Libraries and children


cookiemonsterWell, I don’t believe (I can’t believe!) that the Cookie Monster is really a terrorist, but he certainly looks like one for us these days on the cover of the October 1976 Sesame Street magazine. As someone who was actually in Manhattan on 9/11 (in my case, trapped underground on an E train near Times Square for a couple of hours while trying to get to work), this cover looks pretty spooky.

It’s so, well, predictive of what happened 25 years later…  But to put it all in perspective, we should remember that in 1976 a remake of King Kong, in which Kong climbed the new World Trade Center, was out in movie theaters. But that version of Kong has been pretty much forgotten, and now, chomping the WTC has a very different meaning.

This picture can be found in full size on this Flickr page.

We keep hearing about how the U.S. economy is struggling. Those of us in libraries know how, during those times that hurt the majority of us, libraries tend to be particularly hurt. Here’s a story from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune about the fortunes of the County of Los Angeles Public Library (COLAPL). It’s like old-home week for me, because I grew up among the branches of the COLAPL. One of my first jobs as a teenager – way back in the late 60s – was at the Claremont branch of the COLAPL.

The story says:

As it is, Los Angeles County Librarian Margaret Donnellan Todd said, libraries never fully recovered from the mid-1990s, when the state chopped their funding in half by taking local government money to balance its budget.

Increased foreclosure rates and fewer home sales now are pulling down local property- tax revenues, which the county’s library system depends on to pay for about 60 percent of its budget, Todd said.

“For us in the county, it’s all about money. We never have as much of it as we would want to do all the things we want, but that’s always been the history of libraries,” said Todd, who oversees libraries ranging from the tiny Sorensen Library in West Whittier to larger libraries in Duarte, Rosemead and West Covina.There are county libraries in 51 cities and nearly all unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, Todd said, “and we’re always struggling to make sure we have enough money.”

Ah, that takes me back. I worked as a clerk in the West Covina library for a while when I was in college. Yeah, back in 1971 and 1972.

But it makes me sad to see how libraries – institutions that have been around for over a century in so many places in the U.S. – continue to struggle financially. I feel that part of the problem, in the first decade of the 21st century, is how difficult it is for so many librarians to explain exactly what it is that we do. We’re not telling everyone that we do literacy – we celebrate literacy, and we support literacy. Literacy is what we are and what we do, every day.

The term “media literacy” has been around for 20 years or so and I always thought it meant the ability to analyze and evaluate media – TV, radio, the Internet – and understand the messages they deliver to us. For example, does a commercial for the U.S. Army glamorize being a soldier to lure in action-movie-trained boys who are just about to get out of high school? How do car commercials, in any nonprint medium, communicate a feeling of being “master of the road”? How did the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show affect our perception of American history?

But it appears that video games in libraries communicate media literacy as well, if we believe what Jenny Levine and game-boosting librarians tell us. Here’s a worthwhile article from the Chicago Sun-Times’ Neighborhood Star section: “Library adds media literacy, including games, to list of offerings.”

The article, by Angela Caputo, does discuss whether the new Wii system at the Chicago Heights Library, which requires kids and teens to have library cards before they can use it, increases the players’ use of the library, and leaves the question open for discussion:

“We figured if we could get them into the library itself and then get them cards it’s a step in getting them to look for books,” head children’s librarian Norma Rubio said.

As libraries turn to more unconventional materials, such as games, to satisfy patrons, a debate over whether libraries are “dumbing down” their collections has gained steam, the American Library Association’s Jenny Levine said.

Levine, of course, promotes games as a great way to draw young people into the library, and I know that research is going on as we speak to demonstrate whether or not games will lure kids into reading – of any kind – or not. Here at the Austin Public Library, the librarians running game tournaments have set up tables with reading lamps in the darkened rooms in which the tournaments are held, with a pile of young adult books and graphic novels to look at while participants wait for their turns at the game machines, and I’ve heard that at least a few of the kids are taking advantage of them.

But do games really teach any kind of “media literacy”? Not the kind of media literacy I know. Blasting monsters and winning races don’t teach much as far as my way of understanding how the media subtly communicate real-life messages is concerned. Now, the game “Grand Theft Auto” probably communicates a lot as far as a vision of America goes, but I don’t think many libraries are about to use it in their teen tournaments.

Nor, as far as I can see, are librarians doing anything to communicate what what media literacy really is when they present these game programs. I still feel the games are a lure, plain and simple. Some teens (mostly boys who never got the it’s-okay-to-read-if-you’re-male message) want them, so we provide them to get them into the building.

(Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that. But I think we should openly admit that we’re using non-literacy-oriented media to draw kids in who’d never touch a book with the proverbial ten-foot pole.)

And – honestly? I think game tournaments are not a good way to convince kids that reading print is good. We should be booktalking way more – nonfiction booktalking in particular – and doing more poetry and comics programs to do that.

But I can’t wait to be proved wrong.

Lots of children aged 9 and over are told to go home after school, lock the door, and not let anyone in until Mom gets home. Or they’re told to go to the library. Typically their parents simply can’t afford child care, or an emergency situation sends kids to the library as a baby-sitting service for a short period of time.

For a closer look at what happens to parents in New York City, take a look at this New York Times article, “Children Left at Home, Worriedly.” Life in NYC for many lower-income working parents, usually single moms, is truly life on the edge, in which every penny counts. The story says:

“The only option many parents have is to quit the job and get thrown out of their house because they can’t pay the rent, or have your child taken away for lack of supervision,” said Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit child advocacy organization. One reason states may not have laws on the subject, Mr. Wexler suggested, is that “it would bring a hidden problem out in the open, which is all of the parents who leave children home alone not because they want to, but because they have to.”

Although the story doesn’t mention how many parents use the library as a place they believe their children will be safe between the time school lets out and the time they get off work, all of us working in libraries in lots of other cities, and suburbs, and small towns, serving lower-income families know how often those parents do. This story is worth reading because all too often those of us working in libraries don’t get much of a chance to understand the kinds of pressure these parents are under.

Have you visited AdLit.org? It’s part of the WETA Web site family from Washington, DC, Public Television. It’s a great resource on adolescent literacy for teachers, parents, and librarians working with teens.

The AdLit home page as I write features a piece on “Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension.” For young people to be truly literate, they need more than the ability to simply decode the words they see on a page or a screen. They need to know the basics of the things being discussed. On which continent of the world, for example, is Iraq or Bolivia? What’s the difference between a reptile and an amphibian? Which war came first, the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812? More middle and high school students than you think have no clue.

Most important, students can find all these facts through Google, but can they explain them in their own words? An awful lot of students in 2008 subscribe to a copy-and-paste-without-really-reading-anything mentality.

Even though librarians don’t teach young people the knowledge they need to succeed in school, it’s important for library folks to understand how kids and teens learn and what they need to know to become truly literate. The AdLit.org site is a good one to read and keep in your bag of resources – in other words, it helps you build up your background knowledge about how young people learn and what they need to know – and to pass along to parents and others working with middle and high schoolers.

I’ve mentioned them before, but remember WETA’s other two literacy sites: Reading Rockets for pre-readers and beginning readers, and Colorin Colorado to encourage literacy skills in Spanish-speaking families.

Here’s a story about a children’s librarian, Judith Flint, at the Kimball (VT) Public Library, who on June 26 held off five state police detectives who wanted to take the library’s public access PCs. She said, ‘not without a search warrant,’ and the detectives didn’t have one. They backed down – temporarily.

The detectives were investigating the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, and had a lead that she might have used one of the library’s PCs to leave a message on her MySpace page. The girl, it turned out, had been kidnapped and was later found dead. Police arrested her uncle, a convicted sex offender. It’s unclear right now whether the library’s PCs were involved or not.

Because the girl was in jeopardy, was Flint correct in preventing the detectives from taking the PCs? Librarians who are intellectual freedom activists say that she was:

Cybersecurity expert Fred H. Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, said the librarians acted appropriately.

“If you’ve told all your patrons `We won’t hand over your records unless we’re ordered to by a court,’ and then you turn them over voluntarily, you’re liable for anything that goes wrong,” he said.

A new Vermont law that requires libraries to demand court orders in such situations took effect July 1, but it wasn’t in place that June day. The library’s policy was to require one.

The librarians did agree to shut down the computers so no one could tamper with them, which had been a concern to police.

It’s an issue that any of us could face, any day, by surprise, when we’re in the middle of doing something far more mundane. Are we prepared to deal with it?

If, like me, you don’t read a lot of the children’s publishing blogs and newsgroups, you might miss a fascinating New Yorker article by Jill Lepore called “The Lion and the Mouse.” It’s about the almighty Anne Carroll Moore of a bygone era, the original grande dame of children’s librarianship, who from her post “behind the lions” of the New York Public Library’s big main building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, established children’s librarianship, but also, for better or worse, passed judgment on children’s books published during much of the first half of the 20th century.

If you’ve never heard Moore’s story but work with kids in libraries, you should read this piece, because Moore had a big influence on how children’s books were written, illustrated, and promoted, and her influence continues. You can see a lot of the beginnings of children’s literature criticism in the article, too. Here also is the story of E.B. White, his wife Katharine – an early children’s book critic – and his first children’s book, the immortal Stuart Little.

Moore encouraged White to write it, but then ended up offended by the way White had mixed up fantasy and reality. A woman giving birth to an anthropomorphic mouse? Moore asked Harper, its publisher, and White’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, not to release it. “I never was so disappointed in a book in my life,” Moore said.

It’s definitely worth your time. And there was a quote that caught my eye and drew me away for a few moments on a completely different path. Lepore writes:

Children’s literature, at least in the West, is utterly bound up in the medieval, as Seth Lerer, a Stanford literature professor, argues in “Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.” Lots of books for kids are about the Middle Ages (everything from “The Hobbit” to “Robin Hood” and “Redwall”), but the conventions of the genre (allegory, moral fable, romance, and heavy-handed symbolism) are also themselves distinctly premodern. It’s not only that many books we shelve as “children’s literature”—Grimms’ Fairy Tales or “Gulliver’s Travels” or “Huck Finn”—were born as biting political satire, for adults; it’s also that books written for children in the twentieth century tend to be distinctly, willfully, and often delightfully antimodern. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has more in common with “The Pilgrim’s Progress” than it does with “On the Road.”

As I wandered around the publisher’s booths at the ALA Conference, I noticed that so many new books are fantasies – and I mean books for children, teens, and adults. (Have you noticed how many vampire romances appeared in the wake of Anne Rice? The Twilight series brought them to kids and teens, but now it seems as if there are hundreds, for all ages.) And have you noticed how little science fiction is being published and read these days? I feel that there’s something in so many modern middle-class Americans these days that longs for a good king who can command something and everyone must obey, or wizards who can wave wands and make wishes come true, and even vampires who can love us and protect us in this raggedy world. Science fiction reminds us too much of the pervasive technology that seems to be slowly strangling us as it daily transforms the world, and that so many people feel they can’t keep up with.

This is why I keep going on about the importance of libraries supporting literacy and the printed word. No medium develops our imaginations and stretches us the way the printed word can, whether we want to escape to a vampire romance or an article about global warming. But I digress.

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