Putting LGBTQ Books into Kids’ Hands

School librarian Susan Polos believes that reading books about different kinds of families enables children to better understand others. So she co-founded "Shared Stories Open Minds," an initiative in which children read and discuss LGBTQ-themed stories.
Shepherd Verbas with a child during a Shared Stories program at the Field Library.

Shepherd Verbas with a child during a Shared Stories program at the Field Library.

LGBTQ kids, along with children raised, for example, by two moms, or a grandparent, often can’t see themselves in books. That was a big problem to veteran school librarian Susan Polos. So she did something about it. That something is “Shared Stories Open Minds.” The program, in which children read and discuss stories about different kinds of families, has launched at Mt. Kisco (NY) Elementary School, where Polos works, and in five public library branches across New York’s Hudson Valley. Polos believes that all children need to see their families reflected in the pages of the books they read. “Librarians know that sharing stories is one way children learn to understand others,” says Polos, who started her 17th year at the school this fall. “We read and tell stories to expand our world, to build empathy, and to share experiences.” Polos launched the program with Shepard Verbas in May 2014, after the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Hudson Valley Chapter asked public and school librarians to brainstorm ways to bring LGBTQ stories to a broader audience. Polos and Verbas, a GLSEN Hudson Valley board member with an education background, stepped up. “Our goal is to provide youth in grades K–12 and their families the opportunity to discuss and learn about gender roles, sexual orientation, family diversity, and acceptance through reading and sharing age-appropriate books,” Polos tells SLJ in an email. In the program, students are given free copies of Tim Federle’s Better Nate than Ever (Simon and Schuster, 2013). Each month, Polos and Verbas go into one of the branches and talk with students about the book, which Polos says they receive in advance. Federle recorded a DVD for GLSEN about why he wrote the story, which is also shown to the students. The sessions last for about 45 minutes. To date, GLSEN has spent about $3,600: $2,000 for backpacks, $600 for bags, and another $1,000 for books and supplies, all given to the children for free. A $1,000 grant from the Paul Rapaport Foundation helped to buy more titles, including paperback versions of Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three (Simon and Schuster, 2005). “There’s a lot more consciousness around reading diverse books,” says Polos. “Teachers are always asking to pull books about families and when you see they don’t reflect the kinds of families we have, that’s frustrating.” Instead of Better Nate than Ever, students in kindergarten through the third grade read And Tango Makes Three, and are also led through a craft project where they make construction paper penguins tied to the story of two male penguins raising a hatchling of their own. Mary Jane Karger, co-chair of the GLSEN Hudson Valley chapter, says that educators were often asking for LGBTQ reading lists, and she would hear about librarians unable to buy titles because of shrinking or non-existent budgets. She says she felt it was important to find a way to bring more information, and ideally more LBGTQ books, to the library community—ideally through the curriculum—believing more visibility makes students feel safer. “We know that if there’s invisibility of LGBT students in a school that’s a problem,” says Karger. “Just having a day of silence, that’s not literature and that’s not curriculum.” At her own school, Polos says she’s had tremendous support in including LGBTQ titles in her library. Her principal read Better Nate than Ever and returned it with a Post-it note that read, “I loved it!” Polos now wants to expand the GLSEN program to include high school students. Backpacks handed out at the “Shared Stories Open Minds” program Mt. Kisco Elementary School.

Backpacks handed out at the “Shared Stories Open Minds” program Mt. Kisco Elementary School.

   

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