Monday, August 27, 2012

Getting Students Reading, Keeping Them Reading

Guest post by Edith Campbell a mother, librarian, and quilter.

For 6 years, I worked as a librarian in a high school in Indiana that struggled to help students achieve academic success. I truly enjoyed being their librarian. Don’t let anyone tell you that “these students” don’t read. By the numbers “these students” were 96% Black and 85% low income. By my memory, they were sponges who soaked in knowledge at every opportunity. They were amazing people who were full of wonder, possibilities and potential. For each of the 6 years I worked with them, I checked out at least twice as many books as students in the 1100 student school, one year even four times as much. My students were readers and sophisticated readers at that. They knew exactly what they would enjoy reading. While they sometimes requested popular YA titles, they would most consistently ask for urban lit. I found it for them in YA form and they inhaled it.

I had a student who, after reading Dana Davidson’s Jason and Kyra desperately wanted another simply nice romance with Black characters but there are very, very few. She re-read Jason and Kyra a couple of times and eventually quit coming to the library. Students would long for books with Black teens that followed the trends like vampires, zombies and urban adventures, but the books just weren’t there.

Students consistently asked for mysteries with Black characters and I could produce none. Quite often, students would all want the same copy of a book and when it wasn’t available, a friend would say not to worry she would lend out her own copy that she had at home. Yes, they buy books, too. I can’t help but wonder how book sales would increase if they were advertised in ESPN magazine or placed in a reality TV show. Do publishers really think teens read book reviews?

I was able to introduce some of my students to girls around the world who struggled through real life situations in fiction and these books would stay in high demand. This included books like Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, Sold by Patricia McCormick, and Debra Ellis’ series in Afghanistan.

There were golden moments too, times when I would have students tell me they hated reading, had never and would never read a book, and I’d give them a copy of Panther Baby and tell them not read beyond the first chapter and they’d insist on checking the book out.

I can’t help but wonder how many more books these students would buy or borrow to read if they were simply available. I reflect here mostly about the Black students I worked with but I had Latino students too who wanted more series, more adventures, more ordinary books with Latino characters but they couldn’t find them. I know those working with Native American and Asian American students have the same lament.

Teachers are always looking for dynamic stories with characters that accurately reflect the populations they teach to incorporate into the curriculum, but they only know about the same books they were introduced to in that one course in college. I guess they were lucky they had a librarian who could introduce them to new books. Getting books with characters of color into the curriculum is crucial in validating not only a student’s reading experience but the student himself.

When my studentswhen any studentfinds that one magical book that relates to them, they will not want to stop reading as long as they can continue to find more books. I worked hard to find them for my students, but there aren’t enough! I don’t work with these students any more, but I’m still fighting the good fight.

Edith received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Cincinnati and MLS from Indiana University. Her passion is promoting literacy in all its forms with teens of color. She does this through her blog CrazyQuiltEdi and in her work as a Librarian in the Cunningham Memorial Library at Indiana State University.


  1. Great post, Edith. I agree that there should be more platforms for advertising books. I loved magazines as a kid and I probably would've read more books if they were advertised in them. I really admire that you're working hard to help these students find the right books!

  2. I enjoyed reading your post. But it's useful to think from the book publisher's point of view instead of the students and their librarian. A book publisher is about making money, not about students' reading experience and helping their self esteem ect. If a book publisher publishes books with projected sales of 50,000+ copies (I just picked a number, it might be lower) then as a concerned librarian and a black American you have to show them that a book with a black main character will sell over 50,000 copies. Your school library might buy 2 copies, but do we have 25,000 school libraries to do the same? Without boring you with a detailed analysis, it's fair to say that the situation of lack of books with black characters is unlikely to get better. If you want to fight the good fight, you have to change the focus of your fight. It has to be about helping the book publishing industry to cultivate demand for books with black characters. Best wishes.

  3. The good news is that there are more vampire stories with Black characters once your readers get a bit older. Writers like LA Banks and Fiona Zedde. Here's a link to a couple more titles. They might be appropriate for ages 16+.

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  5. Thanks for this perspective, Edith. It's what I have been hearing from librarians like you for years. I've taken that feedback to heart in creating Tu Books myself (fantasy/SF starring main characters of color), and each of us on this committee is trying to do our part in bringing books out that have more diversity, but there's still such a need for more. But it doesn't help when school budgets continue to get cut--we're losing school librarians and/or their book buying budgets left and right.

    This is such a multiple-pronged problem. I agree that there need to be more ways to reach kids and teens directly, that we publishers should reach out to them more. Many of us are working on a variety of ways to do that (though advertising is often the last route, because it's so expensive and so rarely pays for itself; I've seen more and more use of targeted online ads for books, though, on venues such as Facebook, as they tend to be a better use of that kind of budget).

    But we also need to save the jobs of people like you, and to make sure that schools and towns have good libraries. It's word of mouth that does the most for getting a book in the hands of the right kid, whether through a librarian who recommends a book to an alpha influencer (who then recommends it to several friends, who in turn recommend it, in a long chain), or an alpha influencer who finds the book on his or her own.

  6. Edith, I'm curious, when you students say they are looking for a black character, do they want every character in the book to be black? Are they looking for a black main character but an integrated cast? Are they wanting at least one character in the book to be black even if that character is not the viewpoint character? Not that there is one opinion, but in general, what do you find your students most looking for?

    As for Gloria's thoughts, although he has a good point about market forces, there are two assumptions that I think are worth examining. The first, that a white readership will not read a book with a black character. The example that springs to mind is The Wizard of Earthsea written decades ago by Ursula LeGuin, It's among her most popular books. Christopher Paul Curtis is very popular with white readers--at least in my local school district. Alvin Ho and Calvin Coconut are quite popular with younger readers who are not Asian or Hawaiian. I think those books are not targeted in their marketing but get solid support from major publishing houses and are written by award winning authors who are well regarded by librarians.

    The second assumption is that it's the role of the publisher to create demand. I tend to think of them as discoverers of demand, and hopefully fulfillers of demand. Beyond the obvious, support of schools and school librarians, I'm not sure it's the publisher's job to drum up demand.

  7. Thank you all for your support of libraries! We do so much for today's students in addition to building a love of reading that I don't know how schools are doing anymore than just surviving with librarians.

    Rosanne, I'm not so sure think my students are looking so deeply into the total racial composition of the book. I think they're looking for people and situations that reflect their own lives. It is an Afrocentric world with predominantly African American characters.

    I do have to admit here that I have changed positions to a university where I'm working with a much more diverse population. Already, I've been tasked with helping fill the void of African American literature because students have been requesting it. With growing Middle Eastern and Asian student populations, I hope to help build a more inclusive collection to reflect the realities of not only our campus but the world.

    It really bothers me that we assume only Latinos read books by Latino authors, but this transcends books. How often do we see news stories with ethnic issues that are reported by someone of that ethnicity? We're sent the message that these issues belong only to people of that ethnic group when they're actually all our issues. I sometimes forget that when trying to simply get more books published for teens of color that there's a larger world that has created these issues and the fight isn't so simple.