Friday, December 21, 2012

Our Library

I've written here before about our visits to the local public library.  While I check out picture books and nonfiction that appeal to me, Frances and Gloria also check out books, puppets, book & CD kits, and DVD's that they select themselves.  Frequently, Gloria selects the same board books over and over again, even at four years old.  And sometimes their selection is one we read dutifully and ship right back to the library.  But every once in a while, one of their selections really surprises me.  For instance, Gloria's choice of It's a Little Book was a happy find.  I also wrote about her choice of Ooh La La Polka Dot Boots here.  When Gloria chose Our Library a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a sweet read, considering how much we love the library.  I had no idea how impactful this book would be for me personally.

This book begins with Miss Goose, the librarian, telling a group of young animals that the library is going to close.  The animals can't believe it, and when they ask why, Miss Goose tells them that the building is too old and need a new roof.  The group of animal children thinks hard, checks out books on making a new roof, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.  But then Miss Goose tells them that the library needs money.  And the group does the same thing - check out a book.  Then "we read by day, and we read by night." (p. 9).  They find a way to earn money.  Then the library must be moved to a new location.  But instead of throwing up their hands (paws?) and giving up, the animals check out a book and figure out how to get the job done.  Their final hurdle is a substantial one, but these library lovers can tackle that, too.  And when they are finished, the library is a richer place - not only for their efforts, but for their love and belief in the library.

Eve Bunting shows library advocacy at its most primal in this story.  Not only does this book show young readers a group of their peers working for something they believe in, but she also shows them working together for a common goal.  These library lovers want their library to survive, and as young as they are, they are willing to learn any skill to save it.  I also love that a huge part of their advocacy plan includes learning these skills at the library itself.  They quite literally would not be able to achieve this goal without the library.  In a way, the library saves itself through its information.

It goes without saying that I am a library lover.  Ever since I was old enough to sign my name on the paper card, I have been a prolific library user.  I have always seen libraries as a place of refuge, information, and kindred spirits.  I grew up using a small county library in San Diego, where the librarians all knew me, and saved the children's discards for my own personal collection (I still have a few!).  Once I became a librarian, I moved from community to community precisely to provide services to children and teens.  It has always been a job I loved, a job where I felt I could make a difference, a job where I could change lives.  My final children's librarian job was in Glendale, Arizona, as the Youth and Teen Services Coordinator at the Glendale Public Library.  I worked there for five years.  At that time, it was an amazing system, with a huge emphasis on welcoming the patrons who will impact services in an ongoing way - young people.  Glendale was a place I was proud to work for, with incredibly talented, enthusiastic librarians in every department in every branch.

You may have heard stories of what has been happening in the Glendale libraries, but it is nauseating and dizzying.  Even before I left Glendale, as the economy spiraled downward, services were being cut left and right.  I should say that this blog post is, of course, my own interpretation of these events, but it has also been reported by the media.  Look at articles from this past year here, here, here, and here.  Cuts continued to happen as the City Council took money from every possible part of the budget to support the sports complex that had built right before the recession hit.  Then the real shock - it was announced that the libraries might lose hours, materials, programming, librarians and possibly even close buildings to help make up an enormous budget shortfall.  This happened to other departments within the city of Glendale as well, but what was most important to me were the libraries.

But something happened in Glendale.  There had always been a very vibrant teen volunteer group in our libraries.  In fact, as services, hours and staff had been cut, our teen volunteers had done more and more work to help continue to provide quality services to patrons.  And when the news hit that their library would be dreadfully impacted, these teenagers (none older than 18 when this began) stood up and said they would not let this happen.  They formed a group - called Save the Glendale Public Libraries and they bounded into action.  These teens were patrons I knew very well - they used the library on an almost daily basis.  Some of them even want to become librarians themselves.  They intuitively knew library advocacy, and started attending the City Council meetings, speaking eloquently in protest of the cuts.  They handed out flyers in front of the libraries and informed Glendale citizens of the service cuts and how this would impact their lives.  Of course, these cuts didn't just affect children's and teen services.  They affected job seekers, information retrieval, patrons who rely on the library for medical research, the latest news or even air conditioning when there is no respite.  These teenagers spoke up.  I have quite possibly never been as proud as I was of these teens.

And they turned the tide of the discussion.  Voters came out and voted against the proposed cuts.  But sadly, just because these teenagers won the battle doesn't mean they won the war.  The libraries continue to operate on very tight budgets, and the librarians feel so uncertain that they are leaving and not being replaced.  All of their skills, enthusiasm and ideas cannot be replaced.

But this is a story about library advocacy.  I haven't even talked about the sweet illustrations and the perfect ending in the book, because in reality it doesn't always work that way.  It's why I believe a book like this is so crucial in communities.  A library is a privilege, not a right.  It is an incredible gift, and it should always be treated that way.  Celebrate your library.  Go in and say thank you and articulate how important it is to you.  Go in and say what you think should be changed, too - that is also part of library advocacy.  But stand up for your library before it stands empty because no one fought for it.  I am so grateful that Gloria brought this book home.

Our Library.  Eve Bunting; illustrated by Maggie Smith.  Clarion Books, 2008.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Alice the Brave

I remember the exact moment I was first introduced to Alice.  I was commuting from library school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to work in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the weekends.  It was my last semester of graduate school, and in order to maximize my time, I tried to listen to as many audiobooks as possible to fulfill my children's literature requirements.  I had always loved children's books, and I had been preparing to become a children's librarian.  But listening to Alice's worries and fears in Alice the Brave made me connect with the book in a way I had never previously connected with children's literature.  I heard one particular conversation between Alice and her father, and it resonated with me.  In this last semester, I was struggling with relationships, and something that was said felt unbearably wise.  This really formed part of my overall theory of children's literature, which is that children's literature can speak to anyone, regardless of age.  It also helped me form an ongoing relationship with Alice herself, which I have blogged about here.  This is the book, for me, that started it all.

Interestingly, I had not ever actually read Alice the Brave, only listened to it.  And although it was such a formative book for me, I'd never actually re-read it after that first time.  So getting ready to read it again, I had to take a deep breath and see if I could re-discover what had made it so impressive for me in the first place.  And I did.  I'll quote it later.  But suffice to say the advice is just as wise today as it was then.

In this book in the series, Alice and her friends are getting ready to start eighth grade.  Alice is part of a close group of friends, both boys and girls, and they have spent the summer primarily at one of the group's family pool.  Every time they go to the pool, Alice grows increasingly anxious.  She is hiding a big secret - she's afraid of swimming in the deep end, and she has been hiding this secret from everyone she knows, including her family.  Even worse, the boys in the group have begun sneaking up on the girls and dumping them into the pool.  And Alice is sure her turn is next.

Even though this is a fear Alice hasn't previously disclosed to readers before, there are themes that have continued throughout the whole series.  One of those themes is growing up.  Alice has two best friends - Elizabeth and Pamela.  Pamela is always a little ahead of Alice in relationships and life.  She knows how the social scene will be in each grade and what they should all do to be popular, including whether or not they should have boyfriends.  And Elizabeth is the exact opposite.  She is very embarrassed about anything having to do with sex or boys.  Elizabeth's mother is pregnant, and Elizabeth cannot even stand to think about how that happened.  Alice is squarely in the middle - she has an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Patrick.  Even when they are "off" they are best friends and continue to confide in each other and spend time together.  But Alice is nowhere near as sophisticated as Pamela either.  She tends to follow Pamela's lead (which has gotten her into situations she isn't ready for in other books), even when she isn't sure of what might happen.

During this book Alice and Patrick are back together.  Even considering how close they are, Alice has not told Patrick about her fear of the water.  He has been gone much of the summer, so it is easy to conceal.  But it is almost too much to explain, especially when he asks her to join the swim team with him as a fun school activity that fall.  She thinks Patrick won't understand her fear, that he will not want to be seen with her because of her inability to swim.  When the whole incident finally comes to a head, Patrick is not there.  So Alice has to risk rejection and explain her anxiety to him.  Unsurprisingly, Patrick supports Alice and encourages her, telling her they will just have to find something else to do together if they can't join the swim team.

One of the other ongoing themes in these novels is Alice's sense of family.  Alice's mother died years ago, before Alice can even remember.  But she acutely misses the idea of her mother.  Especially as she grapples with growing up, Alice wonders how having a mother in her life would have changed her: "I went up to my room and wondered if it was times like this a mom would come in and sit beside you.  Put an arm around you and, no matter how you were feeling, say she'd felt like that once when she was your age." (p. 75)  Alice, no matter how she feels about her mother, does have a great amount of support from her father and her brother Lester, who is 21.  When Alice confides in Lester that she is afraid to swim in the deep end, Lester comes through for her.  He takes her to a friend's pool, where no one else will see them.  Lester works with Alice, giving her confidence little by little.  It is a sweet moment, and while Lester is a lot older than Alice, he understands her worries, and helps her solve them without giving her all the answers.

Alice, very wisely, eventually realizes that her anxiety about swimming is hurting all of her summer, not just the time she spends at the pool.  After all, what seems fairly simple affects everything she does on a daily basis.  She observes "If parents knew everything that goes on in their kids' heads, they'd be really surprised, I think.  Dad had no idea that I always said 'love you' before I went to Mark's pool so that if that turned out to be the day I sank to the bottom the last thing I would have said to my father was 'love you'" (p. 79).  This anxiety and panic really has her in its grip.  Again, this is a feeling even adults can relate to, especially the way Alice articulates what she is feeling.  She realizes that "There was plenty I could do about mine [my situation], but I was too afraid to try. " (p. 90).  She has to, finally, work up the courage to take her fear and face it squarely, and she does.

Alice is, of course, triumphant.  But this is not the only worry Alice has in this novel.  Alice's father has been dating Alice's sixth grade teacher, Miss Summers.  Alice is convinced that her father will ask Miss Summers to marry him.  Then it doesn't happen, which leads Alice to start asking questions about the adult relationships around her.  She asks her father about why he married her mother, hoping to get an idea about what he is looking for.  What he tells her at first - that he might have been happy with someone else besides her mother - scares her.  But he goes on to explain "Why did I marry her?  Because I knew that she was a woman I could love - that I did love...I had committed to the marriage, Al.  That's what makes the difference." (p. 123).  This next quote, although long, is what really resonated with me when I read this book the first time.  Incredibly, it is just as meaningful to me now.  "And suddenly my warm fuzzy feeling was back again, my armor for the first days of eighth grade, and all the other firsts in my life...It was the feeling...if any of the other hundred and one awful possibilities that lurked around the corner were to happen, I would take it....Because I had guts....Alice the Brave, that was me." (p. 123-4).  And she IS Alice the Brave.  It is a victorious ending for a wonderful, strong character.  I love her just as much today.  Who could ask for anything more?

Alice the Brave.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995, 1996.

from my personal collection

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Looking at Lincoln

I have been reading books for the Cybils like crazy for the last few weeks, and have found some real gems that I can't wait to share with you.  Here's the first of the nonfiction picture books that I would like you to track down and read.  With the movie out about his life and presidency, Abraham Lincoln is a popular president again.  While this book was probably not written to take advantage of the movie's buzz, it will certainly be looked at with interest because of its subject matter.  And my hope is that it is read again and again, because of how well it has been created.

The narrator of this book begins by telling the readers that she saw a man while walking in the park.  He attracted her attention with his unusual height.  He reminded her of someone, but until she finished eating breakfast, she couldn't think who it might be.  When they paid, she realized that he looked like the man on the $5 bill - Abraham Lincoln.

Like my own fondest hope for readers, this chance meeting spurs the narrator on to more research.  She goes to the library to learn more about Abraham Lincoln's life, but she finds that she can't tear herself away from his face.  The narrator recites facts about Lincoln's life and death, inserting her own ponderings, opinions and questions as she goes.  By the end of the story, after the narrator (is it Kalman herself, who is an avowed Lincoln aficionado?) has learned about Lincoln's death, the reader has gotten a much fuller appreciation of his humanity as well as Abraham Lincoln's greatness.

There are some things that I find really fascinating about this book.  First of all, I love the narrator's emphasis on curiosity and research.  She sees the man who reminds her of Lincoln, and that is what sends her directly to the library.  She tells readers "Abraham Lincoln was such an amazing man that there are over 16,000 books written about him.  I wanted to read them all, but I got lost in photos of his unusual face."  The illustration on the facing page shows the narrator, poring over a large portrait of Lincoln.  The library is filled with people reading (and one guy sleeping on a book) and learning.  It is exactly what librarians hope all readers will do - become enthusiastic about a subject and keep researching and learning.

And while the narrator claims to not be able to read about Lincoln because she is so fixated on his face, the facts she learns and shares form the majority of the book.  Another thing that is very unusual about this book is the way Kalman combines facts and fiction in a clear way.  She doesn't have to delineate the difference between them - she lets the fonts do it for her.  Facts are done in a more typewriterly font, resembling print in a book.  Then her opinions or questions about Lincoln are written in a handwriting font.  Her questions are fun to read: "I wonder if Mary and Abraham had nicknames for each other."  She calls Lincoln's face unusual, calls his wife short and says that his stepmother wasn't as stern as she looks.  It brings a light tone to this historical subject and also gives a childlike feel to the book.
Kalman has a very modern illustrative style, and I was very curious about how her style would translate to a historical subject.  But it actually works very well.  She combines very realistic depictions of the family with other more modern objects or colors.  For instance, in a portrait of the Lincoln family, every person looks fairly recognizable, with all of them dressed historically accurately.  But some of the children are colored green, which is not as distracting as it sounds.  I think her chosen style for this book combines modern with historical, much as Kalman does with the text.  It's a well-done book and I recommend it for Lincoln lovers and newcomers alike.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

Looking at Lincoln.  Maira Kalman.  Nancy Paulsen Books: Penguin for Young Readers, 2012.