August 23, 2017

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“Rock Star” Librarians Article Hits Sour Note | Opinion

RockStar_LibrarianAn article entitled “The ‘Rock Star’ Librarians Who Choose What Your Kids Read,” published in the Wall Street Journal on March 5, 2017, caused some school librarians to question how the general public perceives our profession. The article highlighted the work of four individuals and their influence in marketing books to children. The voices featured in the article included John Schumacher (Scholastic’s Ambassador for School Libraries); Colby Sharp, co-founder of the “Nerdy Book Club” and co-host of “The Yarn”  blog and podcasts, hosted by School Library Journal; Travis Jonker, SLJ‘s “100 Scope Notes” blogger and “The Yarn” co-host; and Matthew Winner, a co-founder of “All The Wonders,”  host of the All The Wonders podcast, and co-author of this article.

Each took to social media to publicly express their disappointment in response to what they considered to be a misrepresentation of school librarians and the lack of diversity among the voices featured in the article. The article missed an opportunity to tell the story of a dedicated and diverse group of professionals who work tirelessly to inspire children to be readers.

The WSJ piece struck a chord with many, largely because the subjects of the article are all white men in their mid-30’s, which is a misrepresentation of the profession. The reporter interviewed other educators as well, but their comments did not make it into the piece. Nerdy Book Club co-founder Donalyn Miller, Blogging Through The Fourth Dimension’s Pernille Ripp, and Newbery Award-winning author Katherine Applegate all shared their frustration via Twitter and Facebook at being interviewed and then left out. The presence of women in school libraries and children’s literature was conspicuously absent. While we felt as hurt, angry, and frustrated as others, we have also begun to face the uncomfortable fact that we are part of the problem.

The fact that diverse voices weren’t heard, valued, or represented in the WSJ article made us look more closely at the people we look to as leaders, the authors and role models we invite to our schools, the books we choose to read, review, and purchase. We need to do more, and we need to be better. If we want our students to see themselves on our bookshelves and in our programming, we need to actively work toward that goal. How can we expect the world (or the Wall Street Journal) to see school libraries as places where diversity is honored and celebrated if we are not working to make them that way?

We reached out to a few individuals we look to as leaders on the topic of diversity in libraries and literature, and asked them: What can I do next week, next month, and next year to cultivate diversity in my collection and program?

Kathy Burnette, middle school librarian and author of “The Brain Lair” blog, has this practical advice:

Next week: It’s still Women’s History Month. Find a hidden figure to discuss next week with your students. Post pictures, biographies, show a video, just bring this phenomenal woman to life for your students.

Next month: Find out where you stand on the Cultural Proficiency Continuum. Try to do some activities that will help you move towards proficiency.

Next year: Make a plan to implement Teaching Tolerance’s Perspectives for a Diverse America curriculum. If that seems overwhelming, pick a single grade to focus on, buy the books needed for that grade, and start your journey with those students. Each year, as those students move up, add the next range.

Ellen Oh, author and We Need Diverse Books cofounder, offers this:

Challenge your thinking.

What do I mean by that? Well, I am always struck by how all of us can get trapped into black-and-white ways of thinking that we only become aware of when it is challenged. We don’t know what we don’t know. It takes another perspective to even open our eyes and then our automatic reaction tends to be denial, rejection. As if this new perspective is saying we are wrong or bad or some other negative instead of thinking, hey, I’m learning something new that I didn’t know before. I think the problem with the lack of diversity is the number of people who still haven’t changed their old ways of thinking. Who haven’t recognized that racism and sexism and bigotry are a systemic problem. Instead of taking these challenges personally, we must apply them to the bigger societal issue. Instead of immediately being defensive, we must challenge our ways of thinking. Only then can true dialogue happen, and diversity will not just be a discussion piece but a true way of life.

Donalyn Miller’s advice is brief and powerful:

Seek out diverse titles that do not show diversity as an issue or problem in the story.  So many titles portray what makes the child diverse as an issue or source of conflict in the book, such as civil rights marches and slavery. While these stories should be told and read, children need positive, affirming portrayals that do not reinforce marginalization or “white man rescue” narratives.

Award lists (such as the Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, Schneider Family, and Stonewall awards) are also a good place to start, but they are not enough. It’s also not enough simply to seek out titles with characters who are people of color, differently abled, or LGBTQ. We must find authors and illustrators who can represent those diverse perspectives as well. We need to make representation and diversity a priority when deciding which authors, illustrators, and role models we invite into our schools, lift up in our teaching, or include in our book lists. We need to show our students that heroes and leaders come in many forms.

When planning your next author visit, ask yourself, “Does this person represent an experience or perspective that is different from the voices our students are used to hearing every day?”

When creating a book list for parents, your school, or in consideration for a book award, ask yourself, “Does my list represent not only a diversity of culture and experience within the characters, but also within the authors and illustrators who created the books?”

When purchasing books for your classroom or school library, ask yourself, “Will the stories and lives depicted in these books expand the understandings of the readers accessing them, foster their tolerance for one another’s differences, and inspire them to ask questions and seek out new knowledge?”

This takes time and effort, and we are going to make mistakes. The worst thing we can do is let this conversation fade away, as it has already begun to do in our social media feeds. Remember what this feels like, so we can take the necessary and difficult steps to change the story.

Where can you find ongoing conversations about diversity and representation throughout children’s literature? Start here!


Addie Matteson is a middle school librarian at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA. Matthew Winner is an elementary library media specialist in Elkridge, MD and a co-founder of “All the Wonders.”

 

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thanks for leading with a recap of the four white males, who they are and what they do. Otherwise, I don’t think any of us would have known. ;-)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Anyone who has ever been in a school or public library knows there are plenty of female librarians. One article than leaves them out is not going to taint Wall Street Journal readers, most of whom graduated from high school and even attended college, against the evidence of their own eyes.

    What we really could use is more people of color and non-women deciding to go to librarian school. We are making absolutely zero progress in this area, which is entirely a matter of personal volition and decision. According to the most recent ALA statistics:

    “In 2014, 81% of ALA Members participating in the survey, selected “Female” in response to the question “What is your gender?” and 19% selected “Male.” In 2017, these numbers remain unchanged.’

    ALA Members by Race or Family Origin
    % of members self-identifying
    2014 2017
    American Indian or Alaskan Native 1.1 1.2
    Asian 3.5 3.6
    Black or African American 4.3 4.4
    Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander 0.3 0.2
    White 87.1 86.7
    Other 3.7 4.0

    • Are we certain that the demographics of ALA membership reflects the demographics of librarianship as a whole?

      • Exactly. ALA membership is not cheap, especially since you’re not given the option to only join a particular association that speaks to your work (i.e. YALSA, ALSC, ACRL, etc), so you have to pay not just general membership dues but also specific ones, even though you may not get a whole lot out of the main organization. It would be much better if you could join a smaller organization directly and if the membership fee for that included some sort of maintenance/subscription/licensing fee to go to the main ALA.

        And in response to the original anon’s post, I know I left the library in part due to being tired of its overwhelming whiteness and unwillingness to change, and until library schools change their tune as far as what’s important and what’s an elective, the profession is not going to change its demographic.

  3. ^Are you sure that people of color not going to library school is ENTIRELY a matter of personal volition and decision? Because I disagree. It’s not that we don’t want to be librarians. Like anything else it’s about access, ability and opportunity…

    • Anonymous says:

      Anon and Alia, those numbers haven’t budged in four years, during the time of #BLM, during the time of #WNDB, during a time when people are more sensitive to issues of diversity than ever before. Even if the demographics of ALA are only partially reflective of librarianship as a whole, and even if there were some issues of access, ability, and opportunity, you would expect at least a modicum of movement. That movement isn’t there.

      That’s a fundamental difference between those on the left and those on the right. Those on the left look first to perceived structural issues for explanations of everything from crime to librarian demographics. Those on the right look to personal choices of conscience. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, which is why those numbers should have moved at least somewhat. If they haven’t moved at all, which they haven’t, either the structural issues are especially overwhelming in librarianship (hard to believe!), or people of the non-dominant culture who have the smarts and credentials to go to school to become librarians are finding other things to do that they either think are more interesting, pay a whole lot better, or both.

      Anyway, want to fix diversity in librarianship and spokespeople for librarianship? Think less about the diversity of books on the shelves, and more about who the librarian are. Come to think of it, addressing the latter will also affect the former. The problem is, it’s a lot easier to buy diverse books than it is to convince a 4.0 student at e.g. Bethune-Cookman that she or he should become a school librarian instead of a researcher for Google.

  4. F. Hooper says:

    I still remain perplexed by the backlash against this article. Let me say for the record I am a huge fan of diversity in kid’s literature and hope that characters of many different countries of origin, religions, genders and socio economic hardships are represented to a greater extent in the books our kids read.

    The first concerns seems to be that the article was centered on influencers as opposed to diversity. This article appeared in the WSJ. I am a WSJ regular subscriber and the audience for this paper is business professionals. The fact that the author would focus the article on the individuals who are influencing purchase decisions should not be a great surprise. You can’t ignore the audience of the paper when deriding the author for his/her focus.

    Now on the topic of influencers, individuals seem to be put out by four white guys. But here I still remain perplexed. These guys are influencers because librarians follow these individuals and buy based on their recommendations. You created their influence, they have not pushed their agenda on you. There are plenty, and I mean plenty of female bloggers you can follow. Betsy Bird is an insightful wordsmith of the highest degree, but she is not the only one out there. You can’t google kid’s book blogs without being bombarded by women. You also don’t have to look that far for women of varying ethnicities. They aren’t as plentiful but they aren’t hidden either. This article alone listed seven blogs to try. You don’t want to be influenced by four white guys, follow someone else. From a purely business standpoint the person who influences your purchases will have power with publishers – so choose your voices wisely.

    However, I would argue that men are severely underrepresented in elementary school libraries and as elementary school teachers. I do think these guys have the best interest of kids at heart and I don’t think they push a book agenda of titles that look and sound like white males. I would offer that perhaps the bigger concern is that they have tied themselves to publishers and authors to a greater degree than feels comfortable. Their independent interest becomes a vested interest and I would argue that is what worries me more than their gender. But that is food for another day.

  5. I’m a middle-aged white guy (and a high school librarian). I’m offended that SLJ didn’t even *think* to include women or “minority” librarians in this article. Women are 83% of the professional ranks and there’s not ONE who’s a “rock star”? Really? Not ONE?

    “Minorities” (aka People of Color) are 16% of our professional ranks and there’s not ONE who’s a “rock star”? Really? Not ONE?

    No one (including me) is saying you can’t designate a white guy as a “rock star” and write about him. But it just seems lazy and insensitive not to look (and you wouldn’t have to look very far, or very hard) for female and/or minority librarians who are the equal of these four men.

    Please stop defending this travesty. It’s indefensible, period.

  6. I gave this article a quick read when it came out.

    A day or so later, Matthew Winner asked me if he could post my review of THE SECRET PROJECT to the All the Wonders page about that book. Of course, I saw his invitation as evidence that he was serious about what he and his co-author said, in this article, about diversity. I said yes to that invitation and my review went onto their site in the morning, on Mar 23rd. But by the end of the day, it had been taken down.

    Other interesting things were happening that day (interviews with the author and illustrator were taken down) that make me wonder if the decision to take it down was due to pressure from the author/illustrator/publisher. The next day (Mar 24), the author and illustrator’s reviews were back on the site.

    That sequence of events makes me wonder what happened, and it makes me wonder about that paragraph (above) about valuing diverse voices.

    • Last night, Matthew Winner submitted a comment to my site, explaining why he deleted my review. In short, Jonah and Jeanette Winters, and Simon and Schuster, were surprised when they saw my review on a page that they thought was about celebration of their book. For complete details see my post:
      https://goo.gl/fJKfQR

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