SLJ Leadership Summit: Confronting our Literacy Crisis: Nashville TN October 7-8


This weekend I went to Nashville for the School Library Journal Leadership Summit, and it was amazing. As all librarians and general lovers of literacy know, we are facing huge challenges when it comes to literacy in this country: some areas are book deserts, while others have a glut of information- not all of it true or unbiased. How do we teach students to access and evaluate unbiased sources of news, while still encouraging a love of reading for fun and proving the power of libraries? The speakers, panels, and breakout groups at the SLJ Leadership Summit helped us get on the right track.

We started off with a keynote address from author John Green, who is a huge fan of the internet (he hosts an educational YouTube channel with his brother Hank), but even he admits “the internet cannot fix the internet”. We still need books! And libraries! And librarians! And most importantly, we need librarians to pass on the skills inherent in civil discourse. He compared librarians to the Ice Wall in Game of Thrones, separating the citizens of Westeros from the Army of the Undead. You can watch his keynote here.

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Author John Green

In breakout groups, we had the choice to attend presentations from the following:

*Alvin Irby, founder and Chief Reading Inspirer of Barbershop Books. They work with owners of barbershops in “book deserts” to provide reading materials for young readers while they wait for their monthly haircut.

*Jarred Amato, founder of Project LIT Community. He and his English class created a grassroots literacy movement in Nashville. He talked to us about about getting that project going and the lessons they learned.


*Alicia Abdul, Trust Me: Media Literacy for Research. She has created a “getting started” guide to teaching Media Literacy for Research and it is very comprehensive.

*Jason Walsh, Coordinator of Performing Arts, Metro Nashville Public Schools, integrates the arts and music to promote literacy of both music and language.

Next, Alan C Miller, Founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, spoke to us about finding and evaluating credible news source in a time when “even social media has become weaponized”. He encourages educators to take advantage of Checkology, a free tool, to get started with classes. They have a one-one-one option or a many-to-one program, which for now is free.


News Literacy Project


An amazing panel of four high school students, plus their very brave English teacher Megan Mathes, their librarian Gregory Lum, and national Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang walked us through one teacher’s journey in teaching American Born Chinese, a graphic novel, to her classes. She chose this novel as a tool for looking at race and identity in America, and while it got off to a shaky start, the unit is now a strong component in her teaching curriculum and by the comments of the student panel, one that they will remember for life. You can find teaching tools for American Born Chinese at

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Gene Luen Yang

Continuing the visual literacy theme, a panel of graphic novelists spoke about their books and the renaissance of quality graphics for young (and older!) readers. Cece Bell, author of El Deafo, Gareth Hinds, adapter of Poe: Stories and Poems, and Javaka Steptoe, author of Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat showed us a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a graphic illustrator and how we can incorporate graphics into our teaching practice.

All summit participants received an autographed copy of John Green’s Looking for Alaska as well as an autographed book from Gene Luen Yang, Gareth Hinds, Cece Bell, or Javaka Steptoe.

The next morning, we listened to librarian Tamiko Brown, who was chosen as this year’s Librarian of the Year by SLJ. She expounded on some of the lessons she’s learned as she became a library leader in her school and her district.

Two administrators, Thomas Tucker from Cincinnati Ohio, and Bill Chapman, from Jarrell Texas, discussed with us ways to get your superintendent and school board to push for a focus on literacy, and stressed to us the need to show them the ways that librarians add value to your school and community.

We had another opportunity to visit a breakout literacy presentation (mentioned above), and then three quick presentations from initiatives around the country that focus on building literacy:

Rae Anne Locke , librarian, shared with us the success of the One Book, One School program at her school, a structured reading for fun at night program that the whole school gets involved with. They’ve seen tremendous participation and anticipation with this program.

Kate Jerome, author, explored Gen2Gen: How intergenerational relationships can transform our future. Her company partners with and is working to mobilize one million senior volunteers this year alone- and they love to pass on their love of reading!

Allison Barney, coordinator from Nashville Public Library, described the partnership between the Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools, which resulted in more updated collections, money saved, and increased access to books for both students and teachers. They use the same library card number for both school and public library visits- what a great idea!

We had a town hall/unconference that SLJ Summit participants as well as SLJ twitter followers could chime in on two questions: Q1 In what ways are you successfully implementing news literacy and Q2 How can we build school-wide reading cultures? You can still add your answers to those questions, and read ideas from other participants, using the #SLJSummit.

The closing keynote speech was from Alvin Irby, of Barbershop Books, who encouraged us to be a messenger in our communities about reading and literacy- but to also consider whether we are creating opportunities that allow someone else to be a messenger? We might not reach every student- but are we reaching someone who then might turn out to be an influencer? Think about how you can add that to your practice.

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Alvin Irby, Barbershop Books

So many things to think about! So many plans to make! It feels like there are so many paths to take to increase media literacy- the most important thing is to pick one and start implementing. Hopefully the links on this page will help you choose your path.

The SLJ Summit was sponsored by leaders in publishing, and we were all able to take home all kinds of goodies from:

ABDO Publishing  abdo

Follet   Follett

Gale  gale

Junior Library Guild  jlg

Lerner  lerner

Mackin  mackin

Permabound  permabound


TLC  tlc

and of course School  Library Journal



Utilizing Young Adult Books and Picture Books to Teach Diversity, Acceptance, and Social Awareness

This week the National Book Awards longlist came out, and one of the books listed was “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. Published in February 2017, “The Hate U Give” has skyrocketed to the top of reading lists for young adults across the country, as well as scooping up some very prestigious awards. In addition to having a record 13 publishing houses bid for the publishing rights (Harper Collins’ Balzer+Bray won), the book has been optioned as a movie (filming began last week), and has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for months.

Hearing Angie Thomas speak at the Library of Congress National Book Festival was thrilling. Immediately I noticed that the audience for her presentation was the most diverse of all the speakers I listened to that day. Readers as young as ten were lined up waiting to enter the room, as well as senior teachers and librarians. The attendees were black, white, and all shades in between, and as Ms. Thomas spoke about what moved her to write her book, I could hear fingers snapping, “Amens”, light applause, and “Preach, Sister” in response to her words.

Ms. Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and witnessed a drug deal shoot out when she was six years old. The next day her mother took her to the public library, showing her another side of her community. When she was in college, she listened to news reports about the shooting of an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by the police, Oscar Grant. From that incident, the idea for “The Hate U Give” was born. After turning in the short story for a creative writing class at university, she was encouraged to continue the story as a novel. While working as a secretary for a bishop, she wrote the book in her spare time. Although it was initially rejected by more than 60 publishers, she was able to get the book published with the help of We Need Diverse Books, winning their inaugural award.

“The Hate U Give” is not the only book about police brutality, shootings, and speaking up for the truth to come out in recent years. Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s “All American Boys” was published in late 2015, and went on to win major awards in 2016. The authors spoke at schools, communities, and book festivals, and won both the Coretta Scott King Author book award and the Walter Dean Myers Award. “All American Boys” is told by two alternating narrators; Rashad, a black boy who has been beaten by a policeman who mistakenly thought he was shoplifting, and Quinn, a white boy from school who witnesses the assault and is a family friend of the police officer.

how it went
A year earlier, Kekla Magoon’s “How it Went Down” tackled a similar subject. It was published in 2014, and features the shooting of a black teen by a white man living in the same neighborhood. The book is told from the points of view of several people who saw the event, heard about the event, or knew the shooter or the victim. Each chapter offers a different take on “what went down”, as the neighborhood navigates the after-effects from the residents, the police, and the media.
When I heard Angie Thomas speak at the National Book Festival, a teacher in the audience asked her, “How can I explain to my very young students- first graders- about topics such as police brutality, Black Lives Matter, neighborhood riots, and violence against unarmed citizens?”. Ms. Thomas told her, “You teach them that empathy is more important than sympathy”. That got me thinking about children’s books that address this timely topic. Here’s a few that are new or upcoming for our very young readers:
Momma, Did You Hear the News”, by Sanya Whittaker Gragg, is a picture book that features a young boy whose parents decide he’s old enough to have “The Talk” with him after he sees the news about a police shooting. His parents teach him to come back “A-L-I-V-E”, with each letter featuring advice on how to behave if he encounters the police. The book was published in April


The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist”, published in January 2017, by author Cynthia Levinson (award-winning author of “We’ve Got a Job”, about the Birmingham Children’s March). “The Youngest Marcher” picture book tells the story of the youngest person to be arrested at a civil rights protest- she was nine years old.

youngestAnd debuting next month (October 2017), a picture book entitled “Lovely” by Jess Hong, features people who are “big, small, curly, straight, loud, quiet….” and helps young readers gain an appreciation for all the things that make us different from one another… and the same.
As parents, teachers, and librarians, we can, as Angie Thomas challenged, instill empathy in our youngest readers, and they in turn will grow up to be the kind of teens and then adults who will appreciate the differences among us and not turn a blind eye when discrimination and oppression happen to people who “look different” to them. They will fight for the freedoms of all people, regardless of the way they look, where they live, or where they come from. Just as “Dystopia” was hot in young adult books a few years ago, it appears that “Diversity” is a trend that is here to stay for a while.

**This post was featured on September 20 on the Freedom to Read Foundation blog.

National Book Festival 2017

One of my favorite things about going back to school in the fall is that it means it’s time for the National Book Festival! And it’s a good thing they moved it to the Walter Washington Convention Center a few years ago, because this year we had heavy rains- but that didn’t stop over 100 authors and thousands of book lovers.

I started my day with a presentation of JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy”, interviewed by David Rubenstein. Ultimately, though, I didn’t learn anything in the interview that wasn’t already in the book.


I had to hustle to catch the last half of M.T. Anderson, but I loved his books “Feed” and “Symphony for the City of the Dead” so much that I really wanted to hear him speak, even just for 20 minutes. His two-part series “Octavian Nothing” is definitely on my “To Be Read” list.



Next on my list was a sci-fi author, but I had a break in between, so I wound up sitting in on Meg Abbott– and downloaded one of  her books on Overdrive while I was listening to her speak! I liked her emphasis on multi-dimensional young women in her novels, as well as her research into the world of competitive sports such as cheerleading and gymnastics.


Sci-fi writer John Scalzi was just as funny in person as he is in his writing, and I found out he used to live in Sterling, VA (which is where I had my first job as a middle school librarian). Scalzi read a few of his short stories, including “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back” and answered a few audience questions (but refused to choose between Kirk and Picard).


Science Fiction Writer John Scalzi


After watching the “Girl Rising” documentary a couple of years ago, I was interested to hear Tanya Lee Stone speak about the her latest book, which features the young ladies from Girl Rising, as well as her other works such as “Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors” and “Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream”. Her presentation was very interesting and I could tell the audience was fired up and ready to continue the fight for free education everywhere. Stone suggested working with groups such as “Pinkbike” in Cambodia or “Room to Read“, which focuses on literacy and gender equality.


Probably the hottest Young Adult author, Angie Thomas, was next. Winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award and the We Need Diverse Books Award, Thomas published the hugely successful “The Hate U Give” this past spring and already it is being cast as a movie, being given to communities to read, and sparking discussions and debate about topics ranging from police brutality to diversity needed in publishing. I loved what she told one audience member when they asked what they could do with her class of young elementary students to promote further understanding of diversity: “Empathy is more important than sympathy”. That is definitely something we can all stand to work on.



Last on my agenda for the day (whew! what a day!) was Amor Towles, author of “Rules of Civility” and “A Gentleman in Moscow” (which I stayed up late reading on New Year’s Eve last year, because I am such a book nerd). Towles gave a great presentation on the background of the Russian Revolution, in which his novel is set, and answered some questions. He offered a few hints about his next novel (a road trip involving two brothers in the 1950s) and I can’t wait until that is published.



And that’s a wrap for this year’s National Book Festival. I am so fortunate to live so close to Washington DC and be able to attend this amazing, free book festival every year. Thank you to the Library of Congress for supporting this every year.

National University Library, Ljubljana Slovenia

Like many of the buildings in Ljubljana, the national library was designed by Joze Pleznic, and he envisioned the outside windows to look like open books, while the inside would be like entering a temple of knowledge. The library is currently featuring an exhibit “The Black Art in Color: painted and printed images in Middle Ages Incunabula”. You can view several manuscripts from the 1400s, and then try your hand at your own drawing!

The exterior of the National Library 

Inside is like being in a Greek temple of knowledge