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 LandauBanks 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 Childrens 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 CcommitteeLiaison with National Orgs Serving Youth and is on the ballot  for the 2014 Sibert Committee. You can find her on Twitter at @Sylvie_Shaffer