If you’ve noticed a pattern in my posts, it’s definitely “how the thing didn’t turn out the way I planned but that’s okay.” That sums up practically every program I do, and it’s part of working with teens. So don’t feel bad if your program isn’t “perfect” (psst: nobody is perfect!).
About a year and a half ago, I applied for the ALA Great Stories Club grant–specifically the books focusing on racial healing. I chose the topic “What Makes A Hero?” primarily because of the use of graphic novels and Binti.
This was the first grant I ever wrote, and my supervisor was extremely supportive and helpful in hitting all the points that the grant wanted me to address. One component of this grant asks for a partner organization. At my library, we are strongly encouraged to work with other departments within the County, so I contacted Community Justice Services and asked if anyone would like to partner with me. One great benefit of this grant was that I formed an amazing partnership with one of the coordinators of their youth program, and I learned so much about what he and his colleagues do.
I was able to attend the training program for grant coordinators in Chicago, and it did give me more confidence regarding moderating group discussions on racial inequality and how this is addressed in the selected titles. I was particularly concerned that teens would see me, a white librarian, as someone swooping in to lecture them about racism. However, the activities we did and the instructors we had made me feel a lot better about moderating these discussions.
I set up the program so that we would meet every week for about three months and discuss four books: Maus II, Binti, Black Panther Vol. 1, and Code Talker. The group was projected to be fairly small–never bigger than ten teens. All of them were performing community service and meeting together at the library as prescribed by juvenile court. Because of this, I don’t have any photographs of the events.
The biggest issue I had was that the books selected and the accompanying discussion questions felt aimed around the level of an AP English class at a prep school, but grant applicants were encouraged to work with underserved youth. In my area, the school district is on the state gerrymandering theme and the schools are heavily segregated by race due to redrawn district lines. Schools with a majority white student population receive better press and more resources than schools with a majority Black or Latinx student body. The teens who attended my sessions weren’t used to reading something as philosophical as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take on Black Panther (in fact, I wasn’t, either, and still wonder about its inclusion in this reading list). None of them had ever read a comic or graphic novel before, so I explained to them how that works. And they were all frustrated that school wasn’t teaching them about things they needed to know to understand the context of these novels. For example, World War II.
I spent several sessions giving a crash-course in WWII, Nazism, and the Pacific Theater because teachers hadn’t covered it in school. Evidently they’re very strong on the Civil War but anything after that is a total crapshoot. The teens tried to understand Maus and Code Talker, but with little to no background in the setting of these books, the emotional impact simply wasn’t there. I had to wonder if those selecting books for these grants considered that the underserved teens they wanted to target might not be comfortable discussing college seminar-style questions about books set during a time period about which they had learned nothing in school.
Binti was definitely a hit with my group, though. I did half of it as a read-aloud and when I got to the line where people make snide comments about the main character’s hair, the girls totally got into it. She was the most relatable main character for them.
Overall, I’m grateful for the experience to have worked with these teens and with another county department, but I think that the books offered to librarians could have been more diverse when it came to the difficulty level. The discussion questions proceeded from the assumption that the teens participating had a basic understanding of history, which they might not. And that’s completely not their fault!
I would love to do more book discussions with this group, but with titles more suited to their interests.