By June 12, 2015 Leave a Commenton
Throughout my library career, I’ve worked with disenfranchised and resourceful people of color (I don’t like the term at-risk), from preschoolers to adults. For a while, I was a children’s librarian and I implemented a bookmobile program serving a local Headstart and preschool centers with multicultural youth. I provided up to four to six storytimes a day. What I didn’t know about storytime and storytelling when I started, I learned by the time I left that job. By then, I was also keenly aware of how few multicultural picture books there were. I contacted Children’s Book Press— an independent publisher based in San Francisco (now owned by the fantastic Lee & Low)—to locate titles that would be relevant to the kids in my community.
Flash forward to today, and I’m teaching a group of max unit kids to read to their babies (or brothers, or sisters, or cousins). It’s mostly an excuse for me to share books with them. I start with one of my favorite books, Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born (HMH, 1991). As I read, these young people—some of whom who are facing 15 or 20 years of incarceration (and, even, an unbelievable 80 years)—were sucking their thumbs and twirling their hair. In a group of six girls, only one said she’d been read to as a child. What a difference it would make to have positive and welcoming reflections of themselves in the books that we shared. Imagine if all industries, including publishing, were accepting and warm toward them. As Frederick Douglass observed, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Last month, I attended the Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California 2015 Institute. The event’s topic was “All Due Respect: A Dialogue about Diversity, Equity, and Creating Safe Spaces for All Youth.” There, I discovered several offerings that would make excellent read-alouds and storytime picks for incarcerated teens, and a few are included below. Check the organization’s Facebook pagefor videos of some of the presentations.
Aya de León’s Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity sold out in about 15 minutes, as attendees saw the value of this book. What fun! This title has photographs of real kids and real families with full heads of buoyant hair and the narrative is set to a Dr. Seussian beat. The back cover features honor society student Vanessa Van Dyke who was bullied, then threatened with expulsion, because of her hair. Vanessa says, “It’s puffy and I like it that way.” Buy this one in multiple copies.
I sat next to Janine Macbeth of Blood Orange Press and she slipped me her 2013 book. I actually burst into tears as I read it. Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! is simply gorgeous, both physically— with illustrations of tempura paintings on craft paper—and emotionally. It’s on a topic that’s rarely addressed: baby boys and their fathers. Blood Orange Press is an independent publisher that believes “children and adults of all ages should have access to stories that recognize and lift up their individual power, dignity, and beauty.” This book does just that. It’s an absolute must-purchase for every library.
Being a good father is what motivated Alton Carter, author of The Boy Who Carried Bricks to write his story. His book tells the hard tale of how he was broken as a boy: his mom had five children by four different men and there’s a blank space on his birth certificate under father’s name. Raised in a violent, dysfunctional family living in desperate poverty, Alton finally ran away and ended up in foster care. He was sent to live on a “farm” where he and the other children were horrifically abused and mistreated.
The In the Margins committee that I sit on has been debating the merits of this book, and the biggest issue we’re currently having is over the cover. Committee member Dale Clark says, “If they can get past the cover, a lot of kids would be able to relate to the horrors of Alton’s life. But that cover has to go. Seriously, it could easily be mistaken as an elementary novel and it is anything but that.” I’ve booktalked it with a blank cover. So far, the feedback I’ve received has been positive. We also contacted the publisher with our opinions about the cover and they were receptive to our feedback for the next edition.
Kevin Craig’s Burn Baby, Burn Baby has a good cover and some great graphics inside, especially the chapter headings— a cool heart with flames. Francis’s face was disfigured when his abusive father set him on fire. Now, he’s being bullied by kids at school and doubts anyone can love him. But, Rachel, the new hot girl at school is totally into him. Can it be true? A short page count, appealing cover, and topics ranging bullying to abuse and a bit of romance make this a compelling choice for every library.
If you don’t know who Freeway Rick Ross is, I’m about to officially increase your cool quotient. Rick Ross is the name of the one-time drug kingpin who goes by the name Freeway Rick Ross (to distinguish himself from the rapper Rick Ross). Ross was involved in the crack cocaine trade in Los Angeles, as well as in other areas of the United States, and made millions. His connections to the Iran-Contra scandal were first revealed in a series of articles published by the San Jose Mercury News. While in prison, he taught himself to read and write, and now teaches economics to kids in the Watts neighborhood of LA, and speaks as a reformed drug dealer and community builder. Despite some uneven and repetitive writing of his Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography, this is a must-have for every urban library for its author, and its intro to the politics of the drug wars. Purchase multiple copies; it’s going to be popular.
Julian Voloj’s Ghetto Brother is an important book, presenting the story of a once-broken child who becomes a whole adult. Part biography, part history, this graphic novel follows the young, Puerto Rican Benjy as he navigates the streets of the South Bronx as gangs form and develop peace treaties, to his marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and the start of the hip-hop movement. Looking back 40 years, Benjy is able to put gangs and gang life into a larger sociopolitical context that many youth can’t. In this narrative, the protagonist learns of secrets about himself and his family that add even more multicultural depth and dimension to his story. Black-and-white photographs of people and places and a foreword by Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Picador; 2005) make this book both timely and relevant. The dark cover and fuzzy black-and-white drawings detract from the overall presentation, but the story is stellar. It’s a must-purchase for every urban and juvenile detention facility library.
Most of the kids I work with start out actively hating to read, primarily due to the dearth of materials that are relevant to their lives. I honestly believe that if there were more diverse books, there would be far less violence in the world. The fact that these books do not exist is in itself a hostile act that perpetuates violence.
Carter, Alton. The Boy Who Carried Bricks. Roadrunner Pr. 2015. Tr $18.95. 179p. ISBN 9781937054342.
Craig, Kevin. Burn Baby, Burn Baby. Curiosity Quills Pr. 2014. pap. $12.99 141p. 9781620076514.
de Leόn, Aya. Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity. CreateSpace. 2013. pap. $15. 23p. 9781494436773
Macbeth, Janine. Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! Blood Orange Pr. 2013. Tr $15.95. 32p. 9780985351403.
Ross, Rick and Cathy Scott. Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography. CreateSpace. 2014. pap. $19.99. 282p. 9781499651539.
Voloj, Julian. Ghetto Brother Warrior to Peacemaker. illus.by Claudia Ahlering. NBM. 2015. pap. $12.99. 127p. 9781561639489.