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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

What’s got my dander up?

Mind closedI 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.

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