March 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

NYCSL Conference Showcases New Literacy Initiative and a Thought-Provoking Panel on Diversity

More than 580 New York City school librarians descended upon Citi Field, the Mets home stadiumjust days after the team lost their bid to be World Series champsfor the 26th annual New York City School Library System (NYCSL) fall conference. This year’s theme was Libraries for ALL Learners.

Mr Schu

Mr. Schu with a copy of the coveted collector’s edition of The One and Only Ivan. Photo by Rocco Staino.

The librarians were greeted with a keynote presentation by Dr. Alfred W. Tatum, an expert on literacy development of African American boys. He told the group that if he were a general he would want “an army of librarians.” He talked about the competition in education between STEM and the humanities, concluding that both are needed.

Later, John “Mr. Schu” Schumacher presented on excellent new books to share with students, including the stunning full-color collector’s edition of Katherine Applegate’s Newbery medal winner, The One and Only Ivan. In a tweet, New York City school librarian Cheryl Wolf described Mr. Schu as “the Oprah of books.”

There was excitement surrounding the announcement of NYC Reads 365, a literacy initiative of the New York City Department of Education. According to the DOE, “NYC Reads 365 challenges New Yorkers to read every single day. Read for pleasure, read to find out, read to argue, read to persuade, read to laugh, read to cry, read to understand, read to forget. Help us create a new generation of readers.” The project includes nine grade-level, high-interest booklists, each containing 17 individual titles and three series. Five posters, one for each of the city’s boroughs, have been created to help publicize the initiative throughout the city.

Attendees also had the opportunity to participate in sessions on such varied topics as “Gaming in the Library,” “Family Literacy Nights,” and “Teaching Digital Citizenship.” One panel that drew attention was “The Lens of Diversity: It Is Not What You See” with Sophie Blackall, Daniel José Older, and Sean Qualls. The discussion came on the heels of a recent controversy regarding A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat (Random, 2015), a book illustrated by Blackall and written by Emily Jenkins. The title, which appears on the New York City Reads 365 third-grade booklist, was criticized for illustrations that depict smiling slaves. “100 Scope Notes” blogger Travis Jonker has compiled a bibliography of links to various blog posts and perspectives on the book.


From left, Sean Qualls, Sophie Blackall, and Daniel José Older. Photo by Lizette Serrano.

Moderator Susannah Richards, associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University, led the discussion. Older, author of the YA novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic, 2015), explained that he “almost didn’t come” to the event and that his reaction to Blackall’s work was painful. “Slavery is an open wound in America,” Older explained. He went on to say that the book is part of the  larger context of the “wildly undiverse world of children’s literature” and that when depicting children engaging in slave work in a book for young readers, showing “serious faces” several pages after smiling ones is not enough. Older later posted a video of his comments.

Qualls, illustrator of Selina Alko’s The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage (Scholastic, 2015), mentioned that he did not see A Fine Dessert as a book about slavery but, rather, about a bonding between mother and child. “Reading pictures is a very complicated thing,” said Blackall. “I cannot ensure that my pictures are read as I intended them.” She went on to say “that there is no consensus” and that there is room for coexisting views, citing the blog post by Varian Johnson, an author who said that the book worked for him.

Older later uploaded a video of the entire panel.

The day closed with an inspiring talk by Jacqueline Woodson. She read from her book Each Kindness (Penguin, 2012) and told the group that “brilliance is passion recognized and celebrated.”


Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.



  1. Mr. Schu!!!!!