I can’t decide whether I’m angry or sad.
When Steve and I travel around the country, we stop in at bookstores and public libraries and schools, observing the state of children’s books in those environments. We talk with booksellers, librarians, and teachers. Some people are aware of our connection to children’s books … some are not. We’ve found it a good way to “take the temperature” of books and reading, subjects uppermost in our lives and work.
With increasing frequency, we hear that there’s less focus on children’s books all around.
Independent bookstores, of course, are fewer and farther apart. Many of them have given shelf space to books for adults in order to survive. In small towns, bookstores order paperbacks only … they’re more affordable. That means children in those areas only have access to books that are one year old or more, about the time a publisher decides to issue a book in paperback. Many independent stores are up for sale, with no buyers, because the financial situation is so tough. People don’t become booksellers with dollar signs in their eyes. They do it because they believe in books and reading and children … so there’s an overall sense of dismay among independent children’s booksellers. Even the Big Box stores are showing evidence of buyers’ reluctance to spend their money on books. As one librarian recently said to me, “Have you been in Barnes & Noble lately? It’s become a toy store.”
Public libraries are busier than they’ve ever been. For people who must read, and whose book buying habits have been necessarily curtailed, free libraries are a support system for which they’re thankful. In large, well-supported library systems, the shelves are often sparsely populated … circulation is high and the budget for buying new books is low. In a number of small towns, if the library still receives funding, trained librarians have been “let go.” We’ve recently talked with a former bank clerk, a retired school principal, and an underemployed butcher who serve as their town’s librarian. Avid readers, they are mystified about selecting books for children and teens, desperately seeking knowledge.
Colleges and universities are reorganizing to make up for lost enrollment. What courses can they drop? All too often their children’s literature courses are the first to go. From graduating seniors, we increasingly hear that they’ve had to read between six and fifteen children’s books in order to receive their teaching certificate. From my own college days, I remember a requirement of 140 books for one children’s literature course. We’ve heard it said, and we’ve observed, that teachers continue throughout their careers to teach the books they learn about in college. Does that mean these seniors’ future students will gain knowledge of between six and fifteen books?
We’ve had teachers attend our book talks who tell us they are present because they don’t know how to judge a good book, they don’t know anything about graphic novels or science books or math books or current books. Media specialists have stated the same. They’re trained to work with computers and software and internet research skills … but they don’t know books. Teachers confide that they’re no longer reading out loud, including children’s books in their lesson plans, or offering independent reading choices. There’s a myriad of reasons, but much of it boils down to a perceived lack of time, prescribed reading systems, and the constant threat of meeting national teaching standards.
Every school librarian we’ve talked to in the last year is waiting to hear that they no longer have a job. Or they’ve been reduced to half-time. Or they are now serving 11 libraries. Or they’re no longer needed because a parent volunteer will do just as well. The shortsightedness of this decision is appalling. When documented studies show that schools have higher reading scores when they have libraries staffed by degreed librarians, there is no appropriate defense for getting rid of the school’s librarian or closing the library. Classroom libraries are not adequate substitutes and were never meant to be. Nor are banks of computers with e-books.
The opportunity for children and teens to read often boils down to access. Do they have access to adults who are trained to recommend books that will piqué their interests? Are they hearing booktalks from teachers, librarians, and the adults in their lives? Is there a public library within walking or bike-riding distance? Can they go to their school library, expecting a knowledgeable librarian to help them find a pile of books that will fit their school assignments or keep them reading after lights should be off? When they’ve saved their allowance to buy a treasured book, is there a bookstore nearby with booksellers who can listen to what they like and suggest the perfect book?
The National Endowment for the Arts recently cut its Big Read funding by 73%. As Dana Gioia left his post as chairman and Rocco Landesman took over, the 7% increase in adults reading literature, which Gioia believed resulted from the Big Read program, apparently falls low on the list of concerns at the NEA.
That’s what worries me and makes me angry and makes me sad. Books and reading are falling to the bottom of priority lists. There seems to be a supposition that reading will take care of itself. Those of us in the field know that it won’t. Knowing how to read is not the same as knowing what to read. We must constantly introduce new readers and uninterested readers to good books. Avid readers must find new reading material that will keep them satisfied. Or we will lose these children to visual information sources and video storytelling forever. They will not know the spirit-enthralling, soul-healing, and brain-bending worth of The Next Good Book. They will rely on talk jocks to fill their heads with ideas. We’ll have missed our opportunities to give them the greatest tool of all … an understanding of the utility and pleasure of reading.
The malaise about books and reading is not isolated … it surrounds us. It’s up to us to do something about it. Every one of us.