Category Archives: Op-Ed

Rethinking a Small School Library

Three years ago, I retired from the small independent school where I’d worked for twelve years. The last ten I spent getting my library certification, while building the library and library programming there.
It was hard to leave but time to go, with family needs and the publishing company left to me by my Dad calling on my time and my heart.
But that library led me to my true calling, I believe, and they really never got rid of me, once I was able to go back as a sub the past two years. I’d shelve books and exclaim over the new acquisitions, and happily talk books with the kids (and teachers!) in the hallway and classroom.
Three years later, I have the opportunity to be a part of the school improvement plan in ways none of us could have imagined all those years ago, when I was growing a library from shelves full of used books and a room full of promise.
While others prepare to deliver curriculum in the library, I am redesigning the collection for a move to new teaching spaces after this coming school year.
The first job is a total weed of the collection, something which can never happen completely while also fulfilling a teaching and duty schedule. Over the years, this task has grown to somewhat daunting proportions.
One could say that moving a school from two buildings to one is a sad thing, that it is a downsizing of the program. Really, though, this is a right-sizing of the program designed to serve this small school population while resources grow.
My job, building a library collection that reflects the mission and vision of the school while it shrinks to fit smaller spaces, is one example of the thoughtful approach to these changes. Our school is authorized for the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate, serving students grades 6-8. The school is actively pursuing application for the Primary Years Programme, which serves early childhood through middle grade students.
Using best library practices, I’m working to make this the best possible library for our school community. I’m using the following points to approach each book we have in the library.
Does the collection include diverse voices and viewpoints? Do windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors exist in the choices of the books we choose for our students? Could ANY student find themselves reflected somewhere in our library, and could ANY student learn about people with different experiences and viewpoints than their own there?
Did we practice due diligence in examining our personal biases as we decide which books serve our community the very best way? Can we offer teachers and families a wide selection of really great books, including those that exemplify the IB’s ten Learner Profile traits?
Next, I use circulation statistics to inform my decision about a book. If no one has checked out a book that is more than ten years old in the past five years, it’s got to go, unless I happen to know that it a hidden gem no one could find before.
The last gauge I use is age (science, geography and other areas are outdated faster than others). The copyright date is one checkpoint, but smelly books always go(ewww),no matter how special!
Library staff has performed these weeding exercises by section as they were able to in the past, but this move provides great motivation to get the whole job done on the entire library, and I’m making progress. When I’m finished, the remaining collection will fit into the new teaching spaces being designed for them throughout the school, the collection will be accessible to everyone, and the great books that have in some cases been hidden within the vast number of volumes will be visible and ready to share!
It is so exciting to be part of something that will add value to a school so dear to my heart. I’m very happy to back in the bookstacks to be making a difference, also to peek between the covers of favorite middle grade books I recommended or have on my own TBR pile, and to geek out in the land of the well- designed library catalog, one of my weird and wonderful passions.

The Power of Empowered Kids (in middle grade lit)

The Power of Empowered Kids in Middle Grade Literature

Middle Grade Lit Empowers Kids

Can’t is a dangerous word. It’s one of those words that gets pulled out a lot by adults these days. You can’t say that. You can’t believe that. You can’t do that.

Can’t is a natural part of the language definitely has its role in our world, but it’s come to mean a lot of different things. Things it was likely never meant to be in the first place. More importantly, it’s an imprecise word that people use as a substitute for other, more meaningful words, like mustn’t. And in its imprecise form, can’t can be very dangerous when applied to kids.

Can’t is a limiting word. A word that takes something away from the person it’s used on. And in this world, we can’t afford to be taking things away from the coming generations.

Now, I’m not talking here about the word shouldn’t, another limiting word that’s sometimes used interchangeably with can’t. “You shouldn’t cross the street without looking both ways” is a far different sentence than “You can’t cross the street without looking both ways.” Because what the word shouldn’t takes away is an imperative to do something.

Can’t takes away ability. It steals the power to do a thing. And it’s that deprivation of power we’ve got to look out for when we’re talking to kids.

Disempowering Narratives Limit Everyone

I hear the word can’t a lot when people refer to kids in stories—especially middle grade adventure stories—and when I do it’s usually with a snicker, or a scoff, or a slightly curled lip.

  • “Kids can’t really think like that.”
  • “Kids can’t accomplish that much.”
  • “Kids can’t be depended on to make decisions like that.”

And worse, I’ve heard it applied to real world kids as well.

  • “Kids can’t lead their peers.”
  • “They can’t be trusted with that kind of responsibility.”
  • “Girls can’t…” and “Boys can’t…”

When those people say things like that, I believe that they mean it. They’ve bought into a fallacy that a thing is impossible, when really it’s just improbable, and what’s worse is that they’re convincing others, especially young people, that they really are that limited.

But I’m convinced that middle graders can do a lot more than society gives them credit for. I’ve seen kids in this age group accomplish some pretty amazing things. They’ve written stories and plays. They’ve organized campaigns to fight the global slave trade that still exists today.

Don’t believe me? Look up kids like Dylan Mahalingam, or Katie Stagliano, or Zach Hunter, or Ryan Hreljac.

There are countless others who’ve done things like these but never saw recognition for it, which to me sets them apart even more. I’ll never forget watching a young boy named Austen listening to and comforting a surly old guy after the man made a disparaging remark about him–responding to disdain with compassion. Just yesterday an 11-year-old girl named Becca bestowed on me the privilege of reading the book she’s started writing. I’ve watched middle grade kids challenge hate, raise beaucoup bucks for those in need of relief, lead bands, and survive hardships that would bring many adults I know to their knees.

If a kid feels empowered, they can do all sorts of amazing thingsKids who believe in themselves can shake the world.

At least, they can when we’re not telling them they can’t.

Figures like Anne Frank and Beethoven had a huge impact on culture, despite their youth.

We forget the fact that historically this was the age that kids started to be treated like adults. They learned trades. They stepped into responsibility. They made decisions to take care of their families. Some kids in this age group were queens and kings. Kids like these composed symphonies and led rebellions and kept diaries that reported on the horrors of war.

Middle grade literature gets this simple truth in a way that’s often all-but-forgotten in our culture today. When we read about the kids in well-drawn books we see a world full of wonder and possibilities, where kids battle injustice, or fight for the safety of their families, protect the hurting, even take over the world.

Stories like these are important, because they tell kids what can happen. I’m not talking about Harry Potter magic… I’m talking about making decisions. Taking responsibility. Stepping into the world to make it better, to make their mark, to show compassion. It’s not about whether you have a tiny dragon riding on your shoulder or whether you live in a town where words have a peculiar sort of power or have powers of your own—it’s about whether you will step into this world and take action.

The Difference between Natural Limitations and Imprinted Limitations

That’s not to say that these kids don’t have natural limitations. Their parents aren’t going to send them off into dangerous situations, nor should they. Their developmental state informs what they value. They’re unproven, untrusted, untested.

“When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking.”
– Ransom Riggs

And that’s okay. That they’re not allowed does not necessarily mean they are incapable. Just because they aren’t quite ready for something doesn’t mean they can’t do it. We humans can accomplish a great many amazing things when our options are limited.

That’s where we need to be careful. Kids this age are in a developmental stage where they’re finding their own limits, internally. They’re discovering just how far the world extends beyond the walls of their homes, and if that discovery is presented as only “for someone else,” they may never even attempt to take hold of it. We’ve imprinted our own thoughts about who they can be on them, and by doing so we’ve closed the door on what might have been, had they explored it on their own.

That’s the beauty of the world that middle grade literature provides. It shows kids what they could be, not just what they are. Through these exercises of imagination, a child can step into a universe of responsibilities, try them on for size, and learn what fits and what doesn’t.

In a world where everyone tells kids they can’t, it’s important to have a place where they can. Otherwise how will they learn what it means to take charge of who they’re going to be? How will they learn they can be responsible? That their care for others is valuable? That they’re smart, or that they really can stand up to the bully, or that they can survive whatever this world throws at them?

So believe in these kids, and give them starting points to believe in themselves. They won’t be this young for long, and if they can get it into their heads that they can bring good to the people around them, we will all be better off for it.

Books mentioned:

Jumping girl photo edited from 
Photo by Danka & Peter on Unsplash
Door photo with Ransom Riggs quote adapted from 
Photo by Viktor Mogilat on Unsplash

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Life and Art and Patterns and Mess

I read an article I read on the Publishers Weekly website called “Why Life and Writing are Inseparable” by Amie Barrodale, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

The thing that struck me first and drew me in was that the article opens with a discussion of writing, drops a rambling sentence of personal bombshells into the narrative, and then picks up the writing topic again without missing a beat. The result is jarringly familiar to anyone who has ever tried to combine life and writing, or life and illustrating, or life and any other creative endeavor. And especially so as I write this toward the end of a school year, which combines the chaos of life with the artistry of teaching.

Barrodale conveys the life/art balance through the structure of her story more effectively than if she’d used words alone, and at the same time establishes the importance of structure and subtext in her writing.

The article goes on to describe Barrodale’s early writing as having a focus on craft, until she found herself shifting to stories from her own life for the larger part of her career. We then find ourselves shifting from this brief focus on craft to a story from Barrodale’s life that takes up most of the remaining bulk of the piece.

And once again, in an entirely different way, I was struck by the author’s remarkable use of structure to support her theme. Much like concrete poetry, in which a poem about a fish might be shaped like a fish, Barrodale’s story about her life was actually shaped like her life—and can there be any better way to show the inseparability of life and creativity?

The story part of the article tells of Barrodale’s experiences carrying bowls around a Tibetan cave during a meditation retreat. She focuses on rules and norms, and how it felt to be in disagreement or conflict with other practitioners of the bowl-carrying arts.

via GIPHY

Like most readers of the article, I’ve never been on a meditation retreat to a Tibetan cave, so I have no personal stake in the theory or politics Barrodale is describing. Readers can approach this story without the baggage we’d bring to a similar story about writing, or illustrating, or whatever creative endeavor we’re most experienced with and passionate about.

Which seems to be entirely the point.

A story about bowl-carrying techniques among cave-dwelling meditation practitioners can serve as an effective metaphor for any artists fumbling in the dark with the traditions and strictures of their craft. So what seems at first to be a tangent away from writing actually becomes the meat of Barrodale’s thesis about writing. Yet again, she uses structure rather than words to support the idea that writing and life are inseparable.

I thought the resulting essay was by far the most carefully, deliberately, and effectively structured article I’d ever read. But as a counterpoint, an irate reader in the comments section berated the author, editor, and publisher alike for releasing what she saw as an entirely unstructured article that “reads like someone journaling.”

Althrough we read all the same words, we read two very different articles.

From my perspective, the comment writer missed the most important aspects of the piece, as if looking at a fish-shaped poem and seeing only a random jumble of words. And from her perspective, she might say that I imposed an imagined structure on the article where none was actually intended.

Where I saw a pattern, the comment writer saw a mess.

Thinking about how the same article can be read and interpreted so differently by different people revealed the final puzzle piece in my quest to understand the connection between life and art.

Life is messy, but human beings are wired to extract patterns of meaning and importance from that mess. As creators, we seed our work with those same patterns and hope for the best. When a pattern resonates with a reader’s messy life experience, it feels true and a powerful connection is made. But a reader who does not connect with that pattern, no matter how artfully arranged, will only see the mess.

We may think we’re building stories with characters and plot, lines and color, structure and theme, but on the most basic level it’s all just patterns and mess.

Just like life.