- “You will never not find me in the middle of two to three books that I’m reading.”
- “It’s impossible to talk about individual choice without understanding societal impact.”
- “We cannot talk of an issue that has greater consequence than economic inequality.”
If you were at the opening event this evening, these may have been some of the pithy, gut-punching quotes you wrote down from Wes Moore’s speech. Baltimore native Wes Moore is the celebrated author of The Other Wes Moore (2010) and Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City (forthcoming, 2020). His opening speech indeed discusses the true events he writes about in his books that explore the circumstances of his childhood, and the events leading up to and surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, respectively. However, his words and his message deeply concern librarians who serve children and families.
After telling a story about his own literary awakening as a struggling reader (his mom found The Fab Five at the library for him), he discusses two different critical reactions to his first book, The Other Wes Moore. One account praised it for its examination of the effect of unequal circumstances on young people. Another celebrated its individual personal triumph. Wes Moore says, it’s both. Now an avid reader (see the first quote), he points out that he was able to find a path forward to being a Rhodes Scholar — one sports book led to more sports books that led to more books and eventually a successful academic and professional career (see quote two). He had a path forward, he tells the silent crowd, because of public libraries.
Next he discusses his upcoming book about Freddie Gray. As heartbreaking as his death was, he says, it was his life that was even more heartbreaking. It’s not a story about Baltimore, he says, not a story about policing. It’s about poverty. This is a reality we see every day in our communities, our libraries, our schools. There is personal pain attached to poverty, and you see both its causes and its consequences. How much pain are we willing to tolerate when we know we don’t have to?
You don’t have to do everything, he says. But you have to do something. Libraries and the stories they hold have helped me understand that the world is bigger than what was before me, and they helped me on the path to get there, he says. They taught me what it meant to be free. Like the important role the Enoch Pratt Free Library played in the aftermath of the turmoil in Baltimore, public libraries everywhere are the center of the community, he reminds us, and you are the community organizers. He challenges the crowd to not just be heartbroken for the dead, but to work to make a better life for the living (see the third quote).
It starts with his own story. We know this truth, yet these powerful and timely words should shake us into a renewed sense of urgency. It is our job and our obligation and our work and help other kids like Wes Moore on the path out of the trap of poverty, on the path to personal freedom. Let’s go do our work.
*Note: The above three quotes, I wrote down verbatim as accurately as I could. The rest of the reconstructed dialogue has been compiled from my notes.
Erica Ruscio is a Young Adult Librarian at Ventress Memorial Library in Marshfield, MA. She is currently serving on ALSC’s Advocacy & Legislation Committee and on YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction 2020 Committee.