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2016 March



In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

The State of the: books added this year

On 28, Mar 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

One of my goals and major projects this year has been to examine the different sections of our collection, weed and update them, ensure they are being used, and introducing more diversity into them. I’m going to start sharing the numbers and my ideas on how I’m going to improve the collections. 

The Collection

The books we’ve added through out the year have been a mix of materials. Some have simply been new releases that are intended to build our fiction collections. Others support specific curricular units.

I worked hard on updating and upgrading our transitional chapter book collection (the red books) adding new books with more appeal, weeding older titles that didn’t circulate and were in poor condition. I also worked very hard to get a more diverse set of books into that part of the collection.

We also bought a fair amount of fiction and nonfiction to support various areas of the curriculum. I bought a lot of Native American books and Latino books to support the second grade social studies units in these areas. I am especially proud of this collection development as I made sure to purchase books written by native authors and that were well reviewed by Native Americans (thank you Debbie Reese in particular!).

The Numbers

So far this year we have added 588 books to our collection (I’m sure that gives you a sense of what our budget is). We are working on purchasing a few more books shelves so we probably won’t add more than a 50 more books for the rest of the year. Which is my way of saying this is pretty close to our final number.

The numbers here aren’t perfect. I looked specifically at the main character in most of the books, although sometimes there were two, in which case I counted both of them. I think a few books that I added new records for slipped in but weren’t technically new books. Also, if I could tell in a nonfiction book that there was a specific gender being shown throughout the book or on the cover I counted this into my tally (for example How to Fly a Jet Fighter, a math-based graphic novel, is narrated by a woman), but it wasn’t possible for every book. Incidental ethnicity in some of the nonfiction and fiction isn’t reflected here because it was hard to tell if people pictured were an actual ethnicity. There are also plenty of longer chapter books that I am not completely familiar with. If they weren’t on the cover I marked the book as white. Let’s face it, people will assume the characters are anyway.

Some of the animals were actually inanimate objects or insects (Stick and Stone or The Day the Crayons Quit). Sometimes you could tell that there was a gender, but not an ethnicity. “Other” refers primarily to Indian characters, but there were two or three Ancient Greeks which I didn’t want to call white (which I think of more as Western European ancestry). In the gender section, +3 refers to three or more main characters that made it difficult to count everyone accurately.

This time around I did look at family structure and at religion because I know I intentionally bought books that showed these things, but for the majority of the books we bought there wasn’t a particular religious or family theme. We added three books that specifically mention or deal with Judaism. We added three books with Muslims in them and only two that were overtly Christian. There were two books added with same-sex parents and two that dealt specifically with divorced parents.

So again, these numbers aren’t perfect, but they give a very good snapshot despite this.

Thoughts and Concerns

This was harder to look at because many books we bought didn’t specifically deal with race or religion, etc. The numbers are still pretty bad. Okay, abysmal. Much as our numbers with the biography collection.

I understand that race is not the only form of diversity, but frankly other types just didn’t feature in the books we have added (I know one book I bought shows a child in a wheelchair). This is a place we really need to focus our attentions. I didn’t want to look too closely at disability either because many of the books you see it in are our chapter books and I know many of those don’t fair well under scrutiny of their portrayals of the disabilities.

I am ashamed to admit many (6ish) of the Asian characters in books are actually Lego Ninjago characters. Ugh.

I am going to pat myself on the back here for a minute. I looked at the books I specifically bought since I made a concerted effort to be buying more diverse materials. I think I did an okay job. Okay stop patting. That being said, I can do a lot better and am challenging myself to do better for the rest of this year and next year (and any years to follow). My point in running these numbers was not to make me look good, but to show that if you focus on getting more diverse materials it makes a BIG difference in your numbers. We have to be intentional about this.

I put the Star Wars books in their own category because it was this big set I bought. I guess I’m trying to make myself feel better about my numbers, but I am also not sure if there are any in there that have any of the female characters featured or the new character that is black (I know so little about Star Wars, I’m sorry!). The animal character numbers are high because I have a soft spot for them!! Good to see that so I can work on checking that bias.

It’s not easy to find good quality literature that celebrates diversity, but it is out there. And the last thing our library needs, as the numbers are beginning to show, is yet another book with a white boy (and to some extent girl) in it. I believe we have a good collection at its core, by weeding and being more selective in what we purchase we can make it an even better collection. We can sell what we already have in the library and worry less about adding new books. I do hesitate when I know kids come in and ask for certain books that might not fit with my efforts to buy diverse titles, but I have to balance wanting to encourage kids with wanting to spend our budget on better books.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

The State of the: Biography Collection

On 21, Mar 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

One of my goals and major projects this year has been to examine the different sections of our collection, weed and update them, ensure they are being used, and introducing more diversity into them. I’m going to start sharing the numbers and my ideas on how I’m going to improve the collections. 

The Collection

The biography collection is broken into two sections- yellow and red/blue- that very loosely indicate the reading level of the books. Many of our picture book biographies are in the red/blue section. The colors are indicated by stickers on the spines of the books. There are two series that are set aside on the shelves (more on them below).

The Numbers

There are 533 books in the collection about 423 subjects (people). There are 270 books in yellow about 219 subjects and 216 books in red/blue about 204 subjects. Note that there are books in the red/blue section and in the yellow section that overlap on subject (person) which when you look at the pie charts makes it seem like there are more subjects than there are.

329 are men 138 are women

338 are American 129 are not (as per traditional curriculums we study a lot of American history which in part explains the big difference in these numbers)

319 are White, 83 are Black, 2 are Asian, 22 are Native American, 26 are Latino/Hispanic, and 15 are Other.

(If you want to see the charts and graphs in Google Sheets click here.)

If you want me to name names here’s a link to my list that’s broken up into the series and sections. The Childhood of Famous Americans series is yellow (it’s not listed as such in the document). The Who Is…?/Who Was..? series is considered red/blue. And the DK Biography series is yellow.


We have two series of biographies, the Who Is…?/Who Was…? and Childhoods of Famous Americans.

The former works well enough for our third grade biography project and the later is hit or miss. My biggest complaint is that they read much like a novel with dialog and detailed scenes from the person’s life. I think this gives the wrong impression for our younger readers who are not nearly as savvy as older readers and may confuse this for fact. I also find they have a huge range of reading levels (400L-980L with most falling in the upper 500s to 700s range) which makes it hard to say they work well for classes with a mix of readers. It’s also very hard for kids in lower school to pull information out of what they are reading, understand it, and put it into their own words. Adding the invented dialog and novelization of the information makes that even harder for them.

I decided to find Lexile numbers for the Who Is…?/Who Was…? series. Turns out they are just as high if not consistently higher than the Childhood series. I think it works out well enough, though. The Who Is…? breaks up the information more and intersperses pictures more frequently. They are also more factual than novelized. This makes pulling information out of them a little easier.

As a side note I don’t find Lexile numbers especially useful except in relation to one another (is one book harder than another). I find their grade level ranges often don’t apply to my students and overlap a lot. I also hate to limit children’s reading based on reading level. I’ve talked about this before at length, but thought I would mention it again. I do like them as a reference point though which is why I include them with my chapter book reviews and in this series.

Thoughts & Concerns

Well, the numbers don’t lie. I know this is just a slice of our collection, but I’m sure it’s a microcosm. To be honest, it’s probably a better balance than most of the rest of the collection. I also know it directly supports curriculum and learning of our students. We may say we support diversity, but these numbers are pretty abysmal. I don’t think this is intentional, however we can do better. MUCH, MUCH BETTER. I can think of two ways we can do that. First is by weeding out biographies that are old, incorrect, or don’t circulate. Second we can buy more, A LOT MORE, biographies of people who are not white and who are women. For an expensive private school we have a surprisingly diverse population and our library collection needs to reflect that. Our students, white and not white, deserve that.

One aspect I want to look at are the picture book biographies. I want to be sure that they are in the correct reading level sections. None of the collection sees much circulation outside the third grade biography project and I think picture books for older readers, unless they are being hand sold to kids, don’t tend to circulate. I think they might circulate better if they were in the red/blue section, but only if they aren’t way too hard or contain older content. Plus, the third grade tends to rely on our yellow biography section and while the picture books are great starting points they do not often contain enough information to be a single source for the project and so they may be better down in red/blue.

Per my observation a few weeks ago that many children’s nonfiction books perpetuate incorrect information I am concerned that our biographies do just that. I am also concerned that they do not portray history accurately enough e.g. they whitewash a lot of it. I am at a loss of what to do about it considering that I cannot read and fact check all the books in our collection. I am withdrawing the worst offenders, but that only goes so far and admittedly doesn’t get rid of the most egregious books or worst offenders.

UPDATE 3/22/2016:

Just a few more thoughts about these statistics. The first is that there are a few books missing out of the collection that are checked out. They won’t actually make much, if any, difference in our numbers, though.

I also want to add that this doesn’t actually drill down deeper into the collection. I did not examine the books about people of color to see who wrote them. I suspect many were by white authors (although not all) which makes a difference. And the same is true about the authors in the collection in general- I don’t know how many are people of color.

I largely ignored sexual orientation and religion. Quite frankly the numbers are just so overwhelming that it wasn’t worth it. There are maybe three Muslims in the collection (Muhammad Ali , Saladin, and Malcolm X). There are maybe as many jews (Anne Frank being one and a man in connection with her). As far as sexual orientation, we don’t really deal with that too much in the lower school as a stand alone issue. We do have biographies of Bill Peet and a few others who were gay, but I’m not sure that’s even mentioned in the biographies.

I would also like to add that while many biographies about white subjects can and should be weeded, unfortunately many of the biographies about people of color need to be weeded too. I just read yesterday one of our biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. In it the book uses the n-word twice. TWICE! And says nothing about the word and only implies it as an insult, to say nothing of calling it out for the racial slur that it is. The book is also so old it refers to African Americans as Negroes and colored people. If I’m not mistaken, these terms are outdated and maybe even insulting.

Finally, going back to the idea that our numbers aren’t intentionally bad. This is problematic, though, because with the current state of the publishing industry we need to be intentional in what we are adding to our collection. This is especially true when we want to ensure we have a diverse collection. To that end I will be looking at the books we’ve added just this year.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: A Hand to Hold by Zetta Elliott

On 14, Mar 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Hand to HoldA Hand to Hold written by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Purple Wong

From Goodreads: Can you hold onto someone with your heart instead of your hand? When it’s time to start school, a little girl must let go of her father’s hand in order to reach out and grab hold of something new.

THANKS A LOT, ZETTA ELLIOTT. I AM NOW WEEPING INTO MY COFFEE CUP. You pretty much nailed what it’s like trying to take my daughter anywhere. And what I hope she will be able to do when she sees another child having a hard time, too. Add to that the special relationship fathers and daughters can have. I can’t even.

A little girl goes all sorts of places holding her father’s hand- the library, crossing the street, etc. It’s a comforting gesture that makes her feel safe and protected. But one day she finds herself holding his hand at school and he’s telling her it’s time to let go. He’ll be back later and that is HARD. He explains that although they are not holding hands, she can hold him in her heart until he returns. Still the little girl is scared and upset until the teacher brings over another little girl who is having an equally hard time. Just then the little girl knows just what to do. She grabs the other girl’s hand, says a few comforting words, and the two head off to play together as dad slips out the door.

Although the book packs an emotional punch that gets at  how hard it is for many kids to separate from their parents (and speaks to the parent who has mixed emotions about that step their child is taking away from them), it never feels saccharine. Yes, even despite my misty (okay, teary!) eyes. It reminds me of The Kissing Hand which I find just too sappy. I don’t know why, but I do. With the twist of the little girl helping another girl, a new friend, feel better the story feels more genuine and less about separating from the father and more about the girl finding her way into the world.

Every library who serves young children needs this book. Particularly school libraries. We always, always, always have a few kids each year that have a hard time saying goodbye to mom or dad. Ones who are a little bit scared and just need a little push in the right direction. Talk about a perfect book for story time in those first few days of school.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: One Family by George Shannon

On 09, Mar 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

One FamilyOne Family written by George Shannon, illustrated by Blanca Gomez

From Goodreads: Just how many things can “one” be? One box of crayons. One batch of cookies. One world. One family. From veteran picture book author George Shannon and up-and-coming artist Blanca Gomez comes a playful, interactive book that shows how a family can be big or small and comprised of people of a range of genders and races.

I didn’t realize it when I requested the book, but this is an interesting twist on the traditional concept counting book. There is plenty to count in the book, but it focuses on the message that a family is a family no matter how many or who is in it. And it does so by examining the use of “one” as a collective number, which is a very abstract idea, but something kids will immediately understand.

The pictures are wonderful. They have that modern vibe that seems to be popular right now (and appeals to me personally). A bit computer-y but also whimsical and studiously less than perfect. The families come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, religions, etc. And this was the real draw for me. Again, I’m going to share a little about myself and get personal with the review.

With Room in My Heart I shared that my parents are divorced, remarried, re-divorced, and remarried. Well, so are my husband’s parents. That means our daughter has seven (SEVEN!) grandparents (and one crotchety great grandparent). And they all live within a few miles of us. Blessing and curse, let me tell you. The thing is, this isn’t exactly the norm. Our family gatherings are full of adults that are related in weird and complicated ways to each other and it’s hard for our daughter to understand that. She is so blessed to have so many people that love her, but she’s surrounded by some difficult baggage and emotions too. The majority of our friends with kids do not have anything rivaling this crazy family situation and I really don’t want our daughter to grow up feeling embarrassed by our crazy family. I want her to see that families come in all shapes and sizes. Now, of course out in the real world she does see a lot of different family makeups, but this is not usually reflected in picture books (as I noted with divorced families) and it often feels like something no one talks about.

All this is a long way of saying books like this are so important because they show families that don’t look like the white mother-father-2 kids picture society likes to paint and picture books reinforce.

My only hesitation with the book for my library is that we technically serve a population that is beyond the counting from one to ten books. But I want it in our collection. I can shelve it with the picture books and it would be an excellent one to trot out for any of out pre-k or kindergarten family units (which usually come at the start of the year and are short). The message is way too important here to pass over. I think libraries that serve young children should all have it, even if the kids are a bit too old for counting books.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Room in My Heart by Zetta Elliott

On 07, Mar 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Room in my heartRoom In My Heart by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: It took some time for Nikki to adjust to her parents’ divorce, but now she and her little sister Natalie enjoy their new routine. Daddy comes over for dinner on Tuesday nights and the girls spend each weekend with him. But everything changes when Daddy picks them up for their weekend visit and introduces the girls to his new friend Sylvia. Nikki feels invisible when Sylvia’s around and so she decides not to spend the weekend with Daddy anymore. Only after talking about her feelings with her aunt does Nikki learn that her father’s love is unchanging, and that there is room in his heart to love many different people.

Another Zetta Elliott that I bought for my library and love, love, loved. I have to say I connected with this book on a personal level as much as I saw it being a good book for the right kid. Forgive me, but I’m about to get a bit personal in this review. My parents divorced when I was young but this was not something I often saw reflected either in my reading or other pop culture I consumed. My mom remarried a couple times and my dad dated a lot. Although I don’t remember struggling in quite the way Nikki does here, I related to so many of her feelings and her situation. It’s hard going between two households and it’s weird when you introduce new people into the family. I am so glad to see a book that reflects that and talks about it without feeling forced or as if it is telling a child how to feel or respond.

I also think the book does a beautiful job allowing Nikki to have her feelings without casting them as something awful or something she shouldn’t have. We often don’t allow children their emotions. We’re always shushing them and telling them they’re okay when they cry, etc. I think this is best seen when Nikki is upset with her father and decides not to spend the weekend with him, her mother says her father is disappointed:

I just shrugged and went upstairs to unpack my overnight bag. I told myself I didn’t care if my father was disappointed in me. I was disappointed in him!

The father in Room In My Heart puts manners and politeness and his own feelings before Nikki’s. Elliott gets at the ridiculousness of this. Sure, Nikki learns something by the end of the book, but Elliott doesn’t invalidate her feelings. She makes all the characters acknowledge them and address them. All this is to say that Elliott really hit the nail on the head in conveying many of the feelings and troubles of kids whose parents are divorced and at some larger issues for children.

As with Max Loves Munecas I worried that I would have to hand sell this to the kids, that they wouldn’t pick it up on their own. I don’t mind hand selling books and I think those hand sells are very important especially for reluctant readers, however I just don’t have nearly enough time to do it often enough or well enough. So I worry that the books won’t get read after the first few months they’ve been in the library. But Zetta Elliott put this post up on her blog* and in her first part of the conversation she totally speaks to why that doesn’t matter. I am so glad she framed it this way and I feel silly for not having thought of it that way before.  I am not going to worry about that any more. Thank you, Zetta Elliott, for assuaging my anxiety about this and for making books that are perfect for giving to the right reader at just the right time. (Update: I put the book out on our new arrivals shelf and lo and behold a kid checked it out with zero prompting from me. I was totally wrong about it.)

*This is not at all the point of her whole post, by the way. I do recommend reading the whole thing. There is so much there to think about and reflect on and Elliott and Kwaymullina are great people to be learning from.

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