Friday, December 12, 2014


He comes in swinging his arms crazily. He throws his coat on the floor. No backpack, so a notice for parents, a fund raiser form, a page of homework join his coat. They float around the hood and arms like snowy fallen leaves. His eyelashes are so long and thick and curly. He is mesmerizing to look at. Dark skin, silky curling hair close to his little head. He is eight.

He's off. Really off today. He avoids sustained eye contact and discussion. He bugs the other kids. Calls them names under his breath, sits too close when they play video games, shouts insults when they lose a player or miss a point. They are annoyed. He's on their last nerve. I call him over to me. I ask him what's going on. Nothing. Nothing. That kid called me a name. He said I'm HOMELESS!

To my shame, I respond, "Well-- ARE you?" He says, quickly, NO! So I respond, "Well-- then who cares what he says? You know what's true. Ignore him." Oh, stupid, stupid adults. As if IGNORE ever works, is even possible. As if  being called homeless by another kid is just any insult-- as if it's random or baseless.

He's even more agitated. I'm annoyed-- busy. Freshly back, emails demanding important answers and reports and statistics are weighing on me. He seems babyish to me, spoiled, demanding attention. It's because he's so beautiful, I think. He's used to women fawning over him, being easy and indulgent. I need to make him take responsibility for his actions, hold him accountable.

He's yelling again, and this time the other kids are starting to threaten him. I call him over. He immediately starts to cry. I can't stop admiring his beauty. It's ridiculous. But truly, this child is so incredibly lovely. He is crying, tears coming fast. I hunch down to him. HE SAID I'M HOMELESS! He shouts in my face. HE SAID I'M HOMELESS! I straighten up. I ask him for his Mom's phone number. "This has gone on long enough," I say. "Enough. You need to get a hold of yourself. Come on. This isn't how we behave. Not in the library. Not here." His shoulders start to heave. I remember his last name and find his number. I call Mom. I tell her he's having a bad day. It's just a bad day for him. He's usually wonderful. But today he needs to go home and calm down. Mom thanks me for calling and says somebody will come to get him.

He is LIVID. HE has to LEAVE?? THAT KID CALLED ME HOMELESS! I DIDN'T DO NOTHING!!!! I sharpen my voice, threaten him, say, "if you don't come over by the window and sit with me right now, and wait for your Mom with me, I'll have to tell her you can't come back for a couple of days. Come on, pal. Come with me. I want you to come back tomorrow when you are having a good day. You know I love you. Come on."

He flounces over to the window, tears, anger taking him over. He's almost beyond the point of control now. We sit in the window seat. I try to calm him down. "You'll come back tomorrow, bud. It's going to be okay." And that's when he tells me that they have been kicked out of their home. That dad assaulted somebody.

An adult collects him, calls me Ma'am, thanks me profusely. I'm profoundly embarrassed. I'm not Ma'am. I don't deserve thanks. But I don't say that-- I say, "Thank you so much for coming to get him. He'll have a better day tomorrow."

And then tomorrow comes and he's the first in the library. Alone, coat on the floor, papers strewn across the carpet, he says somebody called CYF and they have to go to the shelter. He is quieter, chewing his collar. He won't play the game of dreidel I play with 6 other kids. He stays on his computer, or hangs around a little girl, another agent provocateur, they like each other. He's not shouting today, his arms aren't swinging. But he's devolving just the same. He baby talks. He can't find words to respond. He's furious that I won't be at work tomorrow. Do you have a doctor's appointment? he asks. "No," I tell him. Then WHY? I explain when I work Fridays I don't work Saturdays, and the opposite. He is not absorbing that. WHY? he wants to know. WHY?

The evening wears on. Finally, we are closed and he's still here. I make another call to Mom, and this time she answers. She tells him to walk somewhere. It's dark and cold. I make him zip up his coat. I pull his hat over his ears. Pulling the hat down is the only thing I have truly done to help him in the last two days. And he's gone. Out the door, while the Pittsburgh skyline blazes red and pink and sugar orange. I lock the doors and look for him, but he's melted into the night, with his coat zipped, and his hat pulled down tight, and all of his school papers leaving a trail behind him like glowing pebbles on a forest floor.

Note: identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of the child.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In honor of Malala-- Nobel Prize Laureate


Malala Yousafzai, the world's youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is possibly one of the most inspiring, strongest women in the world. She faced down the Taliban, weathered a bullet to the head, came back and recovered-- and then told them, "I am stronger than fear." She's not even 20.

As a person who recently had a relatively minor brain surgery-- no Taliban bullets here!-- I can nevertheless tell you that surgery on the head is no joke. She was brave before they shot her. She was brave during her recovery. And she's brave now. In her honor, here are a few quick book recommendations about strong girls in adverse situations. Both of them are written in prose poetry, and both celebrate courage, determination, and love.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.
Amira is a Muslim girl who lives happily with her family in the Darfur region of Southern Sudan. Their family has a deep connection and love for the land they farm and the animals they tend. Amira is very close to Dando-- her father-- and Muma--her mother. When her baby sister Halima is born crippled, Amira takes it upon herself to watch over and guide her. The two sisters are great friends.
Then the Janjaweed, government forces in the civil war in Sudan, descend on the village, burning and murdering. Dando is killed in front of Amira's eyes. Muma and her daughters flee on foot to a Displaced Person's camp, where they try to exist in their deep grief and shock. Amira loses the ability to speak, until a visiting teacher gives her a red pencil. Amira draws her father, her goats, her village, and the English letters she learns, one by one. As she gives form to the trauma and loss she has experienced, her voice returns, and Amira decides she must go to school. For her sake-- and for Halima's.
This book is exquisitely written in short prose poems. It is illustrated throughout in Amira's drawings, done by illustrator Shane Evans. This is a quick, affecting read that will leave you with wonderful visions of African moons, multicolor toobs (pronounce TOE-B), the Muslim attire the women wear, and possibilities within hardship. It is studded with beautiful Arabic terms and includes a glossary and pronunciation guide.
The other book I recommend is Serafina's Promise by Ann Burg.
  Serafina works alongside her mother on their family farm in Haiti. She travels far for heavy buckets of water to feed their struggling hillside crops, and helps to care for the family. Serafina's mother lost a child-- Serafina's baby brother-- who died of starvation soon after his birth. Serafina vows to work hard enough to help the new baby her mother is expecting survive, but her secret hope is to become a doctor. She wants to be able to heal children who suffer and who are sick, so that no child has to experience what her baby brother Pierre endured. There was a beautiful Haitian woman doctor who tried to save Pierre, who deeply impressed Serafina. More than anything, she wants to go to school.
But school is not free in Haiti, and tuition and school uniforms are beyond her family's reach. When the earthquake destroys their farm, Serafina struggles to find the doctor she admires so much to save her mother and the new baby. This book, again, written in short prose poems, spangled with Haitian Creole, shimmers with beauty. The characters' love and devotion to each other, Serafina's courage and determination, and ultimate triumph are super rewarding to read.


Friday, December 5, 2014

How I Breathe

Breathe them in
each brown cheek
each braid, each small twist with bright ballies on the ends
each long-lashed big brown eye.
Breathe them in.

Let them find their way from your eyes, your nose
your mind
down your nervous system
down your blood stream
pump through your heart
into your tiny cells. Magically, they live there now.
They are yours.

Breathe. Breathe them in.

Breathe their questions and their answers
Breathe their coats, thrown on the library floor.
Breathe the way I feel when they play video games I wish they wouldn't
Axes and guns and knives pooling blood on the screen
Breathe in my questions, my discomfort.

Shout their names when they arrive
Bug them mercilessly
attack if they don't greet me back
hug them too much, smoosh them, spin them all around.
Dizzy, discombobulated, grinning, they mutter,
"Hi, Ms. S."

Watch them. Watch them build. Watch how the figure it out.
Admire the way, missing marbles, they use mini-Legos on the toy
making something new out of what was broken.
Watch how they answer back, smartly
refusing to take shit. Or how they retreat, quietly,
building an inner world, a safe place, nurturing hurt.

Fuss at them. "We don't say the "N" word. EVER."
"We don't use the "B" word. EVER."
"What do you mean you don't have homework?"
"Let's do your homework."
"Go get your movies at home and bring them back. Right now."
"Zip up that coat!"
"I know you did not just say that to him. Say you're sorry. Right now."

Breathe. All that beauty. Glory in it.
Thank God for His creation. These. These ones.
Know you can't protect them. Breathe.
Breathe in. Let it out. You can't fix it. You can't.
But for right now--. For right now.
You can-breathe them in.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

Burning Pittsburgh's Libraries to the Ground

Since time immemorial, libraries have been among the first thing torched when a conquering enemy invaded. In 1358 B.C.E., the libraries of Thebes were destroyed. The Persians burned Egyptian libraries in 525. In 213, the new ruler of China ordered the destruction of all writings. The Patron Saint of Libraries himself, Jerome's library was burned in 416 in Bethlehem. Pope Gregory I burned all the books of ancient Rome in 590. Talmuds to the flames in Paris in 1244, followed by the death of every Jewish book there in 1309. Our own Library of Congress burned to the ground in 1814, fired by the British.

 In every century, a library is burned or murdered by destroyers of whole worlds and generations-- in the hope of replacing past narratives of strength and individual culture with the preferred one-- or who knows-- perhaps mostly out of simple malice. In our own time, The Sarajevo Library was burned by the Serbs in 1992. Almost all Iraqi libraries were destroyed in 2003 in the American invasion.

Sounds terrible and makes you shake your head-- oh, the terrible excesses of war. But if we "stay woke," as the activists in Ferguson implore us all to do as they continue their fight for justice, we see that the destruction of libraries is not a thing that belongs to the past. Instead, we must see-- we must be "woke" enough to see-- that libraries have been quietly being burned to the ground without much notice and, sadly, with most of our complicit inaction-- in our city, the city of Andrew Carnegie, the great builder of libraries himself.

If you live in East Hills in Pittsburgh, you don't have a public library you can walk to. If you live in Manchester, you don't have a public library you can walk to. If you live in some neighborhoods where it is dangerous to walk outside of your door, and if you are a child, you can't walk to a neighborhood public library-- even if it is a few blocks away--because you may be in danger of being hit by stray bullets. There are no book stores in those neighborhoods. Poverty is highly concentrated there, and in many other neighborhoods in our city that also don't have easy access to books. This has generally been true, and for a long time, and not just for Pittsburghers. Poor folks have less access to everything. However, public education, the great equalizer, used to provide libraries to students.

Think about that. Kids without resources had the opportunity to meet with a credentialed, highly skilled professional librarian once a week at school to hear the best literature told in the most engaging ways, and then to freely peruse bookshelves, inhaling the scent of thousands of books from which to choose. They had a warm personality to help guide them to a book that was "just right" for them- and to exchange books at least weekly, possibly more. They chose a book, took it home in their backpack, enjoyed it with their family for a week, then got a new one-- free. And safe. The great equalizer was the school library and the school librarian. 

In Pittsburgh, for a reason I do not claim to know, school libraries have been decimated as surely as the libraries in Thebes. If that sounds like hyperbole, ask yourself: if a library at school is unstaffed or locked to middle school students, does it exist for those students?

At one time, we had a Library Services Department that was an example for other cities, with high standards and highly regarded leaders. The Library Services Department advocated for librarians and libraries, set standards based on the best of professional practice and demanded librarians live up to them, among many other things. Long ago, the Library Services Department was eliminated and book budgets dried up. A group of the most highly credentialed professionals in a building, working to serve hundreds of disparate staff and students, will have many needs and concerns that only a highly skilled and credentialed member of their own profession is qualified to understand and address. Yet that entire department has burned-- scattered to the wind.

And as for the death of book budgets across the district-- You simply can not run a library without a book budget. It is not possible to meet the needs of your school with no new books. As curricula and the student body change, collections change-- since library collections MUST reflect the population they serve. What will you offer your struggling reader with a vision problem, who needs a beginning chapter book in large print? How will you romance your recalcitrant middle schooler, who "hates books" and only wants to read about WWE heroes, if you don't have anything she is interested in? Without an up-to-date collection, you prove to children that libraries and books are irrelevant to them.

But these things are not as bad as the death of librarians in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Trying to create equity by giving each school a librarian one day a week is a failed model. Librarians succeed when they are deeply entrenched in the culture of their school. When a librarian knows every child's name, the projects teachers do each year, the curricula being taught, the foci of the school, she can build a collection to fit each of those things. Each one. Each child-each teacher-each project. I know. I did it. It was marvelous. One year, in which we received extra library funding to build the collection,  I was able to raise my school library circulation 600%.

But in Pittsburgh, that kind of success is simply not currently possible, because the position of School Librarian has been burned to the ground by the invading forces of Gates, Pearson, Broad et al. And we-- with a few notable exceptions-- have let them. Jessie Ramey, along with Kathleen Newman and Pamela Harbin has been a metaphorical Boudica and her daughters in a chariot for school libraries and public education. They aren't alone. Heroes like Wallace Sapp, Brenda Simpson, Kipp Dawson and so many others have raised their swords skyward and fought real battles for libraries in schools. As we put away our joy at having elected a new Governor for our state, one who promises to be a friend to public education, and get to the work of helping him define what that means, let us not forget the lessons of history: enemies burn libraries to the ground for a reason. And we who cherish and work to instill critical thinking, imagination, love and respect for "other," and basic humanity into our children and our students have reason to fight back.

Libraries Tell Our Story

Librarians, Libraries, Serendipity And Passion

Source: Book on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries throughout History, Lucien X. Polastron.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith-- Oh, Lord! What a book!

 “I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history. We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future. But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber sh*t. This is my history. There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza and cruelty. Just like it’s always been.”

So opens possibly the craziest narrative you may have read to date, Andrew Smith’s “Grasshopper Jungle” (Dutton Books, $18.99, ages 16-18.) There truly is no better way to discuss this book than to get out of the character’s way and unleash his voice. Smith brings together the styles of Francesca Lia Block, Lewis Nordan and what can only be his own twisted soul in this story of science, evil geniuses, man-eating bugs and eternal libidinousness.

Austin Szerba is the tenth-grade historian of Ealing, Iowa. Austin records his life, the lives of his neighbors and town in tall stacks of journals. His best friend Robby Brees is a funny, handsome gay classmate. And that is part of the story that Austin fills his journal up with: if Austin loves Robby and is attracted to him, does that mean he is gay? Even though Shann, his girlfriend since seventh grade, drives him to extremes of lustful fantasy at every second?

Working in an antique shop called From Attic to Seller makes sense for a budding historian. One night, he and Robby decide to investigate the back room. It is not a good idea. A baby with two heads waves vaguely in a globe. Glow-in-the dark pulsating goo lights the dark. Most horrifically, in a large glass case, labeled “McKeon Industries 1969-Unstoppable Soldier-Strand 4-VG-12” float grasshoppers “as big as middle-school kids.” At the same time Robby and Austin stand slack-jawed and horrified in front of these things, a group of neighborhood bullies break in to steal things in the store. They smash one of the globes in the parking lot. And that is REALLY not a good idea.

Repeating phrases like “It was not a good idea,” “real dynamo,” “And that was our day. You know what I mean,” become a lexicon of double-entendre in this hilarious, lewd, beautifully written book. The narrative voice is so authentically a 16-year old boy’s that obsessions with sex, swearing, excrement and body parts in one’s nether regions feel natural. Like so many great books, it is studded with sentences that need to be said out loud over and over, if you can say them with a straight face. A dark, dark humor lights this book up like the gelatinous goo in a dark room. Consider this passage:

“Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, and history does prove to us that wherever boys ride bicycles, paved roadways ribbon along afterward like intestinal tapeworms. So the mall went up--built like a row of happy lower teeth--grinned for a while, and then about a year ago some of the shops there began shutting down, blackening out like cavities when people left our town for other, better places.”

Passages like this build a world we might recognize, or if not, that we understand. Smith writes with a poetry that celebrates and clarifies how a teenager might see a crumbling town filled with crumbling people.

But routine crumbling has not yet begun. When the smashed globe unleashes Unstoppable Soldiers—that is, bullet-proof six-foot tall grasshoppers, voraciously hungry and profoundly ready to reproduce—they begin noshing on townspeople. That’s when Robby, Shann and Austin find Eden, a generously appointed time capsule from the 1960’s. Created by the evil genius responsible for the mysteries of the back room of Attic to Cellar, it is meant to house New Humans after an apocalypse.

What an interesting situation for a teenage historian! What a complexity of past, present and future! Austin’s mind is a stew of Polish history, his family’s lineage, his dog Ingrid, his lust and love for both his best friend and his girlfriend, cigarettes, prehistoric paintings, Saint Kazimierz, and his mother’s tranquilizers. As chaos grips Ealing, Iowa, Robby, Shann and Austin must build their own history, their own definitions of themselves, and a future previously unimagined. Austin ends his narrative having learned a profound truth about the nature of historians and history itself.

For brave-hearted souls undisturbed by mature themes, this book is highly recommended.


Monday, January 6, 2014

To Approach a Child

Hee hee!! Absolute glee! Success!!

A shy little boy came in today, one whom I have never seen. His Mom told him to go find a book. Then she went to the adult side, leaving him standing there, swaying a little.

Rule 1--Do not approach. Watch but don't seem to approach.Big, overly helpful, smiling white lady in the face is not necessarily the help one might think it would be. It's overwhelming.

The little boy wandered around, emboldened by being alone. He walked over to the books and walked up and down a stack or two. Overwhelmed, he retreated to the Lego table. Not interesting. To the train table. Meh. He's standing in the middle of the room. Now's the time.

Rule 2-- When the kid is ready, approach slowly-- as if approaching a wild deer. Really.

I wandered over to him, not too close. From a distance, I said, quietly, "Hey, bud. Need some help finding something?" He shook his head no. Too much, too soon. Ok. Retreat a little. Stay near-ish. Look at something else. After a minute, the little boy said, "Do you have a book on dragons?" I told him we did, and started to look. Nothing! How did we have no books on dragons??

I told the kid we had chapter books, but really no picture books on dragons. He said, "No. I mean, about real ones." I said, "You mean, like lizards? There are no real dragons." (Hating myself now. Blighter of hopes and dreams!! Monster! Murderer of belief!!) He shook his head. I had struck out. Dang.

I went straight to my book jobber, convinced that the next kid to ask me for a book on dragons would find one in our collection. Found a good one. Checked the OPAC (online public access catalog) to make sure it was a good fit for us-- and found my library owned it. Whooo-hoo!!

Went to my own shelves. Found 6 books on dragons-- Dragonology, myths about dragons, a look at cultural understandings of dragons--bonanza! Have to get better at using our circulation system.

The little boy is on the floor looking at movies. I approach him slowly and say, "Hey. Guess what? I was wrong. We have books on dragons." I put them on the floor by him and leave.

Too much interaction will spook him. Back to my desk.

The kid picks up all the books, comes to the table nearest me and POURS over them. He's devouring them as if he's a dragon himself. Inside, I'm dancing the Chinese Lion Dance. It's a Mardi Gras over here. I'm snickering and jumping up and down-- while straight-facedly, quietly looking at my work calendar. HUZZAH!! Found a little boy a BOOK HE LOVES!!!!! Remember the Charo dance from Love Boat? Sure you do! Front- and back--and a belly and a belly and a belly and a belly!! (But it's all on the inside. Big crazed dancing white lady won't go over any better than big regular white lady.)

Mom comes over the check on him. He goes to Linden. He is studying Chinese. I tell Mom I bet he's heard of dragons from his Chinese teacher--it's almost Chinese New Year, after all.

Rule 3- wait. I'm waiting. If he shows any signs of wanting interaction, I'm on it. We'll build a paper dragon together. We'll talk about dragons stories. I'll ask him to tell me what he knows about dragons.

Kids can be like a bush deer-- shy, quiet and wanting to be alone. That's okay. Some kids are a one-woman band-- they need an audience, a person to talk to, laugh with, bug, destroy. That's me too lots of times. I like them all.

The little boy walked out with him Mom, book under one arm. I braved it. I yelled after him, "'Bye, sugar!" He turned around and looked at me for a minute. Then he raised his hand, and said, "Thank you."

Notes from the Hill

It turns out being a public librarian is pretty awesome. And I was right-- I don't have to be an outlaw. I'm pretty much an in-law now-- just part of a network of people doing what they love to do in service to other people.

The Hill is full of citizen champions, to use the term Vanessa German coined. There's the man who brings in the 5-year old to hang out with. They do puzzles, read books, make crafts, play games on the computer. On Friday, this gentleman brought in this little boy who he is mentoring. The little boy asked if I would bring out the keyboard donated by Dr. Jennifer Olbum. I did. He messed around on it with his adult friend, then asked me if I had any drums. He plays the drums. He wanted a beat. I showed him the metronome key on the keyboard. He turned it on, sat and listened to it for awhile. When I asked him what he was going to do, he said, "Shhh! I have to hear the beat!" I shushed. He listened. Then he suddenly put both hands on the keys, Phantom of the Opera style, threw back his tiny head, closed his eyes and sang, "JEEE----SUS!!!"

That kid is awesome. He's one of about twenty I see all the time. He makes me happy.

Then there's the little girl who comes in everyday after school. She is a vortex of papers, coats, gloves, backpack stuff, hot Cheetos and Cheeto-red fingers, which are everywhere. She is blunt, loud and real. The other day, the security guard, who loves kids, asked her how her school day had been. She regarded him, sitting at the table where eating is allowed, crunching chips. She said, "Bad." The security guard asked her, "Why? Do you pay attention?" Immediately she said, "YES!" A minute passed. Then she said, quieter, "" Haha!!

 She sheds her homework like a molting bird. I find it fifteen times everyday in different parts of the Children's Room. I hand it back to her and say, "Come on. Finish it." She asks for help, which I often give. I find it later under the Legos, or in the dollhouse, or under a stack of paintings she did, or among the trash.

Once she had such an attitude that I sent her home. I didn't see her for many days afterward. When she finally reappeared, she said, "I was so mad at you. My grandma whopped me. So did my mom." I told her I understood she had been mad, and that I'm glad she could tell me that. I told her I wasn't sorry for calling her Mom. I told her I knew she was capable of good library behavior. She looked at me, then asked if she could help clean up the Kuumba art center. Without morphing suddenly into an angel, this kid is now my self-imposed champion and helper. Sometimes, you get lucky. What you see is what you get with this little girl. I love her for that. She is special to my heart. She teaches me how to be a better woman every time I see her-- because she is unapologetically herself.

In a neighborhood where 49% of the population lives below the poverty line, at Christmas we were showered with candy, presents, cupcakes, cards and love. My sister works with impoverished families, and she says the poor are always the most generous. I don't know if that is true, but I'm seeing a culture here that I admire. Mothers and grandmothers hold kids accountable. People spend hours and hours looking for jobs-- hours that turn into days and weeks. They don't quit. Moms who bring their children to the library before working all night because they love and trust the library. Moms and grandmothers who do art alongside their children for the sheer fun of it, with their phones off and in their purses. Fathers and grandfathers and great-uncles who lovingly kiss and hug and hold their babies and read to them, sprawled out in an armchair.

Whatever the predominate culture thinks about the Hill, I am glad to see this side of it. It is a privilege to learn alongside these people.