students had studied Early Modern Islamic Empires in World History, and had submitted connections they saw among the political history of the Safavids, Mughals, and Ottomans and issues of global health and/or justice in the world today. I took these contemporary connections and, based on the topics each student highlighted, assigned them to groups. Since our time was so short, I framed broad research questions for each group based on their expressed interests. Almost every student articulated a pressing engagement with how personal identifiers played into political leaders’ use of power to privilege or repress different people under their influence, across a range of topics from voting rights to vaccine development to rights of women in Muslim countries (see the outcome of this last topic below).

They had their topics. I had my learning objective. Now, I just had to figure out how to teach the skill set of searching for and identifying multiple perspectives … in 40 minutes or less.

Through a day-long debate with my 20-year-old offspring, we formulated the following approach to identifying multiple perspectives. Though I taught it to 64 students at once in a Zoom meeting, I would definitively say my thinking is still in draft form. Please help me kick the tires and see if it holds up! I would be deeply grateful for critiques and feedback.

It always feels helpful to start with a framing activity that helps to ease students into the complexities we will be tackling in a lesson. In this case, I wanted to get them thinking about how the “government’s job” is not a unitary or settled notion. By adapting a few questions from the (wonderful!) World Values Survey and a recent budget survey done by the city in which our school is located, I asked them to answer four questions about what governments should prioritize.

Though I did briefly show them results to demonstrate that, even in the “room,” we had lots of varying opinions, I cared less about their answers and more about the students contemplating competing priorities.

A bar chart recording responses from class survey demonstrate that everyone has different opinions about the role or priorities of government.

Ultimately, we framed the lesson around the notion of “Priority-based perspectives,” the idea that points of view vary because individuals and organizations must sort through conflicting needs, and some must ultimately take precedence. I drafted a list of what some of these categories of priorities might be:

Image of a slide from class, with a stamp on it saying: DRAFT: Some categories of priorities: moral, economic, logistical, public relations/political, allegiance

The big epiphany I had (though it seems obvious in retrospect) was that my students were never thinking beyond the moral concepts that drove their own interest in their topics. They simply don’t have the life experience to suggest another path for investigation. So, we spent some time discussing that, for example, no matter how strongly you consider rest a moral right, the need to feed and house your family might still require a higher priority than time to rest. Similarly, you may morally believe that everyone has the right of equal access to a COVID vaccine, but we have been witnessing the real logistical challenges of efficient and equitable distribution.

One element that turned out to be pivotally helpful was that this construct moved students away from the binary pro/con approach for identifying perspectives (“Who agrees with me? Smart people. Who has a different opinion? Mean people.”) and instead started their research in a fundamentally different place: “What are the economic considerations of vaccine development? What different priorities might be competing? What are the logistical considerations of vaccine development? What different priorities might be competing with regard to logistical issues?” and so on. It removed their thinking from themselves and their closely held beliefs and allowed them space to be curious about what issues and priorities might exist.

Of course, we reviewed a few key search tips:

1. Pay attention to search terms, which will yield specific POVs:
— For example: Undocumented workers, illegal aliens, birthright citizenship
2. Search for your answer, not your question:
— Think about what you might expect someone to write about a topic and search for that.
— What words might someone use when they are talking about “morals”? How about “economic”? For example: budget, cost, price tag
3. Consider: how might people with the same goals have different priorities that lead to different POVs?
4. Remember to use stepping stone sources:
— Identify expert vocabulary/pertinent search terms that appear in the sources you have read so far. For example: CRISPR, designer babies, genetic engineering
— Who are some stakeholders mentioned in your sources who have points of view on this topic (people, groups, or organizations who care about the issue)? For example:
1.”According to the Department of Justice…”
2. “Emails leaked by the whistleblower”
3. “Professor Arvind Gupta, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma…”

There was one final issue that required addressing in this lesson: what does one do with points of view that do not meet with standards of evidence-based-reasoning? In the past, I have taught finding various political perspectives and a separate lesson on more diverse news consumption generally (finally this year I pointed out to a colleague that selecting sources by left-leaning and right-leaning just left out too many people, and ethnic, religious, and other community news sources needed to be included in any list of sources for reading political news). Yet, I try to balance understanding various perspectives against including harmful or factually incorrect perspectives in the classroom. For example, we do not accept as factual perspectives disproven medical studies (they may be mentioned for influence, but not presented as informational sources). I’ve never quite figured out how to walk that line effectively.

In this lesson, I drew on the World History course theme of historical empathy, and explained that identifying priority-based perspectives is an interstitial step that assists in identifying a range of perspectives; doing so also helps us understand the mechanisms that create structures in our world today, including the persistence of structural inequity. After identifying different priorities, and (potentially) sources that speak from the perspective of those authorities, it is the researcher’s job to evaluate the source (or, as we teach, identify the context and construction of the source’s authority) and determine whether it passes muster in our evidence-based environment.

The faculty for the ninth grade project all agreed that the students’ work this year was quite strong, despite the various emotional challenges everyone faced during our six hours of project time (including the events of January 6, 2021). I was particularly proud of the group that wanted to focus on women in Islam, as they moved themselves beyond a blind critique of the “other” and ended up delving deeply into a complex set of women’s perspectives about being a hijabi.

So, the idea of priority-based perspectives seems to work. Yet, I suspect I am missing (various) pitfalls or have elements lacking clarity. Thoughts?

Ages & stages

I can’t be the only one thinking a little bit more about retirement these days.

When looking at lists of pending retirees in recent years (both within AISL and at my school) , I have been taken aback by the increasing number of people listed whom I consider mentors. It really does seem like yesterday when I first met them, had the pleasure of learning alongside them, and began seeking  them out for guidance and direction. These librarians and teachers have had a seminal effect on my growth, largely professional but in many ways, personal. I focus on being happy about someone’s planned retirement while feeling something akin to distress. 

So – where to from here?

Theorist Donald Super offers these 5 stages of self-concept & career development

I wish I’d seen this a couple of years ago when I was flummoxed by the plateau I was feeling; I now realize that it was the stagnation noted in the Maintenance stage. 

Almost 20 years into librarianship, I have been fortunate to be involved with some major tasks: three LMS migrations, the revitalization of a school library program, a renovation and integration into our new school commons, and much technological transformation. I firmly believe that our school deserves dynamic people at the helm, and my diminished emotional state was making me question whether or not I should be passing the torch.

Fortunately, by this time last year, I seemed to have gotten my rhythm back. Just in time for the pandemic – ironic, but also timely, and it has provided opportunity for creativity and innovation in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

I’m going to embrace being at the Maintenance stage: holding on to what is serving my students well, updating what needs to be refreshed, recognizing feelings of stagnation if they return but aiming to push past them by continuing to innovate

I’m also going to work finding a new word for the 5th stage: “Decline”, my posterior. It’s clear Super never met a KARL 😉

Delighting Every Customer

When I tell people I am a librarian, I often get various responses. One is, “You don’t look like a librarian,” as if they anticipated a shushing, grimacing battleaxe.  The other response I get is, “Do people still go to the library?”  Both questions, while annoying, encourage me in my pursuit of offering top notch customer service in my library to deflate that stereotype and encourage patron usage. Therefore, it is my goal to assist every guest who walks through the library door with the same friendly, quality customer service.

When I am introduced to new students or touring families, I emphasize that I will ALWAYS help them and that our library is a place they can utilize anytime.  I express that I LIKE to help them, that is my job and it makes me happy.  While I truly enjoy working with my students, I also perceive that everyone at my school is responsible for recruitment and retention of students, and my job depends on enrollment. I am on the lookout for students who need help, and if they don’t ask, I ask them. I thank them for coming, because truly, without their patronage,  I am irrelevant.  I became an educator because I like working with students.

I believe it is crucial that I know my patrons, and if possible I find out what  they like to read.  I have an office, but I never use it; I sit at the circulation desk where I am visible and approachable.  I greet visitors with eye contact, a smile, and by name. My “superpower” is learning student names. The greeting and the smile go a long way; I have had students and alumni tell me how much it meant to them to be cheerfully welcomed to the space every day.  This creates, through word of mouth, an understanding that our school library is a safe and welcoming place and as a result we accrue more patrons.

I have had to train my aide to “take the extra step” in terms of patron support.  I had a similar experience with another librarian colleague I worked with at a different school who expressed that I was “too nice.”   I don’t think I am doing permanent academic damage to a student if I lead him/her to Shakespeare’s plays, or grab A Midsummer Night’s  Dream for the student, as opposed to writing down the card catalog number and sending them on their way.  For one, I think the student will more likely remember the positive service  than how the Dewey Decimal System classifies drama.  I also think teens and tweens are often  overwhelmed, and I typically give them the benefit of the doubt. The sullen teen can usually be won over with respect, courtesy and friendliness; it’s important to realize that we never really know what is happening in their lives.   I think about  my own experiences as a customer, and how perturbed I get when an employee at a hardware store expects me to find an Allen wrench hex key when I have no idea what it is or what it’s for.  Similarly, I am not too happy when employees at my favorite grocery store ignore me while they engage in casual conversation.  I try to put the student first – and address their needs even if I am mid task or have been talking with staff members. I get a little bit unhinged when teachers arrive to pick up their class from the library, but instead engage in small talk leaving their students to become more and more boisterous, which is only to be expected. 

It’s important to “keep up appearances.”  It’s a lot of work, but I’ve made the holiday tree of books several times with hundreds of books and strands and strands of lights.  We have book art, rotating displays, interactive bulletin boards, lights and whatever else I can dream up, steal from other libraries or find on Pinterest to make the space  inviting and fun.  Our comfortable seating and manipulatives have been limited because of Covid-19, but we are adjusting. Contests as well as a no fine policy have also promoted good will and increased usage in the library.

Every interaction matters. According to  Anthony Molaro,  Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Business and Professional Studies at St. Catherine University,   “A worldview that sees library users as patrons is one in which the patron  is above libraries. According to this worldview, we should feel lucky that they support our work, and we are forever indebted to them. Some people call this term archaic, while others have no idea what a library patron even is. In the end, the perception is that the patron is above us.”  

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Especially at independent schools, where tuition can be incredibly high, customer service makes all the difference in creating relationships between staff, students and families.  It should be a priority for all library staff. 

“Information Activist.” Library Journal, vol. 136, no. 5, Mar. 2011, p. 50. EBSCOhost,

Pundsack, Karen. “Customer or Patrons? How You Look at Your Users. Affects Customer Service.” Public Libraries Online, Mar. 2015,

“The Powerful Play Goes On”: Adapted, Diversified Classics for Teens

By Rebecca Moore, c.2020

Before stories were fixed in print and copyright, they belonged to everyone and no one, and were retold and adapted as the storyteller saw fit. That drive to retell has never vanished, as is evidenced by the plethora of adult and YA novels—not to mention fanfiction—adapting classic tales from Cinderella to Sherlock Holmes.

Writers adapt classics for multiple reasons. For instance, readers familiar with the original have a leg up into the adaptation, which might induce them to read it. Writers gain an advantage from whatever aspects of the characters, setting, plot, etc., they feel inspired to use, and may also find it an engaging writing exercise. The growing trend of adapting classics by making them more diverse—sometimes called “bending” or “re-storying”—brings more reasons to the table. Some writers adapt canon stories to show the universality of their themes/plots/etc. Others, especially #ownvoices writers, adapt to create and/or enhance representation. Many writers do both.

Classics hold cultural power for three main reasons. First, readers from all groups love them, and share them with friends and family. Second, familiarity with the canon often proves key in advancement within the dominant culture, such as getting diplomas, degrees, and respect, whereas familiarity with the stories of a non-dominant culture merits no such respect. Third, many generations of readers have grown up believing in the “single story” classics frequently represent. That “single story” tends to encompass only the dominant culture/gender/sexuality/etc., essentially erasing—and thus in some ways controlling—non-dominant groups.

Bending such classics can enhance representation of underrepresented groups in all readers’ minds. This can help readers from dominant cultures gain empathy, understanding, and awareness. Readers from non-dominant groups can feel a reclamation of the stories through the representation, and an assertion of their right to engage with writers from the past on their own terms. Bending is thus a form of resistance against the “single story” of the dominant-culture canon. Diversifying classics is a step toward embodying a Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass(1891) quote: “That you are here—that life exists, and identity/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

This is the first of two booklists of bent classics. We start with perhaps the biggest canon writer in the English language, William Shakespeare, himself a re-teller of tales. Part two, coming in August, will cover adaptations of other classics.

Fleet, Suki. This Is Not a Love Story. Dreamspinner, 2014. 270p. $16.99 Trade pb. 978-1-63216-040-9.
This re-imagined Romeo and Juliet tells the story of Romeo, a homeless, mute, teen who sells his body on the streets to survive. Julian, is the older teen protector Romeo loves. The ending, however, is not tragic. Said Fleet: “My aim was to write a story that, while it harped back to Shakespeare’s classic themes, ended in hope instead of tragedy.” As the majority of LGBTQ+ books Fleet read in their youth ended tragically, “reading became a painful experience.” For current LGBTQ+ youth, Fleet wanted to write a story “more hopeful and positive [and] diverse” (Fleet).

Jones, Patrick. Unbarred series. Lerner, 2016.
Jones’ experiences working with incarcerated youth, mostly of color, drove his writing of this hi-lo series that adapts Shakespeare’s works into modern, urban settings and language. The original impulse arose when a teacher insisted on teaching Shakespeare to incarcerated students who were mostly of color and reluctant readers (Jones, 2020). Said Jones: “I’m interested in telling stories about teens who don’t get their stories told by mainstream writers” (Jones, 2015). Many teens he saw were “struggling readers for so many reasons, but in part because they didn’t see themselves in books and/or they’d failed so many times trying to read in past that they associated any book with failure” (Jones, 2016).

Jones, Patrick. Heart or Mind. Lerner, 2016. 120 p. $7.99 pb. 978-1-51240-091-5.
This book recasts Romeo as Rodney, a Black boy recently out of a correctional institute. He falls for Jawahir, a Somali Muslim girl, but in Minneapolis, the conflict between Blacks and Somalis is violent.  

Jones, Patrick, and Marshunna Clark. Duty or Desire. Lerner, 2016. 120 p. $27.99. 978-1-51240-002-1. $7.99 pb. 978-1-51240-089-2.
The authors re-imagine Anthony as Alejandro, a Latinx teen released after serving time on a trumped-up charge. He is seeking to free himself from his gang. His Cleopatra is Chrissie, a Black teen who has suffered a similar police run-in.

Laskin, Pamela. Ronit & Jamil. Katharine Tegen Books, 2017. 192 p. $17.99. 978-0-06245-854-4.
This verse novel adaptation of Romeo and Juliet sets the story in modern Jerusalem, with the lovers being Israeli girl Ronit, and Palestinian boy Jamil. Laskin chose to bend the story to demonstrate the universality of not just young love, but “of adults whose blind intransigence serves unwittingly to destroy this love,” and of how each generation must “[find] a future in full adult awareness while rejecting the burdens of the past” (Author’s note).

McCall, Guadalupe. Shame the Stars. Tu Books, 2016. 288 p. $20.95. 978-1-62014-278-3.
In the early 1900s in Texas, the relationship between Texas Rangers and citizens of Mexican descent were violent, fraught, and unjust. Joaquin del Toro finds himself and his love, Dulceña, caught in the crossfire. McCall wanted to bring to light the injustices of that time, and was inspired by the theme “love is the most important thing of all.” Romeo and Juliet could have ended differently, she said, if people had had faith in love of family, home, community, and country. This book “is about our ability to conquer our fears and let the light of love shine through” (McCall).

Myers, Walter Dean. Street Love. HarperCollins, 2007. 160p. $8.99 pb. 978-0-06440-732-8.
This verse novel adaptation of Romeo and Juliet brings together Harlem teens Damian, bound for Brown, and Junice, trying to hold her family together after her mother is imprisoned. As a young reader, Myers never found himself or anything from his life in books. “As a consequence,” he said, “I did not love myself as a Black person or have a particular respect for much of the Black community.” He wrote about Black characters so modern teens could avoid the “subtle shame” he’d felt at his exclusion (Myers).

Shakespeare, William. The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. Adapt. and illus. by Gareth Hinds. Candlewick, 2013. 128 p. $21.99. 978-0-76365-948-6. $12.99 Trade pb. 978-1-76366-807-5.
This beautifully illustrated abridgement features Capulets of Indian descent and Montagues of African descent. Hinds sought to “[underscore] the universality of the drama by bringing a multiracial cast to the setting of historical Verona” (Hinds).

Talley, Robin. As I Descended. HarperCollins, 2016. 388 p.  $17.99. 978-0-06240-923-2. $10.99 pb. 978-0-06240-924-9.
Talley re-imagines Macbeth as a horror story set in a southern boarding school. Maria, a Latinx senior, needs a scholarship for college. Her roommate and lover Lily, white and disabled, will stop at nothing to help her get it. Said Talley: “I think it’s important for fiction to show the breadth of the world we live in—positive, negative and in between,” in order to offer readers the “opportunity to reflect on their place in the larger world” (Talley, 2016). She also felt that the ambition and high stakes of Macbeth fit well into the setting (Talley, 2015).

Winters, Cat. The Steep & Thorny Way. Amulet, 2016. 352 p. $17.95. 978-1-41971-915-8. $9.99 pb. 978-1-41972-350-6.
In this adaptation of Hamlet, biracial teen Hanalee Denney lives in Oregon in 1923. Her Black father’s ghost is trying to warn her about the danger she is in, as the KKK have a hold on her town. A gay character is also in grave danger. The author wanted to bring to light “Oregon’s racist past—a past that clearly affected the state’s lack of racial diversity that exists to this day” (Winters), and found the Hamlet story a perfect framework on which to hang her tale (Author’s Note).

Other Works Cited

Fleet, Suki. “This Is Not a Love Story.” Received by the author, 11 Apr. 2020.

Hinds, Gareth. “Romeo and Juliet.” Gareth Hinds, 2018, www.garethhinds.com/wp/romeo-and-juliet/.

Jones, Patrick. “Author Interview: Patrick Jones.” Interview conducted by Charlotte Kirton. Finch Blog, Finch Books, 12 Feb. 2016, www.finch-books.com/blog/author-interview-patrick-jones.

—. “An Interview with Patrick Jones.” Interview conducted by Jessi Shulte-Honstad. Teen Librarian Toolbox, School Library Journal, 30 June 2015, www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/06/an-interview-with-patrick-jones-by-guest-blogger-jessi-schulte-honstad/.

—. “Unbarred Series.” Received by the author, 20 Apr. 2020.

McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. “Shame the Stars.” Received by the author, 19 Apr. 2020.

Myers, Walter Dean. “Reading Is Not Optional: An Interview with Walter Dean Myers.” Interview conducted by Amy Nathan. PEN America, 19 Mar. 2012, pen.org/reading-is-not-optional-an-interview-with-walter-dean-myers/.

Scott, David Meerman, and Reiko Scott. Fanocracy: Turning Fans into Customers and Customers into Fans. New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2020.

Simeon, Laura. “Article Intro Notes.” Received by the author, 22 Apr. 2020.

Talley, Robin. “As I Descended: Author Robin Talley on Queer YA Retellings of Classic Stories.” Interview conducted by Dahlia Adler. BNTEENblog, Barnes & Noble, 16 Sept. 2016, www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/as-i-descended-author-robin-talley-on-queer-ya-retellings-of-classic-stories/.

—. “Robin Talley: ‘It’s important for fiction to show the breadth of the world we live in.’” Interview conducted by Confessionsofabooklover. The Guardian, Guardian News & Media, 2 Nov. 2015, www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/nov/02/robin-talley-interview-lies-we-tell-ourselves.

Thomas, Ebony E., and Amy Stornaiuolo. “Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 86, no. 3, 2016, pp. 313-338, 473. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/.

Whitman, Walt. “O Me! O Life!” Leaves of Grass, 2008. The Gutenberg Project, www.gutenberg.org/files/1322/1322-h/1322-h.htm#link2H_4_0121. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.

Winters, Cat. “The Time It Was about The Steep and Thorny Way.” Interview conducted by Stacee. Eleven Thirteen PM, 29 Feb. 2016, eleventhirteenpm.com/2016/02/the-time-it-was-about-the-steep-and-thorny-way.html.

Making the Case for Conversations in the Research Process

Years from now, when educational researchers evaluate how the restrictions of Covid changed classroom teaching, will experts discover that some of the most essential things about effective teaching remained constant and possibly blossomed in new ways?  Simultaneous in-class and distance-learning instruction poses a communication challenge for teachers and teacher librarians, but a recent Inventors project with 5th graders showed that making time for small conversations sparked the inquiry process and deepened understanding. Here are a few examples of how conversations led to “Eureka” moments for students as they researched inventors.

Launching Conversations with Short Videos
The Inventors research project provided wonderful opportunities for students to explore the Design Process. The below diagram was used as a touchstone as we began each class with a 10-minute exploration of how an inventor used the Design Process. The class discussion was launched by considering how the design of the spoon has changed over the years (from wood/bone to metal to plastic spoons), and students identified the plastic spoon’s merits (disposable/cheap) as well as adverse factors (non-degradable/environment hazard). Then students watched a video about an edible spoon created by Narayana Peesapathy, an inventor from India who created edible cutlery to lessen the problem of plastic waste in India landfills.

As students watched the video, they identified Empathy (problem of plastic waste), Ideas (several flavors; nutritious ingredients of millet and rice); Problems to solve (funding); and Testing (women workers provided samples of spoons to people in the streets of India). In class, students even received samples of edible spoons to taste.This initial inventor example promoted excited conversations and memorable connections to the Design Process.

Design Process

Other Inventor discussion starters included:
* Wind-powered Lego Car (video showed funding through a Twitter campaign)
*Thomas Edison’s Lab (video showed research lab is manned by experts in various fields)
*Lewis Latimer (video showed how inventors build on the ideas of others)

Modeling What Good Readers Do
Excerpt paragraphs from the Lemelson MIT website were used to model aloud what good readers do: clarify unfamiliar vocabulary and make connections to the text. The Visible Thinking Routine of Sentence, Phrase, Word was used by students to discuss important keywords to add to their notes. Using an article about Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the dishwasher, students discussed how Cochrane’s family and her education sparked her curiosity as an inventor, and they discovered how technology of the time (inadequate home water heaters and inferior soap) made Cochrane’s invention a success in hotels but not in households. It was not until 1950s when access to better water heaters and improvements in soap (as well as changing attitudes of women) made the dishwasher a success in the home. This was an important lesson that inventions and their importance can change over time. Science teacher Jan Fertitta was invaluable as she engaged students in classroom conversations to think more deeply about their inventors.

Connecting with Images and Primary Sources
Students expanded beyond text sources and located images using Britannica Image Quest and Advanced Google Searching (limiting search to site:.gov). Rather than just a portrait of the inventor, several students located patent designs or images that revealed more of the story of invention. One student discussed with me why she chose a particular painting image of Louis Pasteur. She explained that she chose the image because it showed one of his famous experiments to refute the theory of spontaneous generation. I thought that was an interesting comment, especially since the image caption did not provide that information. Later, while working with another student who was also researching Louis Pasteur, we located an article describing Pasteur’s experiment, and the experiment was indeed detailed accurately in the painting image: Pasteur is depicted with two flasks, one a closed-off swan neck flask that retained the sterile solution and the other an open flask with a cloudy solution, proving that bacteria in the air had contaminated the solution.

Louis Pasteur. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/107_3348341/1/107_3348341/cite. Accessed 8 Feb 2021.

Promoting Peer Conversations
Our current cohort classrooms have made facilitating peer conversations a challenge. To facilitate collaboration,the Language Arts teacher, Caroline Ferguson, has used Zoom breakout rooms as a helpful means for students to meet across cohorts (and with distance learners) for peer critiques and conversations during the research project. Students used CoSpaces to develop interactive digital scenes to present important aspects of the inventor/invention process. Students shared their developing CoSpace scenes with each other through Zoom breakout rooms, which promoted engaging and helpful conversations about good design, clear communication, and incorporating specific details from their research notes. One student was developing a digital scene about Jacques Cousteau and a thought bubble had simply stated: “I know, I will create the Aqualung.” After a small conversation and encouragement to use details from her notes, she edited the thought bubble to add specific details about the problem (see below). Students enjoyed the digital storytelling of CoSpace scenes.

Defining the Problem

Making Connections Among Inventors
Students used Graphic Organizers to develop 5 scenes for their Inventor CoSpace, and students made interesting connections as they added ideas to their graphic organizers. One student noted that her inventor, Milton Hershey, had his “Eureka” moment while attending the 1893 Chicago Exposition (World’s Fair), and that another student’s inventor, Josephine Cochrane, won an award for her dishwasher at this same Chicago Exposition. We both marveled that this must have been an exciting opportunity for inventors to share their new inventions and get new ideas. Students who researched Black Inventors (such as Garrett Morgan, Madam C.J. Walker, Charles Richard Drew, and Patricia Bath) discovered that in addition to their inventions, these inventors had a lasting impact by working for social change that would help the Black community.

All of these opportunities for conversations, whether in full class settings, teacher-student conferences, or peer communications via Zoom, promoted an insightful exploration of inventors. The Art of Communication to guide and deepen inquiry is a valuable tool in the research process.


Last week, when the alert I set in my calendar popped up to remind me I had an AISL bog due this week, I thought “okay, I’ll do some thinking, get an idea, and write something up this weekend.” And I thought. And thought. But no ideas came. At least none that I liked. I didn’t want to write about the challenges of this year, but it’s also the major thing on my mind. 

We’ve done some cool community-building projects this year, but our instructional program has taken a real hit with our revised schedule. For a variety of reasons, we moved to a semester-based schedule this year, which means that previously year-long classes are now being taught in a semester. One of the impacts of this is that a number of research projects have been cut or curtailed. And while I know that constraints breed creativity, the reality of the constraints of our schedule has meant that there is just not the time necessary for in-depth research. It also means I’ve had fewer opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm with teachers, which is one of my favorite parts of the job.

One of the other changes that came with our new schedule is the introduction of some new electives, including a 9th-grade course focused on the Middle East. This was my opportunity! The course had a lot more flexibility than other classes, and the teacher is a willing collaborator. So, Tuesday afternoon, as I was still struggling to brainstorm a topic for this blog post, I sat down to brainstorm with this teacher.

And it was so much fun! I have all sorts of strategies and methods for brainstorming with teachers (some of my favorites come from Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Toolbox), but this time we just had a one-on-one conversation where we built on each other’s ideas. I kept my research instruction menu open in the background so I could connect our ideas to the skills we’re hoping to teach. 

One of the goals we established right away is that we don’t want students to think of the Middle East only as “a place with problems” but to understand it in all of its richness and complexity. Given that this class may not have been every student’s first choice, we also wanted to build in some opportunities for them to feel more agency in their learning.

With those goals in mind, here’s what we’re thinking about so far. More brainstorming to do, and would love to hear any ideas you have!

  • Each student (or pair of students) will pick a country to become an expert on. This will allow us to do research tasks of different sizes at multiple points. Students can learn the history of a country, share current events, delve into the art and culture of a country, etc.
  • As a way to frame the research about their country, and as a way to develop some questioning skills, the class will generate the questions they’ll pursue answers to for their country study.
  • I’m hoping to find a way to incorporate (socially-distanced) write arounds as a way of developing background knowledge and thinking about multiple perspectives
  • This seems like a great opportunity to do some work with students on source types. This tends to be very abstract for my students, particularly at the younger grades. I have been wanting to do a source deck activity since I first read about them, but never seemed to be the right opportunity – until now! I’m still thinking about a topic, but would love any suggestions.

All these ideas need some more refining and planning, but it was exciting to be creative without constraints for a little while – and to get my brain storming in more productive ways. 

Amanda Gorman,Youth Poet Laureate, Ignites Interest in Poetry:

How Can Libraries Capitalize on this Renewed Interest in Poetry and Teach about the Role of a Poet Laureate

Poetry has always been elevated language and exulted expression used throughout history for celebratory, solemn, and sacred events. But for too many students poetry has become a textbook anthology studied only in the month of April losing much of its luster for our students and youth. Often it has been placed on a pedestal too high for our students to find it relevant to their lives.

Amanda Gorman in her bolt of yellow has sent shock waves around our nation and beyond for her poise and powerful command of language demonstrated at our nation’s Inauguration. Her arrangement of words, turn of a phrase and internal rhyme was cleverly crafted, and yet, incredibly clear to all types of reader-viewers; a difficult balance to achieve in poetry. Immediately following her performance the media landscape went wild with learning more about her. In our realm School Library Journal posted the following article “Youngest Inaugural Poet in History Impresses. Lesson Plans Available for Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb’”. They also went on to report her upcoming publications are already in the #1 and #2 bestseller positions on Amazon. My own introduction to Amanda Gorman was this past spring during the early days of shelter-in-place because of the pandemic. I saw her performance of “The Miracle of Morning” filmed in the LA Public Library. It was a balm and a pinpoint of light during at a time the world needed it.

Not only is poetry reserved for our highest ceremonies of our government it is reaching the highest levels of our popular culture and sports entertainment venues too as Amanda Gorman was asked to recite a poem at  Super Bowl LV. This is the first time a poet has been asked to perform in the Super Bowl. Poets everywhere are sounding their “barbaric yawps to the world.” I hope this pattern of poetry performance pervades more of our everyday lives with the opportunity for many diverse poet voices to be heard. I think our roles in libraries can celebrate and support poetry as we have always been linked with the poet laureate position.

While many of our library programs do promote and support poetry and poets in April I would like to suggest we capitalize on this renewed interest in poetry now; especially with poetic models like Amanda Gorman. Earlier this year our library staff had already decided to reach out for a visiting poet this year as a writer visit. While Amanda Gorman was actually at the top of the list, but not feasible for us we learn more about the National Youth Poet Laureate program from which she arose. This is a great resource to find more young, energetic, and inspiring poets our students would admire. Each year a youth poet laureate is chosen through a national competition from four regions of the country. While there is one final youth poet chosen there is an anthology compiled of the poets that entered. This is a great place to find fresh young voices that can be examples for our teenage students. Our library assistant contacted the organization to learn about how to invite or host one of these poets in our school. She learned that they will try to connect you with one of the poets that is available for a virtual reading and workshop. The National Youth Poet Laureate program is an initiative originating from Urban Word, a youth literary arts program based in New York. Currently, they have free online workshops for students aged 13-19 and host virtual open mic poetry readings. Much of this reminded me that we can connect these resources with our language arts teachers and our students. We can also inform them of the role poet laureates play throughout our society.

Additionally, research if your state and city has a poet laureate. In the state of Florida, Peter Meinke is our State Poet Laureate. He lives in my city of residence, so I am very familiar with his poems. Students can relate to his imagery because it comes from our natural surroundings. They also see the stature poets play to local municipalities and ceremonies in the role of a poet laureate. I am also lucky that my city, St. Petersburg, Florida has a City Poet Laureate, Helen Pruitt Wallace. Touching base with local poet laureates is another way to connect our students to poetry because they have a model that shows them how their world might be reflected back to them. These poets can show them that poetry is not only personal, but can be communal in how our words shape our shared experiences. Additionally, you may be able to host more than one poet in a year if they are available locally.

Finally, do not forget that at our highest echelon of the library world, The Library of Congress,our national librarian, currently Carla Hayden oversees our National Poet Laureate program. The role was originally called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” from 1937 to 1986 and the poet chosen treated the role more like a reference librarian role advising the Librarian of Congress about poetry collection development. If you look through the history of this role you will see many notable poets served this role including Robert Frost. Then in 1986 by an act of Congress the name was changed to “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” Today our poet laureates act more like ambassadors of poetry developing special projects, composing and performing poetry at special events and reaching out to the community to share the power of poetry.

 It is a great time to revisit The Library of Congress Poetry and Literature: Poet Laureate website for rich resources. Our current Poet Laureate is Joy Harjo, she is the first Native American poet to serve. On the left hand side of the page there are links to other great poetry resources. The Poet Laureate Projects page houses the more recents projects these poets are sharing with the nation. Currently Harjo’s project is a media rich mapping of Native American poets called “ Living Nations, Living Words”. I see a great intersection between social studies and poetry with this current exhibit. There are seven other projects that are great sources to share with your English teachers. Another reminder is that the Library of Congress also has a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature which is currently writer, Jason Reynolds. Make sure to follow the blog and podcast “From the Catbird Seat: The official Poetry and Literature” of the Library of Congress to stay up-to-date with all their events and resources. In fact, to come full circle I found a great lesson plan for teaching Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural poem “ The Hill We Climb” by Peter Armenti. Not only does it have a video link and transcript of the poem, but it shares the other classical poets she derived her inspiration from. So this weekend I will be cheering her on along with my home team. Go books! Go Poets!

Talking politics with students

Public libraries are well-known for their role in promoting and facilitating civic engagement. But school libraries? Talking about civic engagement can lead to talking about politics, and talking about politics with students can be tricky, even taboo in some schools. I’ve been thinking about the role of the school library in encouraging students to lead active, healthy, informed civic lives. As school librarians, what value can we add to our students’ civic and political identity development? What happens if we take on this work?

In the fall of 2018, I asked a group of seniors to consider root causes for low youth turnout in the 2014 midterm elections. They resoundingly gave answers like “we don’t know about elections,” “our parents don’t talk to us about this,” and “we wish the school would teach us about politics.” While our students all take US History and US Government, those courses aren’t necessarily designed to teach the kind of political identity development and participation that informed elections require. These kids weren’t getting what they needed.

Subsequently, a few politically conscientious students asked me to help them make sense of the 2018 midterm election. They were going to vote for the first time, but they didn’t know where to begin. I planned three informational sessions in the library called Students Vote! We covered voter registration and rights, state ballot measures, the importance of the youth vote. To my surprise, it was a hit! The students asked me if we could keep going with this type of programming, and what could I say? Yes, of course! Let’s keep going!

We formed a leadership committee. They called the effort Teaching Youth Political Engagement, or TYPE. The committee was made of two students who identified as liberal, one conservative, and one moderate. It’s worth mentioning that this part was (and is) a challenge. Our school has a moderate-to-left leaning student population and many of our more conservative students have expressed discomfort at being politically vocal. One of the goals of TYPE is to be inclusive, though we still don’t have much representation from the right side of the political spectrum. That, however, is another blog post altogether.

In 2019, we held more voter pre/registration efforts, had a few informal discussions on political current events, and chugged along happily doing what we could when we could. There was some student interest, but as it is with many new efforts, I wasn’t sure this one would ever take. Our students are over-scheduled to the extreme, and TYPE is very much an extra that is easily dropped from to-do lists when life gets busy. Then, the pandemic hit, everyone went home, and my TYPE leaders graduated. I was pretty sure TYPE was done for. No one has the time or energy for something extra anymore, right? Still, in a moment of righteous optimism, I put out a call for new leadership in June of this year, and suddenly we were up and running again. Much to my surprise, delight, and mild nervous anxiety, six younger students raised their hands to lead TYPE into the 2020 election season.

What qualifies me to do this work? Good question. Back to school librarianship. In many ways, I feel the essence of my professional existence is to help people parse information. Politics is no different than any other topic when it comes to this. I don’t express my opinion, and I’m lucky not to have had anything too contentious come up. The format of our sessions is “here are the facts” followed by “what do you think about those facts?” and “how do these facts impact your life and what you care about or do?” Librarianship puts me on very firm ground when it comes to facts, and that helps because the students already know that about me. They know I care about sources and citing them. They know I don’t mess around with information.

Our discussions intersect with so many other areas of school librarianship. I really didn’t plan for that, but it turns out to be true every time. Each political discussion we have includes a nod to media literacy, news literacy, and information literacy topics. We talk about verifying information that circulates on social media in the context of images from protests, rallies, and riots. We talk about vetting news sources, reading news from multiple sources, and the consequences of irresponsible news consumption. We talk about information production and sharing. We talk about unpacking media messages and resolving contradictions. We talk about free speech and censorship, what it is and what it isn’t. In fact, this is maybe one of the most school librarian-y things that I do!

So how does it work? The leadership team decides what topic feels most pressing, we set a date to invite the student body to a discussion session, and then they collaborate to research and create a short presentation with discussion questions. The goal is to give some background information on topics students care about and that are not necessarily covered anywhere in the curriculum, and then to open the forum for discussion. We invite everyone, and usually somewhere between sixteen and twenty students show up— after school on a Friday— for yet another zoom meeting. I call that a raging success.

I begin each session by reviewing our community norms, the leadership team gives their brief presentation, and then we discuss. The meeting lasts an hour. We have some regulars that always show up, and we have new faces each time. Sometimes students talk about what happens in their classrooms or in their homes when it comes to political discussions. Sometimes the discussions are emotional. I frequently don’t have answers to all their questions, or their questions are ones that have no clear answers, but I try to follow up the best I can.

TYPE is definitely one of my favorite things. None of it is attached to a grade or a class or a research project, yet these kiddos show up, time after time, looking for space to develop their political and civic identities. They show up on a Friday after school to talk about the news they consume and the research they do on their own, to compare notes, to compare source material. I think school libraries are great spaces for this work. The public libraries of my youth certainly were. I’m glad my school library is growing its reputation as one of those spaces, and most of all, I’m so grateful that school librarianship provides a trusted and trustworthy context for this work .

Do you talk politics with your students, or promote civic engagement? I’d love to hear what you’re doing!

News databases: Diversity without equity or inclusion

The Problem

Back in September, 2020, I sent out a call for help across AISL and other school librarian-oriented lists in hopes of finding databases that provide “diverse, inclusive, and equitable access to perspectives mirroring the composition of our country in magazines, historical newspapers, and contemporary news.” Generally, database companies sell “core” collections that are positioned as “high quality sources,” comprised almost entirely of white-perspective news outlets. Then they up-sell from a menu of discrete “ethnic” packages to provide “alternate perspectives.” Students deserve better.

Thank you to the many folks who responded hoping to hear of a good database in which to invest. Sadly, the answer is…so far I’ve found no way to buy this unicorn of the database world. Ultimately, I started doing my own diversity audit of our databases and others on the market to try to better articulate the nature of the problem.

I am currently only part way through this process. First semester ended up (happily) being much more crowded with instruction than I had anticipated. Even the terminology I use to think about this set of issues is still in crude form. Here is an update on what I have learned so far, however. To date I have focused on US news, historical and contemporary, and have only been able to compare offerings from two companies. This work has served — at the very least — as evidence that the problem is real and pressing.


In the fall, I had not yet fully realized the insidious nature of the juxtaposition we often attribute to databases: quality sources vs. alternative perspectives. I’ve been sitting with this formulation increasingly in the intervening months, and contemplating how our professional narrative around databases is driven by the marketing efforts of the database companies themselves. Consider the act of marketing a database as “providing researchers access to essential, often overlooked perspectives” that exists because the perspectives have been intentionally overlooked and isolated to sell us another database. So how much does the title list of an intentionally curated “ethnic” database (which mysteriously includes the LGBTQ+ collection, by the way) overlap with a product intended for high school?

ProQuest: Compared title lists for Research Library Prep and Ethnic Newswatch databases.

Please note that the “Overlap (%)” column conveys how many of the “specialized” Ethnic Newswatch titles also appear in “general” Research Library Prep. It does not convey the percentage of Research Library Prep that are/are not white perspective — those numbers would apparently be vanishingly small. 

An issue that struck me immediately as I got started was that scholarly journals comprise, by far, the largest mass of content in Ethnic Newswatch that is also available in Research Library Prep. These sources differ distinctly from newspapers or popular magazines; academic discourse may well be quite removed from the community it studies. That is, a large percentage of the authorial and editorial work is carried out within a realm of authority modeled on European institutions and constructed in our academic halls of privilege. To put it plainly: the perspectives appearing in the University of Pennsylvania Press’ Hispanic Review may not reflect community voices in the same way that those appearing in La Prensa Texas newspaper do. Both source types provide important points of view; their creation does not serve the same purpose.

Important as it is to have a diversity of voices in our scholarly works, they provide fundamentally different types of evidence from newspapers. Not to mention, they are not accessible to most K-12 students.

Gale: General OneFile, In Context: High School, OneFile: High School Edition, OneFile: News, In Context: US History

It has been challenging to figure out how to do a diversity audit, but since many database companies seem to start monetizing diversity with Black American newspapers, I decided to work from lists of existing and historical Black papers, including: National Newspaper Publishers Association Current Members and Princeton University Library – African-American Newspapers (1829-present). I used titles from these lists to search within Gale’s title lists, and found:

Checking Black American newspaper titles against Gale title lists yielded vanishingly few overlaps.

In the process of looking at the titles that are listed, the Atlanta Daily World and the Chicago Defender — historically both very important publications in the 20th Century United States — only had coverage from 2014-present, with exceptions from 2015/16 to the present. Meaning, in fact, they only have a handful of issues of each paper.

Once again, these databases provide news sources that almost entirely reside within historically white readerships.


In another sense, it does not functionally matter if a database includes sources from diverse sets of communities. When the algorithm privileges white perspective publications, searchers may never encounter other points of view.

Spot checks of ProQuest’s ranking of newspaper results in Research Library Prep confirmed that their methods for ranking heavily favored specific titles. Specifically, the New York Times dominated results, with a smattering of hits from the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, US Fed News Service and Targeted News Service

I ran a series of searches, noting how many unique titles were returned for each search, as well as those titles’ spreads across the top 100 results. In essence, how many pages would I need to scroll through to access more than a few titles? I searched for [ the ] — as a word that appears universally in English-language newspapers — and also for words like [ miami ], [ skagit ], and [governor] — each of which strongly suggest local news. In every case, the results looked something like the results for [ the ]:

  • Returned 81 unique titles
  • Top 100 results:
    • 95 results from the NYT
    • Other titles ranked: #37, 41, 71, 91, 95
    • Other publications in the top 100 results: Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Targeted News Service 


However, there is good news. A Gale sales rep who is on one or more school library lists began wondering about this issue themselves, and carried out an independent audit that they then presented to their acquisitions department. As a result, when I last checked in this past November, Gale publisher relations personnel have identified:

  • Licensed periodicals where the issues aren’t current
    • Updates are in various states of progress 
  • Important periodicals with lapsed agreements 
    • Updates are in various states of progress  
  • Over 140 new periodicals from the following communities:  “African Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanic Americans/ Latinx, Native Americans, Ability Diverse, LGBTQ+, Women, & more”
    • Requests have been sent to publisher relations to pursue license agreements

Though not within the scope of my current work, Gale has also taken a look at their reference overviews and biographies and have made efforts to offer more coverage, as well.

The solution?

Does this issue interest you? Would you like to join me in fighting for single databases that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive? Whether you would like to audit a database you have, suggest a consistent method for auditing, share findings at your state conference, or talk to your database companies once we have a clear report — kindly reach out. If the idea is that we are better together, let’s unite and make a difference!

I am deeply grateful to my director, Jole Seroff, for being so invested in and supportive of this exploration, and colleague Sara Kelley-Mudie for helping me focus my thinking.