Category Archives: Public libraries

Books about social justice

Social Justice Reads.After the past weekend, I feel like now is a good time to share a list of books exploring themes of social justice. If you have titles to add to this list, please share in the comments!

I’m sure there are many more, so please share your favorites in the comments!

Genre Lessons: Historical Fiction Revisited

Antique watch.

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading historical fiction, and I picked a couple amazing books. Here are my biggest takeaways:

  1. Multiple plot lines are great for maintaining tension. Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a great example of this, with the adventure/mystery plot alternating with the romantic plot. (I don’t normally name the books I read for genre lessons, because some of these posts can get critical and reading is highly subjective, but I’m making an exception because those like me who struggle with pacing can learn a lot from this book.) Every time the tension eased in one plot line, it ratcheted up in the other. I’m not saying add subplots to increase tension, but if you have a subplot, consider complicating that at points where the main plot slows.
  2. How people say things is just as important as what they say. A good historical fiction novel immerses readers in the setting with vivid descriptions; a great one also has characters whose diction indicates their culture and upbringing. This goes for other genres, too; writing a character from the American South doesn’t mean just writing an accent, it means having that character use Southern expressions and turns of phrase.
  3. The best villains are characters whose motivations readers understand and believe, even when they disagree with the villain. My favorite villains are the ones I feel a little sorry for when they lose.

Those are the main things I noticed as I read historical fiction this month. Have you read any great books in this genre recently that helped improve your writing?

I’m suffering from a conference hangover right now, but I’ll talk about Midwest Writers Workshop next week!

Can you still like something that’s problematic? Reflections on Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen.I’ll start with a disclaimer: I have not seen the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I first heard of it when NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour did a review of the Tony Awards that included a clip from Ben Platt’s performance of “Waving Through a Window” that made me instantly look for the soundtrack. (For those of you whose libraries have hoopla, the original Broadway soundtrack is on there. I borrowed it within minutes of hearing that clip on PCHH.)

I then spent the next hour or so listening as I walked around my neighborhood. I absorbed the full soundtrack in one stretch. And the music really resonated with me. The songs are catchy, some of the lyrics are really poignant (as someone who struggles with anxiety, I really connected with “Waving Through a Window”), and the soundtrack genuinely moved me.

The next day I went online and looked up a plot summary. Because as much as I got from the music, I missed some key parts of the story just listening to the songs once. (If you’re not familiar with the plot, Wikipedia has a short summary here.) I had mixed feelings about the hero profiting off of a lie about his supposed friendship with a suicide victim. I don’t agree with Evan’s actions, but I can understand how he got there, fibbing to help Connor’s family cope with their grief. And since I missed so much plot just listening to the songs, I assume the show itself does a better job of showing the consequences of Evan’s actions.

Many critics seem to think so. In addition to winning six Tony Awards, the show received many glowing reviews. But others who have seen the play point out its problematic content. They argue that Evan never has to answer for his lies except to the Murphy family, who all forgive him despite the fact that he took advantage of them when they were grieving, making them his surrogate family because he was unsatisfied with his own living situation. While I heard the opening number, “Does Anybody Have a Map?” as two mothers’ frustrations at not always knowing the right thing to say (which, though I’m not a mother, I sometimes feel in my role as a teen librarian), critics have argued this presents the parents of teens struggling with mental illness as victims. While mental illness affects family members, too, focusing too much on their struggles can diminish the very real struggles of the individual who has a mental illness.

I’m ill-equipped to form a full opinion on this musical until I’ve seen the play myself. I worry that we don’t get to hear from Connor — the real Connor, not the Connor Evan invents for the Murphy family — at all. I worry that Evan may not face enough consequences for his actions, especially since nobody except his mother and the Murphy family learns he lied about his friendship with Connor. But I also genuinely like this music. I see it in the way someone (I believe it was Roxanne Gay, but please correct me if I misattribute this) described misogynistic rap music: she knows the lyrics are horrible, but it’s so catchy, so she’s going to listen to it and sing along.

I know Dear Evan Hansen has problematic aspects. As I said, I can’t form a complete opinion of the show until I’ve seen it. But I do know I still like the songs, and I’m going to let myself listen to and enjoy them, and I’m going to be critical of the play.

Have you seen Dear Evan Hansen? Have you heard the soundtrack? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A slightly off-topic rant about casual misogyny

Neutral face emoji.The other day, a regular patron came up to me at the desk.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Let me see that smile.”

I get this line from this man a lot, and sometimes I’ll laugh it off, but today I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it’s the increase in casual misogyny I’ve experienced lately, but I just did not want to do that.

“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked.

“Let me see that smile.”

This is the point where in the past I’ve smiled a little because it gets him to go away, and really, it doesn’t do me any harm, right? But not today. Today I gave him a deadpan stare for several seconds.

“Okay, or not,” he said, and walked away. Like I’d denied him something he deserved.

And for several minutes after that, my thoughts spiraled. Should I have just smiled? Would he complain to my boss about the rude customer service he received? Never mind that he (and many others, but that’s a story for another post) makes me incredibly uncomfortable throughout every exchange we have. It was only a smile…

Except, here’s what I wanted to say to him:

“Sir, my job is to help you conduct research; help you find your next great book, movie, or CD; and help you use our computers, copiers, and scanner. If you have a question about any of those things, I’m happy to help you. But my job is not to perform for you. And I’d appreciate it if you treated me with the respect of a professional whose job it is to help you in a courteous manner, not to look or act a certain way for your benefit.”

But I like my job, and I like having a job, and I can’t come up with responses like this on the spot. (It’s why I’m a writer. I’m much better when I have the time to sort my thoughts out.)

So, okay, this is just another story of casual misogyny in the workplace. Nothing new or extraordinary. And that’s the problem. This happens all. the. time. And every time we give in so he (or she, though it’s most often he) will go away, we’re telling him that he can do that. That it’s his right to demand we smile for him.

And as long as we keep smiling on cue, we’ll keep being asked to do so.

Lest you think I’m a cold-hearted jerk (or any of the stronger language Internet trolls will use to describe women who ask to be treated with basic human decency), I’d like to think I’m pretty pleasant. My managers and co-workers would tell you I provide excellent customer service. But being asked to smile (or being called “sweetheart,” “darling,” etc.) makes me want to scowl and tell them I’m not their sweetheart/darling/etc.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to this story, except to say that I’m tired of smiling on cue, and tired of worrying I’ll be viewed less favorably by my employers if I stand up to this kind of treatment.

Readers, I’m sure you have experience with this. How do you handle casual misogyny in the workplace? I welcome your thoughts, stories, and civil debate in the comments.

A year as Teen Librarian

CalendarYesterday was my one-year anniversary as a teen librarian. I’ve learned a lot, and gotten to do a lot of really cool things with really cool people. It’s hard to choose a favorite program/service/interaction, but looking back, here are twelve of my favorite moments (in no particular order, because how could I choose a single favorite anything?)​ from the last year:

  1. Watching a teen who’d caused some trouble at the beginning of the school year become a leader at gaming programs, even teaching me Kendama tricks at one game night and encouraging me to keep practicing.
  2. Working with a couple members of the Teen Advisory Board to plan and run our Kendama Tournament.
  3. Watching a young woman find her dream dress at our Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway. When a staff member told her she looked like a princess, she informed her, hands on hips, “I am a princess.”
  4. Doing book talks in an English Language Learning class with an amazing, enthusiastic teacher. After I pitched Alexandra Diaz’s The Only Road, the teacher asked, “Who wants to read that book right now?” and the entire class raised their hands. When I was finished presenting, the students then raced to check out our digital copies of the book.
  5. Working with the English Language Arts Coordinator at one of the local middle schools to allow all of their students to access our digital resources with their student ID number.
  6. Having a teen share some poems he wrote with me.
  7. Geeking out with an enthusiastic reader over the last book in the Selection series.
  8. Sharing tips with a teen writer as we both made our way through NaNoWriMo together.
  9. Having a teen share the designs he made in a digital art class, which blew my mind.
  10. Meeting and chatting with so many students about everything from books to Hamilton to Pokemon Go during book talks.
  11. Having a passive reader’s advisory interaction with a teen who asked for book recommendations on the white board in the Teen Room.
  12. Watching students in friendly competition doing the Kahoot! trivia I made about our digital resources during book talks.

There have been many, many more awesome moments, and I’m looking forward to many more years of working with these amazing young people!

Book Talk Tool: Kahoot!

Kahoot! app.Yesterday, I had my last school visit of the year. I’ve learned a lot through a year of book talks, and get a sense of closure from having the first and last classes I visited this school year be the same. One tool I’ve started using in middle school classrooms is Kahoot!

If you’re unfamiliar with Kahoot!, it’s a free online platform that lets you create multiple-choice quizzes that students can answer on a computer or mobile device. (There are other options for quizzes and games you can create, but I haven’t explored those yet.) Every student at the local middle school has a Chromebook, which is perfect for Kahoot! After talking about books I think the students will like, I tell them about the library’s online resources and upcoming programs. A Kahoot! quiz on our eBooks and events is a great way to see how well the students were listening (and how well I presented!), and to get them more involved in the presentation. In my opinion, the more interactive a class visit, the better! It helps that the teachers use Kahoot! here, too; just say “Kahoot!” and the kids all know what to do!

Tonight, before we Skype with YA author Stephanie Garber at the library, I’ve prepared a Kahoot! with trivia about her book, Caraval. There are so many ways to use Kahoot! to spice up a presentation or host a trivia night.

Do you use Kahoot!?

Why supporting libraries supports communities

Support Libraries. #SaveIMLS.The proposed federal budget for 2017 threatens to significantly cut funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which helps fund a lot of America’s libraries. While public libraries are mainly funded by taxes (the exact logistics of this vary by state), IMLS provides grants that help libraries develop STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programming, purchase equipment, and even provide Internet access to the public. I worry that a lot of the people voting to potentially cut IMLS funding don’t really know what libraries do. Maybe they have an idea in their head from when they went to their local library as a kid and checked out books or got research help they assume Google could handle today. So I thought I’d share some of the things we do every day at my library (and that libraries around the country do) to help our community. Feel free to share these stories with your representatives and encourage them to support IMLS!

First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions. Some representatives argue that the Internet is a luxury. It’s 2017; if you want to search for a job, apply for a job, apply for a higher education program, apply for financial aid, view or print a pay stub, view or print travel documents, pay taxes — basically be a member of society — you need the Internet. And I haven’t even mentioned basic “luxuries” like email, social media, and the wealth of information (and, yes, misinformation) online.

But moving past the basics of providing Internet access to everyone in our community, here are a few other things that happen daily at my library. Many of these are teen-specific, because I’m a teen librarian, but know that libraries are here for everyone of every age, gender, race, religion, and ability.

Kids and teens have a place to be and things to do after school. Our community has a lot of latch key kids — kids whose parents/guardians work during the after-school hours. Many of these kids are also in charge of younger siblings/cousins. The library gives them a place to hang out and unwind, books to read for fun, computers to do their homework or play games on. It has study rooms for those working on group projects. It has a children’s department and a designated teen room where kids and teens can spend time with friends their age and meet new friends.

Youth can develop leadership skills. One of my favorite moments as a teen librarian was watching a few of the teens who come to library programs regularly take ownership of an event. I knew almost nothing about Kendama at the start of April, other than my teens were really into it, and they wanted to have a tournament at the library. Fortunately, the teens helped me a lot with planning this event, coming up with the trick lists themselves, recommending prizes for each division, and even helping to judge the tournament. Not only did those who planned the event benefit; the day of, lots of teens were helping each other learn new tricks between heats, and the parents and grandparents who came to watch got to see what their kids were passionate about.

Students can do schoolwork. I have lost count of how many students of all ages (including scores of adults taking online classes) I’ve helped with everything from finding information for research papers to formatting their paper in Microsoft Word to attaching those papers to emails or uploading them to Blackboard. Could they do this work elsewhere? Maybe. Some may not have the research skills to find the information without a librarian’s help yet. Many do not have Internet access at home, so even if they typed their papers at home, they would need to come to the library to do research and to submit their papers electronically. Some may not have a home computer on which to type their papers.

Teens have a safe place to talk about tough topics. Teen Game Nights at my library always contain fascinating conversations. We’ve had political debates over Apples to Apples, discussions of bullying and LGBTQIAP+ identities, conversations about racism and sexism and mental health. Sometimes teens have questions I can answer, like “Is Russia a democracy?”; sometimes it’s harder, like “How old do you have to be to know if you’re transgender?” or “What do I do if my girlfriend’s parents say she’s too young to date?” Sometimes it’s not my job to have the answers; it’s my job to listen and let the teens know someone cares about them, is interested in the things they’re interested in, and is rooting for them to succeed. I know not all my teens will talk to me about the things that are bothering them, but I’d like to think they all know they can talk to me. Because while many of them have parents or grandparents or older siblings they can talk to, not all of them do.

People get free technology help. This afternoon, three teens came in distraught, looking for their lost dog. They wanted to make a flyer with pictures of the missing pet. They had no idea where to start; I showed them how to make a flyer in Publisher, how to upload pictures of the dog from their phone, and how to print the flyers. Could they have done this elsewhere? Perhaps a copy shop could have helped them, but they would have charged a lot more than ten cents per copy.

People can improve their lives. Whether this means checking out a book on eating healthier, borrowing an exercise DVD, or using one of our community meeting rooms to hold a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, people’s lives change every day at the library.

I could keep going, but this post is already longer than most. If you care about libraries and building strong communities, please ask your representatives to support IMLS. And if you have your own library stories, please share in the comments!