Jillian Woychowski is the Library Media Specialist at West Haven High School and a member of the ALA Interdivisional Committee for School and Public Library Cooperation. Kymberlee Powe is the Head of Children’s and Teen Library Services at the West Haven Public Library
I am very lucky as a school librarian to work so well with my public librarians. Our city’s children’s and teen services librarian has held card drives and visits me on a regular basis. We’ve coordinated getting materials for each other and worked together on summer reading. We also share the experience of serving on our state book award committee. I served on the high school level 2018 Nutmeg committee and Kym just wrapped serving on the middle grades committee for 2020 (see nutmegaward.org). Being on the committee for a state book is a serious time commitment, requiring reading 75-150 books and monthly meetings to discuss them. For both of us, making sure our students were represented in the eventual nominees was very important.
Kym comes to West Haven High School once a week to hold a book club with students in our Program for Accelerated Credit-recovery in Education (PACE) program. Students in PACE “have had difficulty succeeding in the regular setting. The program offers credit recovery and and intensive support system so that these students can learn the appropriate skills and behaviors needed to be successful in school and beyond. The program takes a unique outside-the-box approach to teaching and learning in order to re-engage students in their own education, with a focus on college and career readiness” (Program of Studies, whhs.whschools.org). Students receive 90 minutes each of language arts and mathematics a day, along with contemporary issues and environmental education to give students an awareness of their own community. Technological literacy rounds out their curriculum.
This March, Kym and I sat down for a conversation with two PACE students to talk about being an urban librarian and the challenges for equity, diversity, and inclusion in potential award-winning literature.
Student A: How have books and reading made a difference for you?
Kym: I was a quiet, introverted person. I still am, even though I hide it behind a lot of talking now [laughs]. Books allowed me to experience things I wouldn’t have been able to on my own. I was a Navy kid and we moved a lot. Books were my constant.
Jill: I’m a kid from West Haven, just like you. I went here, so did my Dad. Books were my escape. We were working poor and lived just around the corner from the public library. That second floor, the Graham Room as it’s known, was my escape. I could read anything, I could borrow anything, with my library card.
Student A: Was it hard for you, as a person of color, to find books and characters that you relate to when you were a child?
Kym: Yes, it was. If I found anything, the characters were older than I was or the people of color were bit or side characters. They never told their own story. The Nutmeg is one of the most suggested reading lists in the state. I wanted to be a representative for children and teens of color who are looking for books that feature kids who look like them telling their own stories and leading their own adventures.
Jill: Looking at me: most definitely white. But even for me, as a plus-size woman, it’s hard to find myself in literature in positive roles, in roles telling my story, not as a character in someone else’s. It was tough, with our economic status, to find positive characters when I was younger. It’s one of the reasons I love Dumplin’ and fought for it to be a nominee.
Student M: Why do you think it’s important for minorities or people with special abilities to be in books?
Kym: If there isn’t more than one way for people to represent themselves, if there’s only one narrative, then no one would know their full story. We’re stuck in stereotypes.
Jill: People want to see themselves in the story. When you have to read a book, when you’re required to I mean, and you don’t see yourself, you might not be as interested in it. You might find yourself disengaged with the story, and the class, because you’re not in it. That’s why I’m so excited about the student choices we have in English classes now.
Student A: Have you seen changes in the books students have read?
Kym: There’s better access to variety, finding more books about not only their race or their culture but their full culture and not a stereotype. Like being a black woman, we’re seeing more minorities who live in both impoverished communities and also people who live a lifestyle similar to the characters in Family Matters. We’re telling more, and it’s becoming more normal.
Jill: Books here at the high school have changed in our curriculum. We’re using less of what I call the dead, white guy books. We’re including books by authors of color and women, featuring characters that are not the rich, white kid. My kids, our kids, are starting to see themselves.
Student A: Why is important for the characters to represent the person reading it?
Kym: There’s been a lot of times I’ve felt like the only dark skinned, natural haired woman in my piece of the world. As an undergrad theater major, there was a time when I was the only black person in the entire department! To break into a world that seemed to not want me was a struggle, but being able to read a book about someone like me was comforting.
Jill: This is what was so important for us on the book awards committees. Sitting at the table debating the literature, 12-15 librarians, everybody was white. Most came from more affluent, more wealthy towns, better off than us here economically. It was difficult for me, as an adult! I had to say “that’s not my kids” more than once. There were student readers too on my committee, and all were white.
Kym: I just finished ours, and I was the only non-white adult. There was a moment in one of my meetings where I was even offended by what someone said about the characters in one of the books. That fight hasn’t stopped.
Student A: Why should people read about other races and cultures?
Kym: They need to. Just because someone isn’t a minority or of a different culture, or even a different economic background, doesn’t mean they won’t encounter people from those different backgrounds. People need to be exposed to different races and cultures, and lean how to interact with them. We need to start getting our information from the source and not movies and Google.
Jill: Here we’ve really tried to update our collection to feature the students who walk these halls. We’ve got so many languages, races, religions. Libraries and their collections should reflect their students!
Student M: Can you say books have changed the ways kids see their futures? How can a book change somebody’s life?
Kym: I’m originally from Oakland, California. If I’d never left, and if I didn’t read, I only would’ve known what was around me. I read about different families, educational opportunities, and jobs. And especially when I saw other people who looked like me achieving those things, it showed me the world was bigger. And when we moved to Groton, Connecticut, it showed me the world was still bigger. Books teach you you’re not alone, they teach you want you can accomplish. You can be really isolated, feel like no one understands you or your feelings and you’re the only one. Now, we’re slowly getting to a place where there is a book for every kind of person.
Jill: It’s incredibly rewarding as a librarian when a students tells me how much a book meant to them. Our seniors are required to read memoirs, one they get to choose themselves, and I’m glad we’ve updated our collection to have books students can see themselves in, in many different ways. We have personal narratives about race, gender, sexuality, religion, poverty, sports, music, addiction, incarceration, and so much more now.
Student M: Where are books headed? Say in 10 years?
Kym: I hope more equal. Granted we can find books with minorities now, like what we read in our book club. I think though the publishing industry is not where we are as a population. There’s more farther to go to represent the breakdown of the American people. We’re Getting there, but I hope we’ll move more toward representing the people who live here.
Student M: Compared to the past, what if things were reversed? If the black narrative had been first? Would it have changed history?
Kym: Maybe there would be more compassion. Maybe there’d be less dismissing the older narrative. Not as much has changed as we’d like to hope.
Jill: I think we’re doing a good job trying to reach back and bring that narrative to the front. For example, William Grimes’ narrative and the recent film. It’s not enough to buy the book and the movie. We’re out there and talking about it, promoting it, featuring it. We’ve talked a lot about race, but we have to talk about gender too. It’s not enough to say we have books about women, we’re going to show them off, we’re going to talk about them.
Student A: Does gender play a role too?
Jill: The changes we’ve made, in getting rid of some of those books our students don’t see themselves in, it’s definitely both race and gender. We should have characters and authors who are female. They should be featured in our curricula and our libraries. It’s not enough to say women. It’s women of color too. The Latina narrative is one that I’m trying to bring to the front here. I won’t just buy the book to run a collection analysis and show we have one. I’m going to buy the book and [slaps table] ‘here it is, let’s talk about it’.
Kym: We’re also bringing forward the transgender narrative or gender neutral negative, LGBTQ, and not just some month here and some month here. Romance, for example, isn’t limited to white, straight characters. We can give a romance book to a patron looking for a romance book, it may just happen to feature a trans character. I know my public library and this school library are doing a darn good job trying to do that.
Jill: The eventual 2018 winner was Simon!
Kym: [cheers but then looks a little dejected] I can’t talk about mine yet! The 2020 list isn’t public yet!
Student M: So, what if we went backward? What if we went back to the dead white guys? How would books be today or in the future?
Kym: Um, bad. Don’t get me wrong, theater major here, Shakespeare’s a great guy and all, but it has nothing to do with me and what I’m doing today. We’d be very confused. A world with one narrative wouldn’t give us free thought. A narrative that has nothing to do with us [waves hand to indicate herself, me, and the students]. Like the Stepford wives.
Jill: It goes back to disengagement. When we require those dead white guy books, back when I was a teacher for example, when I had to teach them, seeing disinterest. My students not caring because this just doesn’t affect me. Talking about the Nutmeg nominees, we can’t not include all of our kids. All of my students should be on this [holds up Nutmeg 2018 flyer] list somewhere. This ‘very wealthy kid at private school’ story for sure isn’t me [points to self]. We’ve made sweeping curricula changes, letting in those authors we excluded before. We’ve let in topics relevant to our kids. And that includes my own son, because I’m a parent here too. That narrative isn’t his as a kid from West Haven.
Too quickly, our time with these students ended as they needed to head off to their next class. Walking Kym to the security desk to sign out, we talked more about the nominees we both read and our hopes for the future. We know we both can’t just sit back and say “we’ve done our part, it’s someone else’s turn now.” Part of that duty is encouraging librarians to serve on the committees who want to represent their students and patrons. We have to continue to be our students’ voices.