Posts Tagged ‘young adult librarian’

As a youth services & primarily teen services librarian who happens to be a man the issues of what a professor dubbed “the boy problem” has sort of fallen into my lap as a strong professional interest. I am not a particularly masculine man and more often than not, if I’m wandering the streets of a small town, it’s teen boys who find it incredibly clever and funny to harass and make fun of me for the way I look (teen boys are, of course, great at making fun of pretty much everyone, so it’s no skin off my back). When I got into youth services, I thought this might be something that impeded my ability to connect with boys in the library, but it has actually been quite the opposite. In any library where I’ve worked, I’ve been one of so few male librarians that, while in my personal life I have a hard time being read as anything but gay, people are so unaccustomed to seeing men working in libraries at all they have no one with whom to compare me, so somehow my perceived sexuality and lack of overt masculinity has never come into play in my work in libraries. In fact, libraries are one of the few places in the world where I feel people’s perception of me as a man far outweighs their perception of me as gay.

This has created exciting and unexpected opportunities to embody the literate male role model that experts in parenting, education, child development and emergent literacy amongst boys complain so rarely exists amongst teachers, librarians and other adults who work with children. When I took an interest in running the “Guys Read” book club at one of my libraries, I was welcomed with open arms to take over for another librarian who reluctantly ran the book due to lack of other male librarians willing to run it. By simple virtue of being a young-ish (and even younger looking as I am blessed and cursed to look about ten years younger than I actually am) man with gauged earrings (a regretful & relatively irreversible decision I made as a teen that has surprisingly been the number one thing teens compliment me on and often the thing which allows me to quickly gain their trust) who picks up on enough youth cultural references to seem like the cool older brother they’ve always wished they had, I somehow possess this ability to influence teen and tween boys in this way that so many educators and youth service librarians can only dream of.

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Me with one of my teens in the library–used with permission

Given this unique position and my passion for encouraging active literacy amongst youth, how could I resist developing a profound interest in discussions of “the boy problem?” Although, as an advocate for literacy amongst boys, I would argue that the boys themselves are not the problem and perhaps the real problem is, among other things, both the men who fail to model the role of literacy in their own lives to those boys and the North American culture & education system’s limited conceptions of literacy.

So, as a man who has access to youth in one of the most literature focused environments, I am so thrilled to get the opportunity to un-do some of these cultural ideas surrounding reading and boys. As someone who reads fiction for pleasure, I have gotten the opportunity to share this love with boys through book clubs and through personalized fiction recommendations, often hidden within jovial conversations where boys are so absorbed in the topic of conversation that they don’t even realize that I’ve just convinced them to read a book. But one of the problems often raised when discussing “the boy problem” is that reading fiction for pleasure simply does not fit into the types of reading a lot of boys are drawn to doing.

In a lecture given by one of my professors, the line “Reading don’t fix no Chevys” really stood out to me. It struck me because one of the random resources I remember helping patrons with on the reference desk so often was the Chilton’s guides which, for those unfamiliar, are model-specific guides for different makes of cars that literally do inform users on the inner workings of Chevys (and Fords and other cars). While the act of reading them does not necessarily fix the car itself, these resources are pretty necessary maps that give someone with a certain automotive knowledge the tools to translate their knowledge to specific makes and models of cars.

One of the papers that I wrote when I took my Reference class based upon a reference observation was actually based on a reference interview concerning a Chilton’s manual. The library did not happen to currently have a print-version of the manual in question, so the interview turned into an extensive discussion of all the databases to which the library subscribed–including Chilton’s and Alldata, another similar resource, but also so many of our other databases. I got to observe a patron who probably never knew the library offered access to subscription databases walk away really excited about an entirely new set of resources he did not know had been at his fingertips the whole time and that he was excited to use.

I think about boys not having male role models in terms of literacy and wish this gentleman had had his grade school aged son or nephew with him to witness this instance of a relatively gruff, working class man becoming so excited about the ways in which literacy and his library’s resources could help him do one of the most stereotypically manly activities of fixing a car.

These instances in which literacy occurs during our daily lives are not exclusive to men or women or to such stereotypically masculine activities as auto repair, but also occur when we look up recipes in cookbooks or online, when we look up movie reviews & times, when we try to learn a new skill, such as crocheting, and so many other times in the instances of people of all genders and ranges of interest. In fact, in the age of the Internet, we consume instructional information in our daily lives more than ever before.

In imagining the man discussed above (or any other man or woman, for that matter) letting his child help him fix his car, having the child hand him wrenches and other small tasks (though I have done basic car maintenance out of the type of necessity created by poverty, fixing cars is not a skill or interest I possess, so I really can’t elaborate on the details of what minor tasks an adult role model would allow their child to help with while fixing a car, so please use your own imagination), I imagine that there is some piece of literature–the car’s manual, a Chilton guide (either electronic or print) or some other resource present & being used as reference. And I wonder whether the dad or mom or aunt or uncle, who may be the type of adult role model who reads novels to their kids or not, is referencing this Chilton’s manual themselves before asking for that wrench or if the adult is asking the child to come read over their shoulder and tell them what comes next.

Even as an adult man who reads a tremendous amount of fiction for pleasure, I would guess that most of the reading I do over the course of a day or a week, even in my leisure time, is for information. Reading is so incorporated into all of our daily lives and that is why literacy is such an important part of development. But when we talk with youth–particularly those who struggle to enjoy reading fiction–about literacy and reading, do we talk about all those other times in our daily lives when reading comes up? I know that I rarely do and I think this is primarily because reading is so integrated into my life that I scarcely recognize myself doing it when it serves some purpose beyond the purely indulgent act of reading a novel. I think it’s important, especially as a role model to young people, to expand my conception of the act of reading. I think, though, that by being more aware of the ways that literacy impacts our daily lives, we can be more intentional of the kinds of examples we set as literate adults. Introducing the children in our lives to the joys of fiction (and non-fiction) pleasure reading is important and we should continue to do so, but perhaps if we also read to them from our cook books and automotive manuals and some-assembly-required instruction manuals, we will succeed in making readers of those children, particularly boys, who look up to us more for the tasks we accomplish than the stories we tell them.

I just read this article about attempted erasure of LGBTQ characters, as well as characters of color and characters with disabilities, in YA Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels and I think you should read it too.

As a reader and a lover of sci-fi and fantasy (though I’m certain this happens in other genres too), this makes me really sad and frustrated.  The characters I want to read about exist, but I have no way to access them because they are being watered down into straight, white characters with no disabilities to please, well, straight, white readers with no disabilities.

It was so frustrating as a teen to have to go to a special section whenever I wanted to read about a character who was different.  I fully appreciate the fact that LGBtQ YA fiction (we’re working on doing something about the “t,” at least I am) is now becoming it’s own genre, don’t get me wrong, it’s an important genre and I am thankful it exists.  But as a teen, I always wanted to read a regular book that was not about the struggles of being queer, but where a queer character experiences something other than simply coming out, coming to terms with being queer, being bullied for being queer, etc.  Couldn’t a character deal with the reality of being queer while solving mysteries, playing sports, traveling through time or slaying dragons?  The message is, that if you are queer, the only story you have to tell is about being queer, and that’s all you’re worth–all you could possibly want in life is to come to terms with being queer and then go on to live a normal, peaceful, boring life.  That’s all queer people are, that’s all queer people are worth, queer people do not strive for excellence, we strive for the mundane.

As a library student interested in working with teens, this frustrates me too.  I want to develop collections and recommend books to teens that represent a diverse range of characters.  Having a strong collection of books that deal with LGBTQ issues and other issues which face diverse populations is really important to me, and when I have my own collections, this is something that will take priority and will represent small but substantial neighborhoods of my collection that I offer some level of priority which overrides simple market-based factors like circulation stats because, well, every time those books circulate is likely a million times more important and life-changing to the reader than other books.

But at the same time, that really sucks, to think that it’s okay to have diverse characters in books that, though intended for everyone, will probably only circulate well amongst people who are like the characters they describe (ie, books about queer teens will circulate with queer teens, books about teens with disabilities will circulate amongst teens with disabilities, etc).  Why would I want to give straight teens only books about straight teens, or teens without disabilities only books about teens without disabilities or white teens only books about white teens?  What kind of message does that send about what equals quality literature?  And I don’t really think it’s the teens who even care about this, it’s their parents!

I went to Allied Media Conference this weekend and it could not have come at a better time.

My head has already been swimming with ideas and urges to create some sort of project focused on collecting content focused on/for transgender/gender variant/two-spirit/aggressive/gender questioning (etc.) teens/youth. The idea of starting an independent press and publishing these books myself terrifies me, but I saw all these people who had independent presses at the conference and it got me thinking that that’s something a person can just do if they want to.

So, since my new attitude about things is centered around making conscious decisions to empower myself to do things that challenge and intimidate me (I’m not going to go skydiving any time soon, though), I have decided I need to do something along the lines of starting an independent press focused on publishing young adult books with trans* themes by trans* authors.

This will be a very new project for me and I’m going to have to learn some new things. I basically came to the conclusion that I cannot single handedly change the fact that there are not a ton of good resources out there for trans* youth by writing the books myself for a host of reasons. Hopefully this process will involve the publishing of some of my own work, but my story and point of view is by no means the beginning or end of the types of stuff that trans* youth want/need to read—no one person’s is. Also, while I am a good writer and I love to write, I know myself well enough to know that the skill I have that really stands out is my ability to organize projects with other people in communities. So why shouldn’t I be the one to get the ball rolling on a rad forum for trans* folks to get their voices out there to reach teens.

So I have a few contacts who are interested and I’m hoping to bounce some ideas off of them and come up with an initial plan. No doubt, this will include things like writing grants, coming up with a name (supposed to be a “fun” part, but I hate coming up with names, it’s stressful to choose the one name that will forever be associated with something), building a website (I’d love to have multi-media stuff on there, I met some cool folks at Allied Media Conference doing trans* media stuff that is more video oriented who expressed interest in including video and other multi-media stuff in the press, and I would love that, especially since multi-media stuff is really well suited for teens), figuring out what our first project will be (I’m thinking it would be good to kick off with some sort of anthology of short stories to publish and get out there, but also starting to put the word out for submissions of longer works.) Figuring out how we are going to deal with editing and selection—gosh, there is so much!

The idea of turning down someone’s story or manuscript when they are actually doing what people need to do which is write trans* related content for teens is horrible to think about, but I also would hate to put out something that really felt like it was going to make teens actively feel bad about themselves, and also will probably have limited resources to devote to publishing books, especially to start off. Where does the line between functioning as an editor/publisher and as a librarian fall? Taking on a project like this makes me feel like taking some classes on more of the archives side of the MLIS degree in addition to the young adult public library stuff I had thought would be my main focus would be a good idea.

Stay tuned for more information and updates about my journey into starting an independent press geared toward *trans youth!

If you are interested in contributing or being involved, please contact me at jackson[dot]radish[at]gmail[dot]com

*I’m using “trans” as an umbrella term to include transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, two-spirit, aggressive, and other gender variant folks, as well as those who are questioning their gender identities.

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