Yes, We Need Diverse Books

Everyone deserves to be seen. As a librarian, I have the opportunity to work with children, teens and adults on a daily basis. One of my goals as a public servant is to make each person I interact with feel seen no matter who they are. However, being seen goes beyond just being acknowledged in our daily interactions with others. Another component of my job is working with youth of all ages and connecting them with books that will enrich their lives and help them reach their full potential. Books are an important way to help young people feel seen. Not only do they see themselves reflected in stories and images, but they also become familiar with the experiences of others. I touched on this briefly in my blog post last month.

Connecting kids with books in which they are reflected can be problematic because there is an imbalance of representation in which a large percentage of children’s and young adult books only reflect the mainstream white experience. The current publishing industry does not reflect the rich diversity of the children in the United States. There are strides being made by such groups as We Need Diverse Books and an increase in the amount of books being published by people of color. There is a lot more progress that needs to be made and KT Horning discusses this in great depth on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog.

The recently published children’s and young adult books highlighted below are a celebration of diversity and capture the experiences of immigrants and their children, African Americans, the LGBTQ community, indigenous women and more. They just skim the surface of the diverse books that can be found within our collections at the Everett Public Library.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi


This beautifully illustrated Caldecott honor book is based on an experience that Bao Phi (a prominent performance poet) had as a child. It captures him and his father fishing in the early morning hours in Minnesota where his family settled after leaving Vietnam. They are fishing for food, not just enjoyment. The story captures a simple, yet poignant experience shared by father and son. Through this experience we learn about some of the struggles his parents faced in America along with some of the trauma they experienced in Vietnam. The story is illustrated by Thi Bui who also came to America from Vietnam as a young girl.

A Family is a Family is a Family by Sara O’Leary/illustrated by QinLeng


O’Leary captures almost every kind of family in this picture book that begins with a classroom discussion in which each child shares why their family is special. A little girl in the class does not want to share about her family because she is afraid they are too different. The students start to share about their families and the girl begins to see how many different kinds of families there are: families with a mom and dad, families with two moms or two dads, families with adopted children, mixed families, blended families, divorced families, single parent families and families where grandma is raising the grandchildren. Eventually we learn that the girl is a foster child who happens to be very loved by her foster mother.

Love by Matt De La Pena/illustrated by Loren Long


“And the face staring back in the bathroom mirror—this, too, is love.” This is just one sentence from award winning writer Matt De La Pena’s most recent picture book. The story is both an exploration and meditation on love told through the lens of a child growing up into young adulthood. It is not just one child but many different children at various points in their lives. The children are comprised of a diverse group that includes one in a wheel chair, African American children and a Latinx family. The story portrays the complexity of love even when it feels absent and how it can be found again. The book reads beautifully like a poem and leaves the reader with much to ponder.

Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman


Casey wants to be like his sister when it comes to wearing sparkly skirts, nail polish and bracelets. Gender stereotypes are challenged in this story about a family who is mostly accepting of Casey’s love of all things sparkly. His sister is the exception and she grows increasingly angry as he shows interest in sparkly things that are permitted by the adults in his life. Her feelings change when they are at the library and a group of boys start teasing Casey because he is wearing a sparkly skirt. She stands up for her younger brother who is visibly hurt and she challenges the boys’ views of what is acceptable attire for boys.

As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman


This young adult graphic novel tells the story of Charlie, an African American Christian teenager who identifies as queer. She has been sent to Three Peaks summer camp which happens to be an all-white Christian camp. She struggles with different aspects of the camp, especially some of the thoughtless comments or microaggressions made by the head counselor. She also has a crush on the head counselor’s daughter who assists her mother at the camp. Charlie befriends one of the other campers named Sydney and discovers they have more in common than she thinks.

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed


Maya is a Muslim Indian American who lives in a small community outside of Chicago. It is Maya’s senior year and she is increasingly caught between her parent’s expectations and her dreams of moving to New York and pursuing a career in film. Her parents came to the United States from India as a young couple and expect Maya to attend college close to home and find an acceptable Muslim young man to marry. Maya has secretly applied to NYU and is falling for Phil, a popular football player at her high school. Her world changes dramatically when a courthouse in Illinois is bombed, killing hundreds of people. The community where she has spent her entire life becomes engulfed in fear and hate, much of it directed towards Maya and her parents.

Black Girl Magic: a Poem by Mahogany L. Browne


This poem is written to African American girls and challenges the many destructive messages they receive from society. Mahogany Browne has shared it widely through spoken word and now she has partnered with Jess X. Snow to depict the poem visually.

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green


There are lots of changes about to happen in Macy McMillan’s life including her mother’s upcoming nuptials to a man with twin daughters. The story is written in verse and highlights Macy’s deafness but it is not the focus of the story. Instead we see a beautiful relationship develop between Macy and her older neighbor Iris. This hopeful book highlights family and friendship with vibrant characters.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz


Betty Shabazz is most well known for being the wife of Malcom X and an activist. Her daughter has written this work of historical fiction along with renowned author Renee Watson. The story chronicles Betty’s beginnings with a neglectful mother and her eventual adoption by a middle class couple at her church. She volunteers for an organization called the Housewives League and this is the beginning of her work as an activist. Not only is the reader exposed to the challenges that Betty faced as a young person but they are also given an introduction to the roots of the Civil Rights movement.

#Not Your Princess: Voices of Native American Women / edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale


This powerful book is a compilation of poems, essays, photography and art by indigenous women throughout North America. There is a lot of pain and anger manifested in this book because of the mistreatment and erasure of indigenous people. However, this book will educate teens and give them perspective on a subject that is often ignored. It is at least a start in letting the voices, feelings and strength of these women be heard and seen.

Some Light Reading for the End of the World

I get a kick out of a story that can combine world-changing, terrifying, and sometimes supernatural events with a fairly traditional, mundane coming of age story. This is one of the many things I love about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Shaun David Hutchinson also showed his skill with this kind of work in We are the Ants and he doubled down in his latest novel, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza.

At first glance, Elena Mendoza is similar to lots of teenage protagonists. School can be rough – she isn’t exactly popular, but she has made her own community. She loves her mom and younger siblings but hates her loser stepdad. I can keep going: her job sucks, Freddie, the girl she pines for, seems to have no clue she exists, inanimate objects often speak to her and she is the product of a virgin birth. Like I said, pretty typical.

81G6+tEFWqLSo about that virgin birth thing. Despite being shouldered with a “miracle child” moniker, there is a scientific explanation for Elena’s situation. She is the first proven human case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction involving an unfertilized egg. Other than some cruel classmates who nicknamed her Mary, Elena has largely been able to shed any spotlight that might come from the unique circumstances of her birth. Time heals all wounds and brings enough sensational news stories each day to allow hers to fade away.  

The voices Elena hears are a little harder to explain, but truth be told they give her advice that usually proves helpful so she has learned to live with them and hide them from the surrounding world, even from her mother and her best friend, Fadil. Then one day while at work she witnesses a classmate shoot Freddie and is told by the logo on a Starbucks cup to save Freddie’s life. Though it defies explanation, Elena is able to heal Freddie and her reputation as a miracle girl comes storming back, bringing Elena a mess of unwanted attention.

To make matters worse, the boy who shot Freddie disappeared in a ray of light right after Elena performed her “miracle.” The voices tell Elena that she must heal more people to save the world. Fadil, a devout Muslim, tells her to trust in God and plenty of others tell her she is either crazy or a fraud. For her part, Elena is sure there must be some sort of scientific explanation and she is reluctant to use her powers. But with so many people suffering around her, how can she resist? Unfortunately, every time she heals someone, people disappear in strange beams of light. And as her profile grows, more people seem to want to use her, from her selfish stepdad to shadowy government agents. So Elena is left with quite the needle to thread: save the world, avoid manipulation, solve this rapture mystery and figure out if Freddie likes her or resents her for saving her life. No sweat?

Hutchinson packs a lot into this book and in less capable hands this story could have gone off the rails or veered into religious speculation that just isn’t my taste. Yet Elena is a sensible, compassionate, and delightfully wry narrator who manages to keep this wild novel somewhat grounded. I loved her mix of optimism and pragmatism and her quick banter with Fadil, Freddie, and her ex-boyfriend Javi.  

More than anything else, however, I appreciate the way this book handles identity. I read a lot of YA fiction that features queer characters and I appreciate the thought and care with which so many authors today write about questioning or discovering sexuality, coming out, facing bigotry, and finding acceptance. I also believe, however, that we need stories like this one. Elena has lots of insecurities but is perfectly open and comfortable with her bisexuality. And that is also how she is treated by Hutchinson. Her identity is only addressed as it pertains to the story. It’s a fact of life, not a plot point. The same could be said for the treatment of Fadil’s religion and Elena’s Cuban-American heritage. Hutchinson’s matter-of-fact approach to diverse representation not only makes for great writing but creates a world that I want to live in. Even if it is on the brink of apocalypse.

School is Coming

I’m hoping somebody can tell me where the summer went. Between visits from family, the Summer Reading crush, Eclipse excitement and (SURPRISE!) two weeks of Jury Duty, the summer has been a whirlwind and a half. With kids out of school looking for entertainment and excited to do some pleasure reading this is my favorite season in the Library. It is also by far the most exhausting.

So while it is bittersweet to see all of our young patrons head back to school this week, I will confess that I am looking forward to the structured schedule of the school year. It also happens that a lot of books I love are steeped in the petty grievances and serious identity crises that come with starting at a new school. Here are a few of my favorites:

25701463Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe centers on a young woman named Julia. Julia is deaf, and has always been surrounded by the deaf community: her best friend is deaf, as are both of her parents, and she attends a high school for the deaf. When Julia is betrayed by a friend, however, she is expelled from her school and faces the daunting task of attending a public school where the vast majority of students and teachers struggle to communicate with her, where she has to use a (really annoying) translator, and where no one knows her or seems terribly interested in getting to know her.

But Julia has even bigger problems. A budding graffiti artist, Julia is chagrined to find that another painter is changing her works, adding to them but also improving upon them. Julia feels humiliated and violated by this challenge to her art and sets out to best this mysterious new tagger all while navigating her new school, making new friends, and confronting old ones. Gardner does something very clever to help the reader understand Julia’s communication frustrations. When people try to talk to her and she struggles to read their lips, dialog will have some words missing, replaced with “——-.” This decision ingeniously drops the reader into Julia’s shoes, forced to decipher meaning based on surrounding context.

y648Like Julia, Riley Cavanaugh, the narrator of Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, has a lot going on. Starting at a new high school is bad enough for Riley who is already prone to anxiety attacks. But on top of that are the expectations of Riley’s father who is running for reelection in a hotly contested congressional race. Between the pressure to make friends, blend in, “act normal” and not screw up, it’s no wonder Riley is feeling stressed. But Riley is also dealing with something else – a secret that only Riley’s therapist knows. Riley identifies as gender fluid. A far-too-simple explanation would be that sometimes Riley wakes up feeling male, and sometimes Riley wakes up feeling female. But as Riley says “…it’s not that simple. The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval.

To try to cope, Riley starts a blog and is shocked when posts start going viral. Riley begins to settle in, make a few friends, discover a potential romantic interest, and find some respite from all of life’s external pressure. But good things never last. A blog commenter seems to have uncovered Riley’s identity and is threatening to out Riley. Now Riley must decide whether to shutter the blog and betray those who have come to depend on Riley’s posts or to stand proud and risk the judgment of friends and family as well as possibly ruining Riley’s father’s political career.

30256109In American Street, by Ibi Zoboi, Fabiola Toussaint is a young Haitian immigrant who lands in Detroit ready to embrace the American dream. From the start, however, things do not go as planned. Her mother, who was supposed to accompany her, is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in New Jersey and Fabiola arrives alone, meeting her aunt and cousins for the first time. American culture and expectations to assimilate immediately overwhelm Fabiola, but her resilience and determination ensure that this is not a derivative fish-out-of-water story.

Fabiola’s fierce cousins, known as the three Bees (brains, brawn and beauty), are respected and feared affording her a measure of protection in the neighborhood while also helping her find her place in school. Fab quickly begins to settle in, but is torn between her desire to conform and her devotion to her Haitian identity. She also begins to realize that her aunt and cousins might be involved in some unsavory dealings and that in order to help her mother, she may need to betray the family that welcomed her in Detroit. Though her mother is far away Fab is never alone. All around Detroit Fab sees lwas, Vodou spirits, who help guide her and warn her of impending danger. These visions give American Street a surreal mysticism that edges towards magic realism while also lending authenticity and depth to Fabiola’s immigrant experience.

One of the reasons I love YA fiction is the way its talented writers impart empathy in their work. I’m fortunate to have decent hearing, I’m not an immigrant, and until I read the Symptoms of Being Human my understanding of gender fluidity was rudimentary at best. All three of these works do a masterful job of weaving diverse perspectives into their work, helping the reader to understand the lives of others without overpowering their works’ compelling narratives.

deadlyAnd now for something completely different! In the ongoing series, Deadly Class, Marcus is a homeless teenager simply trying to survive. Sure he has some demons in his past and the police would like to speak with him, but otherwise he seems like a decent guy.  A new world is opened to him when he is invited to attend King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, a school dedicated to training young assassins. Suddenly Marcus finds himself thrust into a world of precocious young killers, the children of gang leaders, mob bosses, drug kingpins, and genocidal dictators. Marcus must learn to carefully navigate the halls of this school unsure of who to trust because he is certain that if he can survive he can take revenge on the people who destroyed his own family.  This beautifully illustrated comic is profane, thrilling, hilarious, and incredibly difficult to put down.  

LGBTQ History in the Northwest Room

Black triangle logo with SNOMEC written inside using negative space. Yellow background. Text above the black triangle reads "Snohomish County Elections Committee for gays, lesbians, & transgendered."In honor of Pride Month, the Northwest Room has just launched its newest digital collection: the papers of the Snohomish County Elections Committee. The documents in this collection are part of a large donation that came into our care in 2015 via Charles Fay, one of the Committee’s co-founders.

Mr. Fay is a lifelong activist working within Snohomish County in the areas of LGBTQ rights and voter education.  In 1999 Mr. Fay and his colleagues Pat D’Willis and Jeff W. Phillips co-founded the Snohomish County Elections Committee (SNOMEC). This organization was inspired by a group in Seattle known similarly as the Seattle Metropolitan Elections Committee (SEAMEC). The aim of both groups was to interview candidates participating in local elections in order to create ratings sheets that measured the level of knowledge each individual had regarding issues that affected their LGBTQ constituents (historical note: users of this collection will often see the acronym written as ‘GLBT’ because that was the most common format used during that time period).

While the scope of SNOMEC’s activities was tightly focused on the interviewing process and creation of ratings sheets, this work required an enormous amount of planning and oversight. The three co-founders worked equally as managers of an extensive network of passionate volunteers conducting training in the interviewing process, scheduling the candidates for interviews, and compiling and mailing out the review sheets. In addition to the mailings, these resources were made freely available to public libraries within Snohomish and Island Counties. For the most part both library systems readily displayed the rating sheets, though at a small number of individual branch locations SNOMEC met initial resistance and had to work with system management to have their materials distributed.

This SNOMEC collection provides readers with an interesting point-in-time view of a very transitional period of the LGBTQ rights movement. In the late 1990s the general public was becoming increasingly aware of the different issues facing their LGBTQ neighbors. In February of 1994, the Clinton Administration oversaw the implementation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy aimed at gay, lesbian, and bisexual military personnel sparking national conversation. The HIV/AIDS epidemic, which heavily impacted LGBTQ communities around the nation in the 1980s, had only recently begun to slow with the introduction of life-prolonging treatments. The 1990s also saw the steady growth of youth-oriented LGBTQ groups in schools, as well as gay-straight alliances such as the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN). In April of 1997 Ellen DeGeneres came out in a very public way on her sitcom, watched by an estimated 42 million viewers. Readers can see reflections of this gradual growth of public awareness in the range in candidate knowledge.

It is interesting to view these records with the knowledge we now have of the recent past. Some of the candidates included in these files are still politically active today, and one can see how their familiarity with certain topics has grown over time. In other cases one can see how some public figures have long been in touch with the needs of the LGBTQ community. In some cases we see individuals who were just starting to be exposed to some of the topics included in the survey and had not had a chance to form many opinions at all. Political experience also seems to play a part in the complexity and tone of the responses given in these interviews.

SNOMEC remained active until 2003, at which time a desire to hand over leadership of the Committee ran up against a lack of volunteers interested in leadership roles; the committee quietly finished its activities later that year. SEAMEC is still actively engaged in interviewing candidates and producing ratings sheets for voters. You can find an archive of their ratings and endorsements that dates back to 1977 on their website.

For more information about SNOMEC and the collections donated by Charles Fay, please contact the Northwest Room. We will be working on further processing this collection, as well as a separate collection of LGBTQ materials from another donor, in the following months.

Yellow text on black background that reads "feel free to copy & distribute this information.'

The Quest

With the holiday season already far in the rear-view mirror, and the joys of summer still months off, I’m deep into winter escapist reading. This season I seem to be drawn to books about people on quests. Whether it’s for healing or wild edibles, each writer I’ve engaged with has taken me along on a fascinating journey of discovery. Here are three titles that will set your mind wandering:

The Mushroom Hunters cover imageThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of Secrets, Eccentrics, and the American Dream  (Langdon Cook)This title is a great fit for foodies, hikers, lovers of the Pacific Northwest, and those who appreciate investigative journalism that takes you deep inside the story. I enjoyed traveling off the beaten path, literally and sometimes legally, with Cook and his group of wild food foraging contacts. This is a good book to pick up if you’re the type of consumer who is interested in where your food comes from and why it costs what it does. I found it remarkable that items that you can find at any upscale market reach the selling table as a result of so many moving (and potentially unreliable) parts.

Fairyland cover imageFairyland: A Memoir of My Father  (Alysia Abbott). In some cases, quests can be taken without traveling at all. In Fairyland, author Alysia Abbott journeys back into her unorthodox childhood using her father’s prodigious journal archive. Abbott’s path twists and turns through the complexities of being raised by an openly gay single father at a time when the nation was only first awakening to the gay rights movement. Along the way the author pulls no punches describing her father as loving though aloof and herself as too self-involved to be able to see that he needed her as much as she needed him. Despite these and other hurdles, this small family managed to create a home in improbable places. While readers are often left with a sense of regret for opportunities lost, the overall tone of the memoir is one of grace and acceptance.

Wild cover imageWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed). Part of my own personal quest this January is to finish this book; I’m currently in the middle of it. Like Alysia Abbott, Cheryl Strayed had an unusual upbringing. After her abusive father exited the picture, her mother barely scraped by raising her small family. When she eventually remarried, the family moved to the wilds of northern Minnesota where they built their own tar-paper cabin and lived off the land. Though this lifestyle may sound difficult, the family was happy. Strayed goes on to marry shortly after high school and seems to have things on track until her mother suddenly dies of lung cancer. Unable to cope with her loss, Strayed spirals out of control and moves out on her own. In order to regain focus after her divorce, she picks up a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail and decides to set off on her own. One part travelogue for the curious traveler, and one part memoir for those working through their own loss, this book has a lot to offer to the questing reader.