Media Seasons

Value of Story (to a white, middle-aged librarian)

Almost immediately during the Women’s Marches following the Inauguration of Donald Trump, I began to see more social media posts challenging “white women” to stand up instead of remaining silent.  One doesn’t necessarily learn silence in a vacuum.  We know from Nazi Germany as well as other wars that both women and men remained silent. Families and culture build ways to value certain stories and practice silence with others.

My maiden name is Cline, yet my father and extended family can recall no stories that touch on Jewish ancestry.  Those same relatives joke about being 1/78th Native American because a great, great grandfather went west and came back with a young bride from a reservation in Oklahoma. All I know about her life as an ancestor of mine is that she cooked and cleaned and bore children. All I know about her life with the family she was born into was that she came from a family with many sisters.  I have spent much time lamenting those facts. So many stories in many cultures repeat that pattern of circumstance.

My father jokes that he’s smart because he was “born in a schoolhouse.”  Although born during the end of the Depression, his family was not homeless.  Their home was a former one room wooden schoolhouse on the designated schoolhouse quadrant on the county roads grid outside a small midwestern village.  His father had obtained some schooling but before the family had rebounded from the Depression, they lost him when my dad was nine. After the Depression, Dad would be the first to earn a college degree. That was after he served in the Navy as soon as he was old enough to join so that he could secure a regular paycheck.  One of the few stories I know from that time period is that dad lost both of his grandparents during his service time and missed by just a few hours the burial of his beloved grandmother as he traveled home from Guam via rail from California to Ohio, where less train stops were already another story about mass transit in America.

My grandfather’s young bride was who I knew as Grandma Kate. As the oldest of 11 children, most of her siblings and grandchildren to this day might tell you how she seemed to prefer taking care of her County Fair-winning garden plants and productions to the obligatory raising of 4 children from that first marriage and 2 more from a second.  Now that I have become a widow at a young age, I better understand how others might misread her actions and tell only a part of a story that portrays a less than perfect woman.  Aren’t we all unreliable narrators–even to ourselves?

As a school librarian, I have always valued stories.  Perhaps those silent, missing gaps of my own family history are part of why I continue to feel the pressing need to share stories.

One of the most strikingly honest books I have read is Lovesong: Becoming a Jew by Julius Lester.  Recognition as an outstanding African American author had brought me to his fiction stories for young adults and children. An online class offered an opportunity to interact online with this author who now practices the Jewish faith, a faith he is convinced he was drawn to because it was that of the stories that others attempted to keep silent regarding his bloodline to that of  a white slaveowner.  

While we adult students were interacting with authors to obtain a post-graduate certificate in youth literature and technology from an outstanding school library program, Lester was the one I first encountered about how easily misuse of technology can not only share falsehoods for biased reasons but create a chain of domino effect results.  Not too long after that class ended, Lester one day posted on a listserv in which we both continue to participate.  It was an announcement that he was not dead.  Why such a sensationalist-sounding statement?  Because someone had decided to misuse the democratic opportunity of wikipedia by inaccurately updating that Lester had died.  Lester responded in outrage with every fiber of his still very much alive feelings. I continue to share Lester’s story as I know with my young students who now rely even more heavily upon what they consider news in this mix of stories that they must determine reliability.

As a library media teacher, the stories that I now find most meaningful are the ones that my teaching peers and I can use to connect our students to people or characters on a page who seem different to better understand our universal commonalities.  The most important underpinning of a democratic society is that respect for differences leads to fair and equitable opportunities–not that some are valued more greatly than others.

Regardless of the silences of my childhood that I am not more fully unpacking with my relatives, I was struck in 2014 by the searing injustices in the life of my birth year counterpart Jacqueline Woodson in her autobiographical brown girl dreaming. Hopefully, the garnering of multiple awards, including the Newbery Honor Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the National Book Award will guarantee many readers of all ages and skin colors will connect with Woodson’s story.

Similarly, this year, I am captivated with a story by another birth year counterpart, Andrea Jones Pinkney, who shares the depth of her reveling upon meeting a brown child character in the snow, during the same years I did as a young reader, in her new story A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day.  

Now that our first African American president has vacated the White House with his family, I feel such excitement to continue to share these recently created stories with young readers with whom I work.  On the eve of ALA Midwinter awards, I hope these kind of titles continue to garner all kinds of accolades, but most importantly, that they arrive in the hands of young readers who will one day create their own contributions to share with the broader world in all its many stories of the human experience so that we might continue to move forward as a society.