Interview with Lesléa Newman: Sparkle Boy!

I was incredibly lucky to meet and chat with Lesléa Newman at TxLA 2017 (it pays to wander through exhibits when it’s mostly empty and bother the people at the Lee and Low booth). Some of you are super familiar with Lesléa’s name and work, but if you’re not, she has written a ton of amazing kids books about Jewish families and queer families, including the groundbreaking, world-changing, Heather Has Two Mommies.

 

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When I met Lesléa, she not only complimented my shirt, she also offered to do an interview for the blog! Talk about gracious authors. Her new book, Sparkle Boy, came out yesterday, and below is our interview about the book, librarians, and writing books that are mirrors.

 

I got to read Sparkle Boy at the booth AND Lee and Low sent me an e-galley (I love them. Support Lee and Low, you guys). It’s about being a boy who loves to sparkle, and how that’s okay, but it’s also about being a sibling. It would be such a great read-aloud in a classroom to talk about why we think boys and girls have to dress certain ways. I’m adding it to my school library, my home library, and to some classroom shelves. And probably sending it to some lesbian moms I know who are big Lesléa Newman fans. You should also probably pick it up. And display it really prominently in your library.

 

It’s been warmly reviewed by SLJ, Booklist, and PW, in case you need that for your collection development policy, and by Tim Federle and Alex Gino, who know some things about challenging gender roles. Casey is a great friend for Morris Micklewhite, for families looking for a great model on how to respond to their sparkly boys.

 

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Interview:

SU: Your new book, Sparkle Boy, is about to come out/will have come out by the time this interview publishes. I read a copy at TxLA and I’m so excited to share it with kids and parents. Can you talk about what led you to write it? 

 

Lesléa: I wrote the book in honor of all the Sparkle Boys (of all ages!) who make the world a brighter place by being their authentic selves and as well as all the Sparkle Boys who hesitate to be who they are for fear of being teased, bullied or physically harmed. As someone who has the privilege of being a published author, I feel a responsibility to use my voice to make the world a safer place. As a Jew I strongly believe in the notion of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world). I personally know—and adore—many Sparkle Boys, and I hope my book will help create a safe world in which they are free to shine.

 

SU: Why do you think it is important that we share books in storytime that defy stereotypical gender roles?

Lesléa: Emma Lazarus said, “Until all of us are free, none of us are free.” I believe that stereotypes hurt all of us. It’s important for kids to know, respect, appreciate, and celebrate the incredibly diverse, creative spectrum of human beings in all our glory. We need windows (books in which we see people not like ourselves) to open our hearts and minds and we need mirrors (books that reflect ourselves back to us)* so we feel validated and that we belong. SPARKLE BOY is for readers of all gender expressions. I have been surprised that the book has brought many adults to tears because of its message of celebration of someone who does not fit into the mold of gender stereotypes.

 

SU: You must get to meet lots of authors you admire. Is there anyone in particular who gave you butterflies the first time you met?

 

Lesléa: Cher! I met Cher in NYC at a Barnes and Noble store. I waited on line for six hours so that she could sign my copy of her book, THE FIRST TIME.  When I finally reached the front of the line, I knelt down before her and burst into tears, then blubbered about how much she meant to me. She took it all in stride and was very gracious about it.

 

SU: You are Jewish and have some books that are about Jewish characters and history. Can you tell us a little about the state of representation for Jewish characters in children’s literature today?

 

Lesléa: When I was growing up, there were no overt Jewish characters in children’s books. I could not articulate the need for me to see a book that depicted a Jewish child eating matzo ball soup on a Friday night with her bubbe. But that need was there. I remember the first time I encountered a children’s book that I could identify as Jewish. It was called THE CARP IN THE BATH TUB. I was in my late twenties when I came upon it in a bookstore and my eyes filled with tears as I —finally!—saw a family like mine in a children’s book. Today there are so many books from board books to teen novels and everything in between that feature Jewish characters. And this is a wonderful thing.

 

SU: Most of us would like to believe that the world is a more tolerant place than in 1989, when you first published Heather Has Two Mommies. Are your more recent titles being challenged less often and do you think that’s a reflection of any change in our society?

 

Lesléa: Yes, I am happy to say that MOMMY, MAMA, AND ME; DONOVAN’S BIG DAY; DADDY, PAPA, AND ME; and THE BOY WHO CRIED FABULOUS have not encountered the same challenges as HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES and my earlier books for kids that feature LGBT characters. I know that some recent picture books that challenge gender stereotypes such as JACOB’S NEW DRESS have been challenged. Recently I was at the Texas Librarian Association conference to speak about SPARKLE BOY. The librarians were very excited about the book (it made some of them cry!) and couldn’t wait to shelve it in their libraries. Some librarians, especially those who served small, rural communities, told me that they loved the book but they could never place it in their library. So yes, some things have changed, but unfortunately, some things haven’t changed. Which means we all have to work harder.

 

SU: How have librarians helped, or hindered, getting your books into families hands? Do you think that librarians have a role to play in nurturing empathy and tolerance in our communities?

 

Lesléa: Librarians are my (s)heroes! When I was growing up, the librarian at my high school was my BFF. She was always giving me books to read, and providing me with a safe haven in which to read, write, and daydream. Research librarians have helped me tremendously with much of my work, including the short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk” and the middle-grade novel, HACHIKO WAITS. Many librarians have gone to bat for my books, defending them against people in their community who say that children’s books featuring families with LGBT members have no place in the library. Every librarian I have ever met has believed passionately in freedom of expression and has been willing to take great risk to defend it. Libraries serve everyone and it is a place that needs to be open and comfortable for all. And librarians have the responsibility in ensuring that this is true. I admire them more than words can say.

*Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors quote by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop

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Storytime for Social Justice: Ethnocentrism

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We hope you’ve been thinking about our new Social Justice-themed Guerrilla Storytime questions. If there have been some concepts in the questions that tripped you up, you’re not the only one. No worries, friends. We’re here to help discuss the topics and provide some introductions.

 

First up, one of my personal favorite questions: How do you counter ethnocentrism in storytimes?

 

Let’s define ethnocentrism first. It means, “evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.” When we make judgments about a person from a different cultural background, it often has to do with our own narrow perspective and experiences. We can easily decide that our customs and behaviors are right or normal and any others are strange or wrong, but doing this is a form of disrespect and marginalizing and we have to push past that impulse to embrace and understand those who are different from us.

 

This is a lot harder than it sounds. Uncovering those cultural biases requires us to doubt ourselves, to research different viewpoints and cultures, and to accept self-criticism as part of our routine. It means that you have to be able to say you were wrong, or that you’re not the only one who is right.

 

In storytime, ethnocentrism can appear in lots of ways.

 

We might be telling ourselves that we can’t read books featuring vocabulary in different languages because our crowd just won’t “get it.” This idea that foreign languages are harder to understand or have less value is completely relative to your own cultural background and it’s really a judgment that underestimates both your skills as a presenter and your crowd’s ability to understand and show tolerance. If you think you get strange looks when you sing one song in Spanish, just think of how many looks native Spanish-speakers must get in their day to day lives.

 

We might be singing songs that mostly feature eurocentric language like lords and ladies, porridge, kings and knights, horses, etc. (MGOTL can place you on this path very easily, so be aware.) When it comes to adding songs with more neutral language or maybe even more diverse cultural references like yams, tigers, gourds, cranes, are you presenting them with just as much enthusiasm? Are you working for equity by balancing your activities and going the extra mile to make your crowd embrace them?

 

We might be choosing books that cast characters of diverse backgrounds as “other.” Take a look at your selections. Is there a white character who must overcome her own cultural biases, making her a hero? Are immigrants receiving unspecific labels like, “Latin American?” Are there stereotypes in the illustrations? Are all the cab drivers Middle Eastern or South Asian in appearance?

 

The idea, simply, is that we don’t want people from diverse backgrounds to feel like they are “other” in libraries. We must continue to work towards representation for all and, more deeply, the right kind of representation–the kind that isn’t just wheeled out for Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year, but included in every session and reflected in our own attitudes and leadership.

 

We recommend looking at some of the things you do every week in storytime and asking yourself some of the questions we listed above. Maybe think about replacing one thing with an activity that reflects another culture, just to dip your toes. It can be as simple as making a flannel set to go with The Wheels on the Bus that shows real pictures of children in different countries riding buses. It could be that you replace one of your lap bounces about ladies and gentlemen with a more neutral one about a child on a horse.

 

Let us know how it goes and add your own ideas for countering ethnocentrism in the comments.

 

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Storytime for Social Justice: Program Development Policy

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Are you ready to introduce themes of diversity and social justice in your programs but worried about pushback from patrons? Do you know that your patrons are hungry for these programs but you need to prepare yourself or your staff for tough conversations? Are you ready to agitate for change within your library system?

 

If your answer is yes to any of these, I have an idea for you.

 

See, most of us already have a system for dealing with patron complaints and challenges in regards to materials they find controversial or unacceptable and it’s one that can be easily adapted to help protect our programs and the staff leading them. It’s this thing called a Collection Development Policy and they’ve been lifesavers for decades in communities where materials face challenges.

 

For many of us, managing a collection and creating programs follow the same principles. You take a look at what your community already loves and can’t do without, you take into account demographics that may be harder to see and require extra work to reach, and you add in topics that can help your patrons broaden their horizons and experience the unexpected.

 

So if we have collection development policies that help defend our choices in materials, isn’t it time that we introduce a written policy defending our choices in programming?

 

Having a written policy–a Program Development Policy, if you will–would accomplish so much in protecting staff and programs from pushback. It would, ideally, state the following things:

 

  • All patrons are equally valued by the library and no one’s viewpoint carries more weight than another’s.
  • Programs are developed to reflect the full range of diversity in the community, providing information, recreation, and support.
  • Parents and caregivers are primarily responsible for selecting appropriate programs for their children.
  • Describe the process for challenging a program.

 

With staff input in creating the policy and training in how to present it to patrons, a written policy would provide much needed confidence and reinforcement for staff who could use talking points to use with patrons. It’s also a more official and final-feeling statement to present to patrons who may complain and, much like challenges to library materials, you can create a system for handling those complaints that helps to weed them out.

 

Supervisors, I hope that you consider having this discussion and a brainstorming session with your team. To staff members, maybe consider bringing up this idea if you think your supervisor may be supportive.
Does your library system already have a policy to protect programming choices? If so, send it to us and we’ll create a round-up to help libraries write their own. Storytimeunderground at gmail dot com.

 

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Virtual Guerrilla Storytime- January 2017

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Back in January, the joint chiefs hosted a virtual Guerrilla Storytime via Facebook and Twitter. During the event, we introduced our new social justice-focused questions, which you can find here.

 

Below are a few teaser questions, but please do read through all of the thoughtful responses by clicking here.

 

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  1. What is your favorite storytime book featuring a main character of color?

 

 

  • The Snowy Day
  • I Got the Rhythm
  • One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree
  • Lola At the Library
  • Lottie Paris and the Best Place
  • Ada Twist, Scientist
  • I Love My Hair
  • Whose Toes Are Those?
  • All Different Now
  • Big Snow
  • Show Way
  • Big Red Lollipop
  • I Like Myself
  • My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood
  • Dim Sum for Everyone
  • Princess Hair
  • How to Find a Fox
  • Super Hair-O and the Barber of Doom
  • Jazz Baby
  • Peekaboo Morning
  • Bee Bim Bop
  • Last Stop on Market Street
  • Looking for Bongo
  • Love Is a Truck
  • Thunderboy, Jr.
  • Say Hello
  • A Chair For My Mother
  • Pumpkin Eye
  • Every Little Thing
  • The Bus For Us
  • Lenny in the Garden
  • When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat

 

  1. How would you accommodate a family in the disability community in your regular storytime?

 

  • Wearing a mic for families with a hearing impairment
  • Having rhymes and modifications for children in wheelchairs (upper body movements).
  • Let everyone know they can step out for a break.
  • Offer noise-cancelling headphones and warn of extra loud noises.
  • Including a variety of activities–things to touch, different volumes, options for seating.
  • Ask families about accommodations or welcome feedback to make them more comfortable.

 

  1. How do you address diversity in your welcome message?

 

  • “Today we’re celebrating all the different ways young children learn. We’re going to be singing and playing, laughing and talking, and, of course, reading together. Since our storytime reflects our community, that means we also have some songs to learn in different languages. Sometimes our little listeners like one activity more than another or maybe they find an activity overstimulating and upsetting. Please stay close to your child during storytime so you can respond if they become upset. I do have some fidget toys that you can take for your child to hold and there’s lots of diversions in the children’s area if you need to take a break.”
  • I make a note for accommodations. “Miss Julie will be jumping and clapping today, but please modifying if you need to.” Then I give examples based on what I may be doing. “You can lift arms instead of jumping, say ‘clap’ instead of clapping!”
  • I welcome everyone at the door as they come in and then as a big group by saying “Welcome, friends!” And then we go into calendar time and talk about all the different holidays we have that month. And I say “Do we have any friends that celebrate any of these holidays?” And then I’ll say, “But it’s okay if we don’t celebrate any of these holidays too. We might have friends that don’t.”
  • We add hello and goodbye in each language represented in the room. It’s very quick and very sweet, especially when the children start to do it rather than the grown-up.

 

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Social Justice Meets Guerrilla Storytime

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Did you know that we have new questions for Guerrilla Storytime that relate to social justice in our practices? No? Stop everything you’re doing and take a look at them right now. Click here for a list of the questions in a straight text format.

 

Love them? Want to stand on a rooftop and shout about them? Us, too! If you were checked into Facebook or Twitter with us back in January, you may have noticed that we had a virtual Guerrilla Storytime featuring these new questions. The answers were beautiful and inspiring and we’ll have a round-up up on the blog soon.

 

We wanted to re-introduce the questions today, though, because we have a lot of hopes for them. Hopes like the following:

 

  • Our peers could explore any unfamiliar terms and topics brought up by these questions and become more knowledgeable on the issues.
  • Individuals might have informal conversations with their co-workers and raise awareness for these topics.
  • Supervisors can take the initiative to use these questions in their own guerrilla training.
  • They might make an appearance at more public Guerrilla Storytimes, like the ones at conferences, and raise the profile of public libraries as places for critical analysis and perspectives.

 

And maybe we’re shooting for the stars a little, but we’re so pleased that one library system has already taken up the challenge. Back in January, Enoch Pratt Free Library incorporated these questions into a Guerrilla Storytime training for internal staff. It challenged the team to come together and talk about the issues, sharing thoughts and concerns and working out how to address them.

 

EPFL mixed these new social justice questions with those from our original kit using images on a powerpoint. The mixture helped to keep the conversation moving and fun and to help develop answers to these deeper questions, they sent the list to staff ahead of time for reflection.

 

Follow this link to read the notes from EPFL.

 

As you review the notes for their meeting, we invite you to think about how you may be able to discuss these topics with your own teammates and staff and we hope that you’ll feel free to incorporate these questions into your next meeting. If you’re interested in making your own powerpoint with the images from our January virtual Guerrilla Storytime, here is a link to our file.

 

 

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