Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fight for libraries

(This is the slightly edited text of a speech I gave October 24, 2017 to children's library staff for the Toronto Public Library.)

I’ve been asked to talk about what libraries have meant to me – especially when I saw the world at kid level.

And there are a number of directions where I could take this little talk.

I could talk (ad nauseum) about how important libraries have been in my life (and, in recent years, my career).

I could blow smoke about how awesome you librarians are... I obviously believe this is true. I did dedicate my novel MINRS2 to librarians, and I meant it. You get books into the hands, and minds, of kids in ways no one else can… and certainly in ways no algorithm will ever do.

But it's the end of your meeting and you probably all want to grab a cold drink and some nachos somewhere - so let me be blunt and get to my main point right now.


You are the keepers of the very last refuge for kids in this increasingly structured world. A world that is structured according to adult wants and needs. The refuge where kids can access their own empowerment on their own terms.

You are the only people left who are there for them and with them.

And I know teachers care about kids. Parents, are supposed to…. etc. But what I'm saying is that teachers care for kids (increasingly) within the constraints of curriculum, and under the strictures of cost-cutting school administrations – and more and more without access to libraries. 

School, in our public discourse, is more and more about training the employees of the future and less and less about creating fully-formed human beings. This seems to be happening at  every level (including University).

I love teachers (MINRS2 is also dedicated to them). They are as creative and giving as they can be in their classrooms. But outside forces have skewed things so that as the school year turns from fall to winter – it’s time to get the kids prepped for standardized testing and the adult-expectation based results.

(Don’t get me started on standardized testing. It’s based on the idea of kids as little machines that respond to inputs and then make outputs that can be measured and tweaked.)

This creeps into our own lives as well. I’m not a giant fan of reports that talk about children as “clients” – or, in my other life at the CBC, listeners as “consumers of media”. These abstractions allow us to treat “people” like abstract principles with up or down measurable results – like Gradgrind does in Dickens’ HardTimes.
But YOU have the power to give them the power. The kids.

I’m focusing on schools right now because it’s where kids HAVE to be much of their lives. And we are failing them.

I do about a hundred school visits a year. And what I'm seeing more and more in our public schools is school after school with a one-day-a-week librarian IF THEY ARE LUCKY. 

The Forest of Reading, the amazing OLA reading program for kids – is sometimes getting whacked as an unnecessary perk.  (Hint about why – it’s also largely run by kids who get to decide which books and how many they can read. Adults don't like kids having much power methinks.)

It's very disheartening. 

You see, the library is the only, and I stress this, the ONLY place where kids have the power to help decide what, and how, they will learn. It is the only place that lets them self-direct their own learning. They search the stacks. They decide what to read, and they gain the sense of confidence in making their own choices.

I know this first hand.

The library is the place where I learned to be a reader, a student and a writer.
I was not a very good reader. I was given books all the time by teachers, my parents, even friends... and there was a library in my elementary school.

But that library was a static, boring place. Musty. Row upon row (in my mind’s eye) of grey dusty books lined up in uniform rows on metal racks. Like the books were in prison.

Going there to find a book to help with a school assignment was like visiting a dentist’s office. Important? Necessary? Yes.

Enjoyable? No.

And it was not a place or space that promoted lingering. As a result, it contained the wisdom of ages - but it was all trapped like a genie in a bottle.

Then a miracle happened - at least for me.

The public library in my town (the Youngstown Free Library) underwent a renovation. I was 10 years old.

What they did first was take all the stacks (lovely oak, some metal) and pushed them to the side walls in the children’s section. The result was two-fold. The huge windows flooded the room with light.

And there was now a huge empty space in the middle of the room.

They filled the space with giant pillows. Bright colours. You could sink into them like you were being hugged. There were even a couple of bean bag chairs (which the younger kids would sometimes throw around).


It was (and still remains in my memory) the most comfortable, wonderful spot I've ever had to read a book.

As I sat on the luxurious pillows, I finally noticed the actual books around me.

Beatrix Potter at first. Sports books. Then the Hardy Boys. Then the Hobbit. (There was a progression here from books with lots of pictures to books with fewer and fewer). They became my best friends.

This is from Neil Flambé 6 - but is clearly inspired by the artwork in the Hardy Boys.

I went there after school, on weekends, and for evening book clubs. This was to a place I never would have visited willingly until the renovation. Drawn by the comfort, I finally gravitated to the actual books.

It was no coincidence that the Beatrix Potter books were stacked at the eye level of the kids sitting on the floor. 

The books became more complex the more you stood up - not according to alphabet or Dewey decimal system but according to the height of a kid looking for those books.


Later, the experience was mirrored (and built on) by my high school library Lewiston Porter in Western New York. It was a newer building with a librarian who cared about the space. It was hung with artwork. It felt like a weird witch's cave - macrame plant holders, tapestries and paintings (I later learned most had been made by students – when I got involved in the art clubs, probably thanks to being exposed to the art in the library).

And it had reading spaces too - cleverly tucked in all over the place, in odd angles against the concrete walls – or in odd configurations of the stacks.

These felt enclosed and hidden (which appealed to the teenager’s cat-like desire for a "private cubby") but were still visible from the librarians desk.

AND - she introduced a MUSIC ROOM. A room where students could go and sample music - with headphones and listening cubbies with individual turntables.

There was this one tough kid  – who was like a dude from The Outsiders - and one day I saw him coming out of the music room and he’d left behind the record he’d been listening to. 

Which happened to be the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. Pretty sure that wasn’t a musical selection he would have avowed in front of his friends, so the music room allowed that kind of eclectic investigation and experimentation.

It also tweaked a life-long interest of my own in unexpected things – because it was the first time I listened to that Overture. Canons!

It's where I fell in love Tchaikovsky – and then Beethoven and Gershwin. That room gave me the ability to listen without the pressure of outside scrutiny. 

Now, I'm old - and so a music room and comfy pillows might seem quaint against the bells and whistles available today.

But my point is the same no matter what era. These were librarians who viewed these spaces through MY eyes. Through the eyes of kids.

Librarians structured the spaces according to what would make me more comfortable. Not what makes the books more comfortable.


But what amazing chaos. You’d take books out and just not restack them. They would sit on the tops of stools, tucked into the curved impression of a kid left behind on a pillow.

And that was cool too, because often you’d walk in and see a book cover with a ghost or pirate on it – and you’d just start reading that book. Of course the librarians could have restacked them… or ordered us to restack them – I’ve certainly been in libraries where you could get kicked out if you didn’t put your book on those wheely metal pushcarts.

But why? Kids don’t necessarily access the library that way. I think (in fact am pretty sure) the librarians would choose some of their favourite titles and purposefully leave them out in the open so that we would discover them.

Think about what the kids want. They might wreck books. They might mess with the systems. They might do a lot of stuff.

Good. That will make them readers... passionate lovers of books and the knowledge and wonders they contain. Because they aren’t left with the feeling that the object is more precious than what’s inside.

This is a hard thing for an adult to say.

Sometimes we have to fight our own adult wants and needs. I'll use the library in Harry Potter as an example. Readers love the idea of the old libraries with cobwebs and chained books. I’ve been to those places – The Bodleian at Oxford. The Long Room at Trinity College in Dublin. Amazing places… FOR ADULTS. Yes, kids sometimes romanticize those places, but do kids really like them?

You know the only kid who ACTUALLY likes the library? Hermione. Sure. She’s great. But she’ll read books in a library filled with Boggarts – so why didn’t Hogwarts and librarian Irma Pince do a better job of making a space for the non-inspired students? Maybe throw some books in the air and have kids catch them on brooms? Or maybe allow certain spells in the library that make the books read themselves... you know, for dyslexic wizards or reluctant readers?

Draco Malfoy might have turned out better.

And this is all circling around the central idea of SPACE.

What kind of space should a CHILDREN’S Library be?

Well… for one thing, make it fun.

And it doesn’t really matter how large the available space is – maybe you have a tiny library.

Size doesn’t even matter.

Kids will fill a space with their own psychic energy.

One of the reasons the idea of a “land inside a wardrobe” works in the Narnia Chronicles isn’t because kids can imagine what that’s like. But because they have experienced it. Kids fill up spaces with their imaginations, and even a tiny space can hold a multi-verse.

So just don’t make it uniform and boring. Make it a place where there are things to discover.

Another personal anecdote. In my house there was a cubby on the landing between the first and second floor – a crawl space. There was a wooden door with a latch, and we’d open that then pull ourselves inside. (We being me, my brothers and various friends from the neighbourhood). And what a cave of wonders. Boxes of old newspapers.

Knickknacks like old china plates and crystal cups. It was like we’d landed in Smaug’s lair, and we pretended to be hobbits, or sometimes pirates, discovering and plundering a lost treasure trove.

Going back as an adult – it’s just a tiny closet, really. But as a kid it felt enormous. Yes, children are smaller and experience the world from a different point of view (it’s one the reasons kids love stories of giants so much). But it was also because – if kids are given prompts for our imaginations – open and varied spaces filled with odd things (or odd books) we will invest that space with our own expectations and meaning.

So, as this applies to libraries, imagine the joy of getting lost in the uneven stacks I experienced as a child. Especially in my school library which had different configurations and spaces. You turned a corner and it wasn’t another rack of books – but a chair. Or you walked up a set of stairs and there was a table with books on it.

And this brings me to a last big element of making a space for kids work.

They expect books. Give them more. Like pillows (I don’t know why adults sections don’t have these!)

Demystify the book.

Another personal library experience, and this has to do with surprise. 

But one day I walked in and my school librarian set up a movie projector.

This is a while back, so the important thing here is that this was NOT normal. Libraries were for books. Not for movies. But she explained that this was a movie about writing.

And the movie was this. A girl is running through the woods. Scared of something that’s chasing her, but that we never see. She stumbles and falls into a puddle. Then gets up and screams again. She begins running, then stops, Now, in front of her there is a door. It opens a cracks and a light shines through. She opens it, runs inside, and slams the door. And that’s the end of the movie.

My librarian spoke these magic words “ what happens next?” And that was the day I became a writer.

Now, had this been a story she’d told or a books she’d suggested I’d read it’s POSSIBLE that I might have been inspired the same way. (Think of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick).

But the weirdness of seeing it happen on a movie screen, in my boring musty library, caught my attention right away.

And that led to a conversation of the type of ending I thought might work for that movie.

And that led to my discovery of the idea of genre. So I became a better student and then a better, or at least more informed, writer.

You think she goes through the door and it opens to another dimension? You might like fantasy – such as Tolkein, L’Engle, Frank Herbert. Oh, and that section is over there.

You think there are more monsters waiting for her on the other side? Here’s the horror section with some books by a dude named Stephen King.

You think it’s all in her head or ghosts? Here are some psychological and gothic thrillers by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Or Shelly or even some Dickens.

See how you can trick those pliable young minds into learning stuff? Knock them out of their comfort zone.

(This is a lesson I have internalized as an author, by the way. Trick kids into learning. My Neil Flambé series, for example, includes history – such as Marco Polo (whom I like) and the Spanish Conquistadors (who I don’t). 

MINRs is an adventure series, but gets kids thinking about child labour and the sort of stigmatization and scape-goating that they can see in front of them with Trump.

So be weird. Unexpected

Today, that might be thanks to the “weirdness” of a 3D printer or a green room (like the one in the Innisfil ideaLAB) that kids can use to make their own music videos, for example.

If the library is made for kids, they will make it their own.

So... going back to my original thought.


Last year at the Forest of Reading celebrations - I made a plea to the kids (and through them their parents and teachers) to FIGHT for libraries. In schools. In communities. To hold politicians' feet to the fire and demand better kid-centred spaces.

But these days, I don't think cut-crazy politicians really give a damn. Some school administrators don't give a damn. I'm not sure a lot of parents give a damn. They will cut everything down to the bone, and leave kids in an environment that is focused on adult expectations.

Libraries seem like luxuries to these knuckle-heads.

A funny thing that happens when I go to private schools is that they have, often, multiple libraries and librarians – with computers, tactile learning stuff (from legos to 3-D printers). So people with money KNOW the importance of these places.

So if the rich will pay to have them, why don’t our politicians and school boards see how central they are to levelling the playing field?

Or maybe they do, but they don’t care, or don’t want that playing field levelled.

In fact – while re-editing my speech this morning, and getting distracted by social media – I noticed my twitter feed blowing up thanks to a back and forth between Andre Walker (a columnist for the New York Observer.

The awesome Cressida Cowell tweeted her worry that school libraries are dying – and this will impact kids. Walker then suggested closing Public Libraries and putting the books in schools. Problem solved!

So many stupid parts to this argument, but he backed it up by saying “Nobody goes to libraries anymore”. This is a lie the politicians want to spread – because the people who actually DON’T go to libraries will believe it, and then won’t cry when they get cut.

(NOTE: Walker has since posted an "I Surrender" tweet after more than 100,000 people responded to his original tweet. See, protest CAN work!)

But kids do go. They want to go if the library is a place for them. They will respond. They will thrive. They will become better readers. Better citizens. Better people.
You are charged with making sure that happens. Even when you have to fight to do it.

Then those kids, like me, will fight for those spaces. Because they will be the MAIN PLACE where they become who they want to be.

Thank you.


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