Every semester I ask the students in my Young Adult Literature course to share five "Deserted Island Books" - that is to say, five books they'd want to have with them in the event that their three hour tour turned into a lifetime trapped on an island with Gilligan, the Skipper and the rest of the gang. I love this activity as a way of getting to know my students; you can tell a lot about a person from the list of books they'd choose to read over and over again, for all eternity. Also, I get a real kick out of how my students toil over this decision. In the end, many of them cheat: finding all sorts of creative ways to count multiple books as a single choice. It's a good time.
Speaking of cheating, each semester, my own list of forever books changes. But one title that almost always makes the list is Jeff Zentner's The Serpent King. Every time I read this book, my heart grows. I laugh. I cry. I want to be a better person. And if those aren't the qualities of a book you'd want to be trapped with forever, I'm not sure what are. With that in mind, it will come as no surprise that I was over the moon excited when Jeff announced that he was going to be reading TSK, in its entirety, on Instagram Live over the next several weeks. As I write this, we're about half way through the book, and I'm at that point where I find myself wishing it was a much longer book or that Zentner was a much slower reader.
Anyway, it was during one of those readings that Jeff came to a scene in which the three main characters are shushed by a librarian. Almost immediately, all the librarians listening lost their minds: filling the screen with comments declaring that "librarians don't shush anymore!" But even before their chorus of friendly outrage began, Jeff predicted the reaction, offering a caveat about how his understanding of librarianship has grown since the book was published. Then he asked all his librarian fans to forgive him! It was an adorable, funny moment. And one that I've continued to think about a lot.
Innovative school librarians often battle the stereotype of the librarian as the tyrannical curator of “book museums:” climate-controlled catacombs where reading materials are prized above the readers themselves. Chances are, if you're reading this post, you don't fall into that category. But here's the thing, y'all: a lot of librarians do. There are still plenty of librarians who, like that famous Nancy Pearl action figure, come equipped with "amazing shushing action!" After all, these stereotypes aren't born out of thin air. They don't exist because of a yet unmapped segment of the human genome resulting in a collective hatred for librarians. These stereotypes exist because too many librarians continue to perpetuate them.
It doesn't help, of course, that in pop culture librarians, almost unilaterally, get a bad rap. If you've ever heard me speak at a conference, (or some other event), you know I love to share examples of how librarians are beaten up in pop culture. I present a few of my favorites here without comment:
Unloveable, frumpy and perpetually sour-pussed, librarians in books, movies and on TV are almost always painted with the same brush. Over the years, a lot of my work has revolved around a mission to bust those stereotypes. To this day, I still believe that every person who walks into your library is a potential library supporter, and it's up to you to either confirm what they already think they know about your work or to defy those expectations.
As I write this, schools all over the country are pivoting to emergency distance learning as a way to mediate the effects of COVID-19. Over the last few weeks, I've seen something close to a gagillion posts and articles featuring lists of things NOT to do while making this shift, and I don't want this to be one of those posts. No one was prepared for the situation we currently find ourselves in. Educators (of all kinds) are doing the best they can. And while there are certainly areas for improvement, I'm not here to tell them they are doing it wrong.
But there ARE some really important lessons about how we do school, about how we prioritize resources and about how we face and address (or ignore) inequity in our communities, that I really hope we we'll carry with us after all of this is over. For example, in a lot of districts, short sighted staffing decisions are now coming back to haunt them.
All over the country, school librarians are helping teachers develop online lessons. They're helping their admins set-up school wide access to the technology necessary to conduct distance learning. And, perhaps most importantly, they are gathering resources from across the internet to help insure that readers have access to books, teacher/author read alouds, book clubs and countless other opportunities to connect with each other, and the world, through story.
It comes as no surprise to me that librarians are stepping up in this time of crisis to support both their colleagues and their students. But I can't help but wonder about the schools and districts who no longer have school librarians. Places where those positions were cut in order to provide funding for something else. Places where the view of librarians as antiquated, unnecessary shushers no doubt played a role in the decision to eliminate them. I'm guessing that, as those chickens come to roost now, this transition has been much, much harder.
Not now. But when all of this is over, I want to have a conversation about all the ways that librarians have served as leaders in the work of serving kids during this calamity. I want to find ways to share those stories, so that we can continue to shake up what people expect of us. I want to talk about how, not just in times of crisis, but ALL THE TIME, it's art and story that comfort and connect us. And I want to highlight all the ways that librarians serve as conduits to those vital, life saving resources. It's true, there are still (too many) shushing librarians out there. And, boy oh boy, do they make it hard on, what Jeff Zentner referred to as, "new, cool librarians." But to the latter group: I see you. And I'm in awe of the ways you are navigating this critical, defining moment. Not now. But when all of this over, I want to help make sure many, many others see you, too.