This series will explore the lessons that I learned about storytime through my own self-education process–through many hours of research, attending conferences, and my favorite method of learning, hands-on experience.
If you are an aspiring children’s librarian, you’re probably very aware that storytime is a pretty big deal in the children’s librarianship world. You’ve probably already noticed that there is an abundance of storytime blogs, and sometimes it feels like every single children’s librarian in the world has their own blog. The sharing culture that exists in the children’s librarianship world is honestly one of my favorite parts of being in this field. I am personally obsessed with Jbrary, I’ve learned almost everything I know about early literacy from Mel’s Desk, and I don’t know how I would have ever implemented a Preschool STEAM program at my library without the graciousness of the folks who run the Library Makers blog, who let me observe one of their esteemed WonderWorks programs at the Madison Public Library when I was in need of some inspiration.
Storytime blogs are amazing, and this is not to discredit any of the wonderful and talented children’s librarians out there who are kind enough to share their storytime plans and ideas–but I’d like to share some lessons that I learned that go beyond the basics, the typical sharing of book, rhyme, song, and craft combinations that you often see.
The first topic I’ll be exploring will center around the question:
How can we move beyond the basics of diversity with our storytime practices?
Recently, there has been a huge market for “diverse” books. From the We Need Diverse Books campaign, to blogs such as Everyday Diversity, diverse books are very “in,” as they should be. But I caution us all to take a deeper look at our practices, and closely examine the ways in which we use diverse books in our programming.
One of our first priorities should be to ensure that the diverse books we’re championing are written and illustrated by the communities they’re representing. We can’t just take these books at face value, as we’ve seen in recent research conducted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2016, the CCBC received 278 books about Africans/African Americans, but only 92 were by Africans/African Americans. 55 books were about American Indians/First Nations, but only 22 were by American Indians/First Nations. Out of the 237 books that were about Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans, 212 were by Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans. 101 books were by Latinx authors, while 166 centered Latinx characters. These statistics can be found on the CCBC blog, and many other publications have written about these findings including The Horn Book and Lee & Low. The bottom line: Authenticity matters even more than representation, and we must do our best to seek out those books that are authentic through and through.
We also need to examine the number of diverse books we’re including in our storytimes. In the article “Decolonise, Not Diversify,” Kavita Bhanot argues that the term “diversity” is for white people, and that it can perpetuate a self-congratulatory attitude in those who make small changes in their practices, without really examining and working to dismantle the real, structural inequities that exist in the publishing world.
The concept of diversity only exists if there is an assumed neutral point from which ‘others’ are ‘diverse.’ Putting aside for now the straight, male, middle-classness of that ‘neutral’ space, its dominant aspect is whiteness. Constructed by a white establishment, the idea of ‘diversity’ is neo-liberal speak. It is the new corporatized version of multiculturalism. It is about management, efficiency, box-ticking.
The work of decolonization is an ongoing process of unlearning and reflecting–we cannot simply introduce one “diverse” book into our storytime rotation and call it a day. We need to continually strive to be better, to keep unlearning and learning, to hold space for and listen to lived experiences outside of our own, and most importantly, commit to the practice of decolonization every single day. It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to make mistakes. But our desire to put our children first should make the fight worth fighting.
I recommend finding a quote that grounds your work, something to meditate on monthly, weekly, or even daily that reminds you why you’re committed to decolonizing your storytime practice. A few years back, I read Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks, and it has informed the way I approach my work with children tremendously. This quote in particular really stuck out to me, and I’ve kept it close ever since my first reading: “teaching in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” Storytime is fun, yes, but it is also a highly educational experience. We must first aim to eliminate any practices or biases that have the potential to harm our kids so that they can truly and thoroughly experience all that storytime has to offer.
Invest in resources such as Oyate’s How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias, Rethinking School’s Rethinking Early Childhood Education, and Debra Van Ausdale & Joe R. Feagin’s The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. Spend some time reading #OwnVoices, #DiversityJedi, and #CripLit. Read the work of kidlit enthusiasts like Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Sarah Park Dahlen, Debbie Reese, and Latinxs in Kid Lit, to name a few. Dedicate some time on your own, or with your team if you’re already working in a library, to answering these Social Justice Guerilla Storytime questions provided by Storytime Underground. Find resources that aren’t necessarily library related such as Raising Race Conscious Children, and conferences such as the Teachers for Social Justice Curriculum Fair that takes place in Chicago every year. Find a meetup or book club for radical children’s librarians/aspiring children’s librarians, or start one of your own! Find what works for you, and keep doing it. All I ask is that you commit to continually challenging yourselves, and your colleagues, and keep the well-being of the children you serve at the center of everything you do.
How are you decolonizing your storytime practice? What are your favorite resources? Please feel free to share in the comments!
Stefanie Molinaro is a first year student pursuing her MLIS through Wayne State University’s distance program, with a focus on library services to children. She has been working in libraries for about two years, and currently works as a youth services assistant librarian at a public library in a northwestern suburb of Chicago. Before discovering her passion for library work, Stefanie studied English Language Arts in undergrad and completed some graduate work in the field of education. Stefanie is interested in the intersections between librarianship and social justice work, and some of her career goals include creating consciousness-raising programming for children and teens, and providing library services to incarcerated youth. When she’s not working or studying, she loves to volunteer in her community, hang out with her cat (the one true love of her life), and ponder ways to dismantle white supremacy. You can find her on Twitter at @stefmolinaro, or on her blog at radstorytime.blogspot.com.