Walter Dean Myers

ADVENTURES IN STOCKING A CHILDREN’S LIBRARY DIVERSELY (PART 1)

This winter I helped put together a list of picture books organized around the four seasons. The books will live at an organization I’m involved with, Smith Memorial Playhouse & Playground — one of those quirky, only-in-Philly, historic institutions that Philadelphia boosters love to tout as an example of what makes Philadelphia so great (which it does).

When Smith came into existence in 1899, it was a radical proposition. A mansion-sized playhouse? (16,000 s.f.) Set in a sprawling, wooded, urban park?! With a 6.5 acre playground!?! Open to ALL KIDS !?!? For free!?!?!

SmithFront hopamerica.com

Smith Playhouse (hopamerica.com)

At the turn of the last century, massive urbanization and child labor sparked new ideas about childhood and the importance of play, and the Playground Movement found great supporters in Richard and Sarah Smith, who built the place in memoriam to their late son, Stanfield.

Smith playground www.northstarmuseums.com Smith Slide mapofplay.kaboom.org

Smith remains a radical proposition today. Visitors still play there at no charge, and you find an amazing degree of socio-economic and racial diversity. Like the city’s public library system – which came into being in roughly the same period – Smith persists as a uniquely Democratic and public mixing-ground. The playhouse and playground serve children from every zip code in this city — plus lots of kids from outside Philly too.

SmithLibrary from www.run-hike-play.com

Smith Playhouse Library (photo: www.run-hike-play.com)

Inside the playhouse a small library occupies a sunny, corner room, offering adults and their charges respite from the hubbub and hosting regular story hours. The library has traditionally been stocked with donated, hand-me-down books. Those donated books are full of animals and able bodied, English-speaking white people. Thoughtful and generous though they are, the books don’t reflect the world that we live in, nor the diversity of families Smith serves: Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents are 43% black, 41% white, 12% latino, and 6% asian; 26% of our population lives below the poverty line (24K/year for a family of 4). When kids play at Smith, they rub elbows with children from all walks.

(For a super-eloquent argument as to why this state of affairs simply isn’t ok, check out the late Walter Dean Myers’ 2014 NY Times Opinion piece.)

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Smith’s setting in a wooded, urban park has long been part of its draw and, in keeping with the ideas of the Nature Play Movement, Smith has lately been doing great work expanding its offerings of nature based play (see here and here).

Staff decided to begin stocking the library more intentionally in conjunction with these initiatives, focussing, for starters, on the seasons. Purchasing new books also presented the opportunity to diversify the collection, and including more African American authors and characters became a logical, first focus.

Smith New Nature Play Area

Smith’s new Nature Explore nature play area (photo courtesy of Smith/Zoe Hillengas)

But finding a range of books that are seasonal in some way or another, and also feature African American characters, has been an uphill battle. I have found some wonderful titles, but not enough.

For WINTER, Ezra Jack Keats’ iconic Peter loomed large – a historic figure in the diversification of children’s books. But beyond that, I only found a few cold-season titles.

SnowyDayKeats

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SUMMER offered the greatest bounty.

ChickenChasinQueenbeachtail ComeOnRain hotdayonabbott Juneteenth for Mazie MyBestFriend OneHotSummerDay Shortcut SummerSunRisin Summertime TarBeach TwentyYawns

For SPRING, a handful of African American book-kids (or African American authors) plant street trees, grow gardens and splash in the rain. But again, not enough.

IfYouPlantASeed RainFeet TheRainStomper

WePlantedATree Eve Bunting Flower Garden

And FALL seemed to be the season where black folks are most scarce (though you’d think more people would be hanging out on stoops and in yards and in parks, enjoying the cool fall air after the brutal heat of the summer that is recounted in so many of the SUMMER books featuring African Americans.). FALL truly, nearly broke me.

51SVW44CMJL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A Leaf

Books about the seasons are just one sliver of what’s out there, but seasons are a popular theme in the early childhood world. And in any case, I’m pretty sure that my struggle would repeat with any other thematically organized list as well — unless that list focussed on Africa, discrimination, civil rights, or slavery.

Having so few books to choose from means that a narrow, limited story is being told. During my search, I became hyper-aware of the boundary between books that are culturally sensitive and books that – in the absence of a broader selection of titles and range of stories — reinforce misguided or stereotyped ideas about what it might mean to be African American.

I hope that someone will comment, telling me I’ve missed a huge trove — that I need to know about this or that author or publisher who I’ve completely overlooked. Or, will at least offer up a few more titles. Meanwhile: let’s keep working to write, publish, buy and share with children MORE DIVERSE BOOKS. And, of course, support #weneeddiversebooks.

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The list is now in the hands of the generous and wonderful Children’s Book World, where books will be sitting at the check-out counter with a sign asking willing patrons to add the purchase price of one or two to their order on Smith’s behalf. If you shop there, please indulge (or call in a purchase!). And if you’re local and you don’t know CBW: check it out. The Philadelphia region is so lucky to have a great indie bookstore devoted specifically to children’s books!

Muck-Out Monday 10/14/14

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REAL mucking out (or: what we do for fun in central PA)

Notices about posts from blogs that I follow have been accumulating in my inbox for a couple of months now, mostly ignored. Fall, which is a(nother) crazy time around here during an ordinary year, is even more nuts this year by virtue of a panoply of transitions in my family of origin, all taking place 1000 miles away. (I bow, alternately, to the remove that those 1000 miles afford me and to the gift of long distance phone service).

This morning I decided to wade into the muck and see what rose to the surface: the good stuff should have staying power, and should still be good if I read it a few weeks late, even in the blogosphere, right? And so, a little sharing…

First off, there was my inaugural notice from Maria Popova’s fabulous Brain Pickings. I am truly smitten. It included a great reminder about independent Brooklyn publishing house, Enchanted Lion (via Anne Bertier’s Wednesday) and another well-timed short list, “What Books Do for the Human Soul”.

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The husband and wife who owned our farm house before the previous owners.

A couple nice posts about the importance of the NAMES we give our characters grabbed me too. This summer my kids and I went name-hunting at an old, country cemetery up the road from our place in central PA. I have fond memories of traipsing around Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philly on a similar quest, years ago, when my sister was first pregnant — and also of doing rubbings of tombstones at some point in my childhood. The practice got validation in both Pat Zietlow Miller’s post on the new, sweet blog, Picture Book Builders, and then in another by Alison Potoma at Writers’ Rumpus (Marianne Knowles, who coordinates Writers’ Rumpus, was the first non-friend, non-family, full-on-stranger to subscribe to Hmmmmm, so she has a special seat at my imaginary kidlit writers’ table). Both offer various examples of how specific name choices work, and are nicely instructive.

Finally, Writers’ Rumpus also hosted a nice piece about what Joyce Audy Zarins calls “Naturalized Diversity”. The bio-metaphor lured me in, and compelling conversation followed. One of the frustrations evident in those NYTimes Op Eds last March by Walter Dean and Christopher Myers and the #weneeddiversebooks hubbub that came later in the spring, was that the conversation about diversity in children’s books has moved so little in so many years: we are still struggling with this most basic problem of under-representation. Zarins — and Matt de la Pena, who she quotes — offers hope in the form of this idea of a future when there is more space for books to move from being about diversity, to simply being diverse, reflecting the worlds we live in.

Meanwhile: I do actually realize that it’s Tuesday today, not Monday. But yesterday was a holiday so today felt like Monday, plus I liked the alliteration; given that there is so much to read, and that I only just began to wade in, I’ll probably be doing this again some real Monday soon.

Walter Dean Myers passes away at 76

Walter Dean Myers, in his own words and what he hoped his legacy would be.

“I hope that my legacy is that I was useful for young people…”

“…I want to make people of color human beings, and I want to make poor people human beings. I want to include them in my books so that they can look at my books and say that could be me, and this guy understands who I am as a poor person.”

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