December 01

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Our Tenth Nerdversary: One Nerd Can Make a Difference by Donalyn Miller

How are you? I miss you. I miss the pre-pandemic days when I ran into other book-loving teachers and librarians on my travels. I miss travels. I miss Nerd Camps. I miss conferences and school visits. I miss talking about books in banquet lines and elevators. I miss walking out of a classroom with thirty book recommendations from twelve-year olds.

I’m a social reader who gains more enjoyment from reading when I can talk about books and reading with others. In my Nerdversary post last year, I wrote about social reading and the relationships that readers build with one another. Nerdy Book Club has been a place for readers to gather for ten years now. Wow! How many readers and educators have connected with each other through Nerdy? I cannot name all of the collaborators, friends, and colleagues I have met because of Nerdy. I hope you have made some great connections, too. 

I have written about the origins of Nerdy Book Club at least once a year for a decade. You can find a detailed account in this 2016 Horn Book piece, Nerdy for Life, if you’re curious or unfamiliar. After ten years, how Nerdy Book Club began doesn’t matter as much as where the blog and the Nerdy community might go next. Stay tuned.

For years, I wrote a monthly Sunday post for Nerdy. I’ve not written a post since January. I’m privileged to have many opportunities to share my writing now, but I have missed writing for Nerdy. It is harder to read and write these days. Like many of you, my creative and productive energy has been wrecked since the pandemic began. My reading life has been rocky. It’s difficult to fall into a book and easy to fall back out. I’ve started a lot of books I’ve never finished. I just found a good reading groove again this summer (sort of). I had to re-invent myself as a reader. One who reads on her couch and not planes. I am not the same person I was in 2019. I am not the same reader, either. 

Although my reading life hit a slump for some time, my writing life has consumed my professional attention and focus. For the past 18 months, I have been working on the final draft of The Joy of Reading, co-written with Teri Lesesne. Yes, we wrote a book about joy during a global pandemic. It was the most hopeful thing we could do. 

Teri and I first began writing this book in 2014. The Joy of Reading includes everything Teri and I have learned about engaging kids with reading over the course of our careers. Working on it for so long has been frustrating and gratifying in turn. We both wanted it to be finished, but there was always more to say. We both knew it was probably Teri’s last book, but we didn’t know she would never see it published. 

My nerdiest of nerdy friends, Teri Lesesne, died on August 31st.

The last time I talked with her, we chatted about books with dear friends in our weekly online book club. I find comfort in knowing that Teri was reading and talking about books until the end. In the months since she died, I have been reading her emails, notes, and brilliant arguments. I will always miss her, but I have her words.

Teri was an enthusiastic and vocal champion for young people’s rights to an engaging, relevant reading life. Teri worked to teach and support anyone else who was dedicated to these shared goals—promoting children’s and young adult literature and working to get those books into kids’ hands. Her books, presentations, articles, and blog posts are full of book recommendations, ideas for connecting kids with books, and Teri’s fiery stances against leveling, gatekeeping, reading logs, or any other practice or program that stood between kids and joyful reading. 

Teri was a supporter of this blog from the beginning. She regularly appeared in Nerdy Book Club conference presentations at NCTE, attended Nerd Camps, shared Nerdy posts through social media, and contributed a score of posts herself. Teri loved the Nerdy community and we loved her right back.

For the first seven years of this blog, Nerdy Book Club ran a new post every day. Sometimes, a scheduled blogger could not turn their post in on time. Life happens. When faced with a gap in the calendar, what could Cindy, Katherine, Colby and I run on the blog? Who could write us a last minute post?

I could always text Teri and ask her to write a post. She never said no. She would send me something in a few hours. She never ran out of things to write about—from the latest picture books she read to the perils of censorship. Teri is still the only (and will probably remain the only) person who wrote a post so long that we ran it on two separate days. None of us had the nerve to ask Dr. Lesesne to edit it down!

The last Nerdy post Teri Lesesne wrote was on January 23, 2017 titled, A Reading Life Interrupted. Teri wrote about her cancer diagnosis and how chemotherapy and radiation had stolen her energy and cognitive focus—“devastating” her reading life. Teri describes her slow journey back to reading again, one page at a time, and offers insight into how readers can navigate the interruptions in our reading lives that inevitably occur. Teri was forever a teacher— always seeking connections between reading and the circumstances of our lives.

The last few entries on Teri’s long-running blog, The Goddess of YA Literature, are a snapshot of her life during the pandemic. She speaks of her granddaughters, her isolation at home, and her enjoyment for creating and sharing presentations about new books. I can hear her voice when I read through her blog. I have spent hours reading through old entries and rediscovering so many gems.

Teri often spoke out against censorship in the children’s and young adult book world. She promoted Banned Book Week and the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. She often discussed censorship in her presentations and essays. In her two-part Nerdy post, Ticking Off the Censors (2011), Teri wrote, “And this is why I fight as I do: if we let them take just one book, they will come back for more and more.  So, I fight to keep books that are not high art, books that might be offensive to me, books that disturb me as a reader.  You see, I think any list that includes books that tick off a reader is probably a list of books I need to know and, perhaps, read.” 

Across the United States, many schools are facing censorship debates and book challenges due to bigoted, racist, or homophobic fears about what children might read. Many of these challenges grow from people who have not read the books. Some of the school librarians who once attended Teri’s children’s and young adult literature courses are school librarians currently facing intense scrutiny—and in some cases, personal attacks—about their school’s library collections. Teri tweeted and wrote about #FREADOM often and she would be adding her powerful voice to advocacy efforts for librarians right now.

While Teri defended school librarians when she felt the need, she also held them to a high standard for providing access to books and ensuring free speech. Because it garners attention, the media is focused on outraged parents demanding book banning at school board meetings, but Teri warned against “soft” censorship, or gatekeeping. Some librarians and teachers, fearing controversy, just pull books from circulation or move them into a closet. Often, a book’s description in a publishers’ catalog may spark enough fear of possible pushback that the book is never purchased in the first place. Parents cannot complain if kids never read the books at all. Teri challenged librarians and library administrators to create book selection policies that include the school community instead of preemptively censoring their collections. 

Teri Lesesne is irreplaceable and her death is a loss for all of us who knew and learned from her. One nerd can make a difference. She certainly did. But there is still a lot of work to do.

What can we all do to honor Teri Lesesne’s legacy? What can we do today to get more books into kids’ hands?

Resist book challenges and censorship in your community. Write letters to your local representatives. Go to a school board meeting and speak up for children’s rights to read. Donate money to organizations that provide legal support and information for schools and libraries facing book challenges. Share resources that help teachers, librarians and families defend book challenges such as this incredible roundup of resources and suggestions created by librarian educator, Jennifer LaGarde. Jennifer includes professional resources from the American Library Association (ALA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and other organizations, as well as guidance for creating a formal book review process for your district or school. Follow the #FREADOM hashtag, created by Texas librarians, to connect with other librarians and educators who are fighting book challenges or sharing resources. 

Support libraries and librarians. Teri taught children’s and young adult literature courses for almost three decades at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Along with her SHSU colleagues, Teri worked to support school librarians in our state and advocate for access to books, technology and certified librarians. At a time when kids are losing their school librarians and libraries in droves, we can all do more to speak up for certified librarians and decent book budgets for our schools. Every Library works with local, state, and federal legislators and advocacy groups to write legislation and secure funding for libraries in the United States. 

Buy and promote books. Teri was an active and vocal supporter of children’s and young adult literature for 40 years. She co-founded and helped run successful conferences. She served on numerous book award committees, including the National Book Award. She published thousands of reviews. She also put thousands of books into the hands of thousands of teachers, librarians, and kids. Buy books. Read them. Book talk them. Give them to kids. 

As Teri would say, lather, rinse, repeat.

The last time that Teri and I gave a presentation together was at Nerd Camp in July of 2019. We talked about joy and readers. Teri dedicated her life to this work. I will likely spend the rest of my career learning about readers and joy, too. Not a bad way to spend a life.

Teri thought so. I am so glad that she did.

Donalyn Miller taught upper elementary and middle school English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas for fifteen years, and currently works as an independent literacy coach, consultant, and teacher & reader advocate. She is the author or co-author of several books about encouraging students to read, including The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild, and Game Changer!: Book Access for All Kids (co-written with Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer reading initiative #bookaday and co-founded The Nerdy Book Club. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.