Last Friday, I went with our teen librarian to a one-day conference put on by the New England Round Table of Teen and Children’s Librarians (NERTCL) at the beautiful Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, MA. The conference was called “Transform Our Communities, Transform Our World,” and featured Rita Meade (@ScrewyDecimal), a panel about drag storytime, Luke Kirkland from the Waltham Public Library talking about “Selling Social Justice Programs to Your Teens and Your Community,” and another panel about spaces and programs for the library’s youngest patrons (birth-5 years), as well as round table discussions before and during lunch. It was a fantastic day!
Rita Meade: “Keep Calm and Transform the World”
Rita began her presentation by acknowledging that the “do more with less” message that library staff so often hear is frustrating and unhelpful. (Actually, she began by mentioning her anxiety, and the fact that she almost turned down the offer to come speak to us. I’m glad she didn’t!) Then she gave her background and the path she took to working in a library: working as a page, then later getting a teaching degree, and only later turning to library science. She reviewed for SLJ and wrote for Book Riot, and also started a blog: “It’s frustrating and it’s tiring to always have to defend your job….Basically I kept running into people who didn’t understand what librarians did. ‘Oh, libraries are still a thing?’ So that’s where the blog came from.”
Now, she works at the Bay Ridge branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where she believes that “Our job is to respond to community needs. It’s a balancing act….We fill a lot of gaps in society – We are being asked to fill a lot of these societal gaps, but we don’t always have the resources to do so….You can’t make everyone happy but our job is to try.” Because LIBRARIES ARE FOR EVERYONE, Rita is always working to counteract her own assumptions and biases, work against intolerance and ignorance, promote diversity in staffing and collections, and promote underrepresented voices. “Make inclusion the default. Err on the side of inclusion. Think about how your choices might affect the people in your space. More often than not, people are not telling us something.” She gave examples of ways that libraries can be political without being partisan: a march against hate, or a display about migration, illustrated with butterflies (“Migration is brave / essential / gorgeous”).
To our group, Rita emphasized that big changes don’t happen without risks, and normalizing helps promote acceptance. “One program at a time, one small thing at a time. These small steps lead to big changes.” (Here’s a small example that everyone can do: make your descriptions more inclusive: instead of “men and women” or “boys and girls,” say “people/everyone/friends.”) Programs she mentioned included drag queen storytime (about which more below), Genderful, and TeleStory. “We are in a unique position to be a positive influence.”
Drag Storytime Panel and Presentation
We heard from four people about their different experiences hosting drag storytimes: Megan McLelland from Sturgis, MA; Jennifer Billingsley from Middletown, CT; Hillary Saxon from Cambridge, MA; and Alli T. Ultimately, my favorite quote from the session was this one from Alli T.: “People in fun costumes reading beautiful stories to children is not a new concept.”
“People in fun costumes reading beautiful stories to children is not a new concept.” -Alli Thresher
Each librarian who decided to host drag storytime at their library approached it carefully and thoughtfully. All were aware of the possibility of pushback from the community, and the importance of administrative support, but all felt it was worth it: “Reading to kids isn’t really what it’s about, inclusion and making everyone comfortable is what it’s about.” Overwhelmingly, the drag storytimes were well-attended, joyful events.
Here are some of the book titles mentioned:
- The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak
- 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Rex Ray
- Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, illustrated by Mike Curato
- Some Monsters Are Different by David Milgrim
- Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
- My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis, illustrated by Suzanne DiSimone
- It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
- Red: a crayon’s story by Michael Hall
If you’d like to host drag storytime at your library, and you have (or can get) admin support but are lacking funds, try The Awesome Foundation, or, if you are a bit edgier, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Luke Kirkland: “Selling Social Justice Programs to Your Teens and Your Community”
Luke is the teen librarian at the Waltham Public Library, and his presentation was about how to foster social justice in the teen population. Waltham is far more diverse than many other towns and cities in New England, so one of the questions that came up during the Q&A is how to start these conversations about social justice and racism that white kids might not already be having; how do you get them to ask the questions? Luke pointed back to the “Fandom Trojan Horse,” approaching a subject or topic they’re already interested from a social justice angle, as well as the documentary Accidental Courtesy, a TED talk by a former white supremacist, and even the picture book Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller.
One interesting project Luke presented was a presentation on “The Birth of Hip-Hop.” Nestled inside this attractive topic was a history of Jim Crow, fair housing protests, and redlining; see the Mapping Inequality project for more info.
As librarians, “We do research, we build community, we encourage civic dialogue.” Frame activism as a project-based learning activity. In Waltham, the library partnered with several other organizations (“lots of community collaboration takes some of the pressure off”) in the For Freedoms project, covering the front lawn of the library with yard signs. (Luke is planning to do this again, and noted that, while yard signs are expensive, the price drops when you order in bulk. Contact him if you want in!)
Additional takeaways: Libraries are not neutral; privilege has a way of reinforcing privilege; human rights are not partisan.
Early Learning Spaces and Play
The last panel of the day featured librarians from four different libraries. Rachel Davis from the Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth, ME, and Kayla Morin from the Goodwin Library in Farmington, NH, both spoke about becoming Family Place Libraries. Core components of Family Place libraries include: having your parenting collection near/next to/with the children’s materials; parent/child workshop series; specially designed spaces to play, learn, grow, and explore; and programs for babies and toddlers (focusing on the birth-3 years age group). In order to become a Family Place library, one youth services librarian and one administrator from the library must attend a four-day institute, complete an online training, and commit to the core components. Kayla said that becoming a Family Place library involved “retraining staff and patrons to think of the library as a welcoming space for everyone, including small kids.” Rachel said that once parents had time to socialize outside of storytime, they became more engaged during storytime (rather than talking to each other).
Seana Rabbito from the Waltham Public Library talked about turning an unused room into a PIE room (Play, Imagine, Explore) with a “Mind in the Making” grant. (Side note: What libraries have these unused rooms lying around??) The PIE room encourages play, nurtures curiosity, and fosters a lifelong love of learning. Theme-related learning activities hold attention and spark curiosity. It supports early literacy through play; book displays accompany each theme. Each different playspace helps build vocabulary, increase subject knowledge, hone communication skills, develop problem-solving skills, and improve gross and fine motor skills. Seana said the rotating display/theme does take a lot of work, but it’s hugely popular and has revitalized the space.
Finally, Katrina Ireland from the Northborough Free Library, MA, spoke about Mother Goose on the Loose (MGOL). Developed by Dr. Betsy Diamant-Cohen, the program is intended for kids birth-3 years and their caregivers. Katrina offers a series of 10 sessions of the 30-minute program, which includes opening rhymes, a drum sequence, Humpty Dumpty, and two developmental tips for adults; 80% of the content changes week to week (some repetition is key). MGOL embodies all five practices from Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR): singing, talking, reading, writing, playing.
Overall, it was a day full of fantastic ideas from presenters and attendees (particularly the table of Rhode Island librarians I was sitting with, most of whom I’d seen present at NELA last fall!). And the nice thing about the library world is that, while we care deeply about citing our sources, we’re always happy to share ideas – or as Rita said, “Steal the ideas, steal them all day.”