Adding My Voice to the Chorus of Thanks by Jake Burt
This summer, I spoke to a room full of librarians and children’s literature advocates at ALA in Washington, DC. I used this opportunity to thank them for the work they do – yes, for putting great stories into the hands of the children who need them, for supporting educators in our classrooms, and for tirelessly championing reading and books in all their kaleidoscope forms.
But that list of hallowed, vital contributions to our societal well-being wasn’t the focus of my gratitude. Nope.
Instead, I spent most of my time on their role as guardians of physical spaces.
I understand that in this, as with so many of the messages delivered at ALA, I was preaching to the choir. There was no one there who needed convincing of the prowess of the library as a wellspring of community strength, or of the school or local library’s efficacy at making children feel welcome. I imagine there will be few readers of this post that need convincing of the same. Still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to reiterate that message of thanks.
Because choirs? I’ve sung in them (low bass represent! Woo!) for the better part of twenty years, and as any tuxedo or black-dress-wearing, folder-holding, uvula-waggling Bach belter will tell you, it’s sometimes nice to be reminded of why we started singing in the first place. And as a loud and proud member of the pro-library chorus, I’m lucky to get my reminder each and every day: I teach fifth grade, you see…
I always have that kid in my class – the one who asks to go to the library at recess. Maybe for him, unstructured social time is the stuff of nightmares. Perhaps for her, the mercurial complexities of four square rules really are as migraine-inducing as they seem. To that kid, especially if he or she has been subjected to the arbitrary callousness of bullying, the library is a haven. Decorum is not just expected, it’s enshrined. Order is celebrated – row by row, volume by volume. And escape? It’s encouraged. Heck, you can even take some of it with you.
In THE TORNADO, I explore a tricky combination of relationships. There’s my main character, Bell Kirby, who has managed to eke out a schedule that allows him to avoid the kid who has bullied him mercilessly for years. Into his already-fraught life I toss Daelynn Gower, the new girl…and the bully’s latest target. Bell is forced to navigate his own plight while trying to decide whether or not to support Daelynn with hers. If he does, he draws his bully’s attention. If he lets her take the abuse, his life gets easier.
And his guilt gets unbearable.
I based Bell’s situation on my own struggles with being bullied in elementary and middle school, and I fear that in telling his story, I pulled no punches (literally…I left all of them in). Against that near-impossible predicament, though, I gave Bell one reprieve: his after school club. It’s his safe space: somewhere he feels protected, valued, and seen. In a very real sense, it’s one of the only ways he survives his school experience. Having that place to go is essential.
For many of my students, that place is the library.
This is going to sound weird coming from an author, but forget the books for a minute. Think about the library as an edifice, whether it’s a sprawling suburban civic center or a glorified closet in a little school, one that has stayed open only because Mrs. Wickershams has told the district that if they intend to shut her library down, they’d better “bring a bulldozer and a priest.” For a bullied kid, the library is sacred space. Here, you don’t have to socialize. Here, it’s okay to retreat for a little while. Here, your soft voice and eclectic interests and infinitely earnest questions are valued. Here, there are adults who have jobs – jobs that they love – because there are kids like you to serve.
When we defund libraries; when we force them to slash their hours; when we understaff them or curtail students’ access to them; when we dismiss their role as safe spaces, we send a message to our students – not just that we don’t value literacy, but that, in many cases, we don’t value them. For some kids, that’s a shame. For others, to rob them of their refuge can be downright dangerous. And yes, I know that as I write this, I’m merely adding my voice to a Hallelujah Chorus of singers, many who have been hitting that high note far longer and with more clarity than I possibly could. But in my capacity as a writer, a teacher, and a guy who used to be one of those kids, I can tell you: this song? It’s one worth singing.
Thanks again to all of you who do.
Jake Burt is the author of the middle-grade novels Greetings from Witness Protection!, an Indie Next selection, and The Right Hook of Devin Velma, a Junior Library Guild selection. He teaches fifth grade, and lives in Hamden, CT, with his wife and their daughter.