The Value of Listening
I serve 740 6th-12th graders as the sole campus librarian at one of those schools Alan Sitomer referenced in his nerdybookclub post a few weeks back: high poverty, high crime rate, entirely minority population. Most of my kids live just a few blocks from school, in either the Mayfair or Paradise housing projects, which, along with the rest of DC’s Wards 7 and 8, experience some of the country’s highest rates of poverty, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, violent juvenile deaths, illiteracy, unemployment, substance abuse, high school dropouts and poor school performance. In the coming years, things will hopefully start to look up around here, thanks in part to a large government grant, but for the time being it’s still pretty grim.
You might think my job is depressing. It’s not.
Three years ago, in my second week on the job, a 7th grader approached me asking if I could help her find the book, “Is You There Lord, It’s Me Maggie.” Of course, I told her, and we walked over to my shelf of Judy Blume.
A lack of background knowledge and a limited vocabulary prevents some of my students from fully engaging with texts that take place in a setting other than the inner city, or with characters that don’t look, or more importantly, sound like them. The wit of Frankie Landau–Banks is sometimes lost, at least on first read, and the clever banter Alaska, Pudge, and the Colonel volley about might just as easily be delivered in rapid-fire Klingon. Likewise, descriptions of a Connecticut beach town or the suburban Midwest are as unfamiliar as Narnia.
All the same, most contemporary realistic fiction transcends race, class, and geography. Even if you get the title a little wrong, the universal themes of identity formation, friendships, family, love, and all the rest of the day-to-day goings-on of tween and teen-dom ring true. My readers enjoy realistic fiction because it affirms that teens are teens, experiencing the same struggles they are, no matter where they live or how much money they have.
Here’s why: middle school is awkward, and high school’s not much easier. Bodies are changing, social hierarchies are being forged. First crushes are painful, first kisses magical. Siblings are either your best friend or your worst enemy. Regardless of whether you’re taking them in an inner city Title I school, or an elite New England boarding school, pop quizzes are stressful. Whether your mom is incarcerated or 50’s sitcom perfect, chances are, if you’re between the ages of 10-18, your relationship with her is at times strained. How wonderful, then, how fortuitous, that there are so many books featuring characters navigating these very perils of adolescence.
Let’s get something straight: I’m a librarian, not a social worker. I have two masters degrees, but neither of them is in adolescent psychology. The concept of biblio-therapy freaks me out a little. But when a pregnant 14 year old girl who’s just starting to show comes into the library and asks for “that swings book,” and I hand her Jo Knowles’ “Jumping Off Swings,” I don’t worry that I’m doing irreparable damage to her psyche. She asked for it by name, sort of, just like that 7th grader searching out her Judy Blume book. Same goes for the kid whose sibling is fresh from rehab who, after a few minutes of walking the stacks, leaves with Last Night I Sang to the Monster. Often, kids know the title, the author, or at least what the cover looks like, and just need help locating the book that a friend, classmate or sibling recommended.
Another reason I don’t worry about damaging kids by suggesting the wrong title because I “think it’s what they need to read right now” is that I trust them to know what they need, what title will help them process or escape whatever’s driven them to seek out a book dealing with that topic. Case in point: a 6th grader I’ll call Jane, who had one of those stories that’d break your heart in 17 pieces. Her mom was in jail, serving out a lengthy sentence for brutally attacking her exboyfriend, who had abused Jane when she was much younger. Jane’d been bounced from foster home to foster home and had just learned that she’d be moving again soon. She had an older brother who’d dropped out and was deeply involved in gang life, and a foster sister in her third trimester, that she was devastated to be leaving.
Jane had come into the library one day afterschool, tearstained and with her chin set in a way that made me wish I had half as much pluck. She’d asked for help finding a book “about gangs and drugs” and I’d begun walking the stacks with her, tipping down titles for her to come back to. After a minute, she said that she’d rather read something about teen pregnancy, so I tipped down a few more and kept walking with her. Her next request, 30 seconds later, was for books dealing with rape. Check. At this point, I’d tipped out close to a dozen titles for her to peruse, so I gave her some space and went back to checking in books, telling her to just ask if she needed any more help.
A few minutes later, she came back to my desk empty handed. “Actually, Mrs. Shaffer,” she began, and I braced myself, wondering what this eleven year old with mosquito bitten knees and crooked pigtails would ask me for next, “Actually, I think today I’d like to read something about puppies or kittens, or maybe another kind of baby animal.”
Kids know what they want to read, need to read, on any given day. I don’t tell them what they need to read, they tell me. And then we find the perfect book together.
Sylvie Shaffer is the Parkside Campus Librarian at the Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy in Northeast DC, where she’s had the privilege, since 2009, of learning alongside 740 6th-12th graders. She holds a dual masters in Library Science and Children’s Literature from Simmons College.
She’s a board member of the Friends of the Takoma Park Maryland library, and a 10-14 reading group member with Capitol Choices, a group of DC metro area librarians, teachers, booksellers and children’s literature professionals who meet monthly and put together a yearly list of notable books for children and young adults. She is also on the ALS Ccommittee “Liaison with National Orgs Serving Youth” and is on the ballot for the 2014 Sibert Committee. You can find her on Twitter at @Sylvie_Shaffer
I applaud you. You must know your books and your students. I teach 6th grade but have students whose younger or older siblings borrow my books. I have former students who visit my classroom to borrow my books. That means I must keep books on all topics and levels. I recently had a parent email me because their child had picked the book, “Want to Go Private” and he wanted to know what made me think his daughter was a candidate for reading this book. I don’t pick their books. He told me he wanted to keep her innocent of these types of things that go on in the world at least for the next 2 – 3 years. At the same time I’ve received two parent letters applauding me for having the book. It opened the door to conversations with their children they would not necessary feel comfortable having with their child. Books are powerful and we need to keep up with what is out there and the messages. We need to know our students in and out to to be able to help them with their needs. Once again I applaud you.
Thanks for your comments, Sandra. As you mentioned, another reason Contemporary Realistic Fiction is so important is the way in which it can be a catalyst for conversations about otherwise “unspeakable” topics. I’m struck by how much your parents know and care about what their kids are reading. That is amazing and wish it were the case for my kids.
Thank you for helping us see the important work of school librarians a little more clearly today.
Thanks for reading, Gary! The work I wrote about is only one teeny piece of the job all school librarians do every day. And, yes, everything we do is important, so thanks for acknowledging that.
I teach fourth grade in an elementary school that could be a feeder school for your school. Your post made me cry. I’m so glad that there are people like you in the world and the library.
I’m touched to learn that I made you cry, Carol. Thank you for sharing that with me, and thanks for the work you’re doing with your kids. I’m glad to know that there are other NerdyBookClub readers working in urban ed and in tough schools- it can be so isolating, and this community has made me feel so connected.
Sylvie, you are an angel. Thank you for the incredible role you play in the lives of these children. I have immense admiration for the job you do.
Thanks, Teresa, but I’m hardly an angel. (really)
And thanks for all YOU do for literacy and spreading book-love across the internet and in the real world too. Librarians, teachers, booksellers and most importantly READERS of all ages could not read without folks like you doing your job as well as you do.
Tears over Jane’s story. Sometimes we read to identify; sometimes for escape. Often it’s both.
We need to know our books! I like the “tipping”. Thanks For sharing and being there for those who need it.
Yes, often it’s both, David. Thanks for your comment- and “tipping” books is easier than pulling them all off the shelf and then reshelving. I always assumed other librarians do it too.
What an amazing post! The story of “Jane” just made me smile all over. As David mentioned, the tipping idea is pretty awesome.
“And then we find the perfect book together.” Wonderful! Thank you for sharing.
Thanks, Brian! So glad to have made you smile today.
This is a wonderful post, Sylvie. I wish we had a librarian like you in our high school because I know many of our students would love you. You’re absolutely right about students knowing what they need to read. Some of my students will be on a contemporary kick until one day they decide they need some fantasy. They know best.
They do know best. I wish EVERY school had a school librarian. Hope yours gets one someday soon.
Thanks for starting my writing day with purpose. My own school librarian and the books “we chose together” helped through some of the roughest patches of my life–thanks for doing your job and caring about the job you do. New to the group, what a great post to start out!
Welcome Barb! Thank you for reading & for commenting. I hope you got some great writing done.
Thank you for everything you do for those children; by helping them find the right book, you show them that you are listening and you care. My school situation is quite different from yours but as you mention, in any circumstances, growing up and navigating the world is a challenge. It’s a beautiful post and important message – listen.
Thank you! Yes, that’s exactly why realistic fiction is so important to tweens and teens: growing up is hard, no matter your race, geography or socio-economic situation.
This is such an important post. Thank you for sharing and also for sharing the magic of your library, your work and your students. It speaks to how much librarians need to know their books but it also speaks to the intimacy of relationship between student, librarian and books. How much was being communicated as you walked through the stacks with Jane? Wow. I think of some of the kids at the inner city school where I teach who when life is sometimes really hard, the library becomes a safe haven. They hang out in the morning, over lunch and after school. Connecting with the books, the space and our teacher librarian.
I can feel from your words how much joy your job brings you.
Thanks for your comment, Carrie. I am so honored by the things my students share with me- especially the stories that are the hardest for me to hear. Everytime I am told something that makes my stomach flip inside out, something I am mandated to report, I am so grateful that they feel safe enough to tell me, knowing that I will, that I have to, take steps to keep them safe, steps they can’t take alone.
When there is so much talk about cuts in libraries and cutting library posts, I wish those in charge of budgets could read your post and “see” and “listen” to what are the highest priorities. You emphasized the important parts, story, and that is both in the student first, in the book second. I love ‘tipping’ books for students & having them come back for more. Thanks for the inspiration!
Thank you, Linda. I’m so pleased that you found my post inspiring! Whenever people say “Oh, you’re a school librarian, you must love books!” I am always quick to respond that while I do love books, I am a school librarian because I love kids. Sounds like you get that, and yes, I wish those who made budget decisions got that too.
This is such a powerful post. You gave very insightful image of your library and your job. It made me think and reminded me of what is really important. Thank you.
Amazing, honest posting that brought tears to my eyes. Putting the right books into the right hands when they’re needed is such a powerful gift. Unfortunately, our jobs are not always seen that way but WE know we’re doing important, life changing work. Kudos to you!
A terrific post: paragraph after paragraph of painful and familiar truths. Best lines, though:
“Kids know what they want to read, need to read, on any given day. I don’t tell them what they need to read, they tell me. And then we find the perfect book together.”
Thank you for such a vivid view of kids and books.
Thank you for reading & for your comment. I am so glad to hear you enjoyed my post.
Great post! Just today at lunch, we were talking about all the children in our little rural elementary school in TN who are facing unbelievable obstacles in their personal lives. Children whose parents are in jail, whose parents have abandoned them, whose parents are neglecting them or worse. You are so right. It doesn’t matter where they live. All they want is to know that they are not alone and that somewhere they can find some love and understanding! Keep up the great work!
Thanks for your comment. It’s true that kids all over the world & of all backgrounds are facing incredible struggles…and I know those in rural settings often have fewer resources and supports. Thank you for the love & understanding you are showing them each day.
A wonderful post today, Sylvie. You are so right about how kids know exactly what they need to read. Thank you for sharing your story. The next time I walk the stacks of our school library with my own students, I will think of you.
I will definitely be thinking about all the folks who shared their responses to this post when I get back to school after this long weekend. Thanks for reading, Cynthia!
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Sylvie – What a powerful post and a fantastic reminder of what we are all about. I know those kids you talk about – I just have the younger version of them. I am so glad that somewhere there is someone fantastic like you taking care of them. Amazing job – thank you for sharing and for the work you do.
Thanks, Aly, for your comment & for working with kids who’re younger but have much of the same stuff going on. I am in awe of both the kids and those who work with them!
Moved to tears by this powerful story of how important reading–and teachers and librarians who know books–are. Thank you for this.
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