In this interview, Kimberly Rues joins us to talk about what she has learned over her 15-year career as a librarian and teacher. Aside from being a librarian, she’s the Young Adult and Children's Literature columnist for EdSurge and expounds upon the necessity of diversity and inclusion in literature and how new genres open up new opportunities for learning. She even revealed the role librarians and public libraries have played in the shift to virtual learning for parents, students, and teachers since Spring Break.
By the way, this conversation was originally featured on our podcast K12ish, which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.
I ended up at a roundtable type group in Kansas City one evening in February a couple of years back. I went because I wanted to talk with progressive and forward-thinking people in their education area - just [to] also make sure that the library voice was represented in those conversations.
Because so many times, I think the library ends up feeling like an add on instead of an essential piece of what should be happening. So, I went to that roundtable. I think I was on a mailing list for EdSurge. I had done some freelance writing work in some other areas - nothing related to education. More about pillows, and paint colors and fun things, but not something tied in with teaching.
At the end of that event, one of the editors and I ended up connecting, and I got to thinking about how: if what I wanted to do, what I wanted to talk about was powerful ideas in education, then maybe that ought to be what I was writing about as well.
So, I ended up doing a guest post for EdSurge that Spring. After that, we just entered into a partnership, and I have been the Young Adult and Children's Literature columnist for them for the last year.
I think there are two that stand out for me. The first one is inclusivity and diversity in children's literature, not just in the characters presented, but in recognition of authors of color and the voices of characters of color.
It's crucial to differentiate because it's not that all of a sudden, they're there. I think they've been there, but they haven't been celebrated; they haven't been acknowledged. Honestly, publishers haven't published a vast amount [of this content].
Suppose you go back and look at the statistics from the University of Wisconsin, [there's] a program they do where they analyze the topics, subjects, and authors of children's literature.
They don't do every single thing that's been published, but they get samples sent to them from publishers, and they do an analysis of each year [of] what that diverse picture looks like. If you go back, even 5, 6, 7 years ago, it's very White. It's very White. Even just in the last couple of years, it's still quite White, but it's there's starting to be much more interest.
I don't know which came first - which chicken or egg came first - the talking about it, and then the publishers came on board, or the publishers deciding this is a good idea, and then people were talking about it. It doesn't matter.
What matters is that we are now really getting to have the materials on the shelves in our library reflect the people who sit in our classrooms, remember the people who sit in our country and the world. It's absolutely a goosebumps moment when you take a student over to the shelf.
You’re randomly book talking in the library and saying, "Hey, here's this one, here's this one, and here's another one over here," and their eyes light up when the picture on the cover looks like them. For someone who, in all my whiteness, [has] never really had to pay any attention to that.
Which was a mistake, obviously, all these years, but it's kind of in your face like, "Oh my goodness, I've been doing a disservice to these kids for all this time, and I'm gonna fix that." But it's also essential to make sure that the things you bring into the library to "fix that" is authentic, they are not contrived, and they are not just surface level.
They didn't just change the color of the skin on the character of the front of the book, but the actual story reflects a culture and a voice that matches the kids in my classroom. So the diverse piece is absolutely huge.
I remember hearing an EdSurge podcast a couple of years back, which featured Emily Elizabeth Thomas. She's a professor in the Literacy Culture and International Education Division at the University of Pennsylvania in the graduate school of education.
She's a person of color who described for me in vivid detail what it felt like to want to read fantasy novels and never see herself reflected. I thought, again, "how did I miss that?" Because I've always felt I was a proponent of making sure voices were heard.
Just to listen to her describe that moment where I think she said she was reading one of the Harry Potter stories, and there's a character that ends up being described by JK Rowling as a tall, Black girl. That tall, Black girl ends up being a character who ends up being the Gryffindor Quidditch team captain. So, kind of a memorable character.
For Emily Elizabeth Thomas, all of a sudden, was like, "Oh, there's someone who looks like me, who's part of this story," and then she started doing a lot more research. That was one story that stuck out to me, and I see that reflected in kids in the library almost every day.
I think there have been lots of little moments. I can't say that there was one large one. Another example from Emily Elizabeth Thomas's work that I saw represented in my own library was she describes a lot of the books of the past that Black history, or other historical and cultural backgrounds, as being mostly centered around things like - if you take the Black experience, for example, lots of books about slavery, lots of books about civil rights, and the people who overcame those challenges.
While all of that is important and essential, she described it as: 'you have to eat your vegetables.' That's the stuff you're supposed to read that's 'eating your vegetables, but what she wanted was the dessert, which was the fantasy stories, the superhero stories, and those kinds of things that look like her.
So, I had a student in my school, a Black, young man, in about fourth grade, he started to articulate what he wanted. At first, I was like, "he said something about wanting books with people that look like him." I took him over and showed him The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and he was like, "Okay, uh-huh... Yeah, no, that's not it."
We looked at a couple of other things, sort of civil rights era in the genre, and he's like, "No, no, you're not getting it. You're not getting it, Mrs. Rues." I'm like, "Well, what do you want?" And he's like, "I don't know, sports and girls, and just life."
So, we went over to the shelf, and I found Kwame Alexander's Crossover. I said, "How about this?" He took it, then he read it, and then he read the next one. Then he came back, and we wanted to talk about it. So, it was kind of one of those moments where it took a few conversations, and he had to be able to articulate that.
Most kids in fourth grade, they're 9 and 10 years old. They don't have that ability. So, recognizing in him was a learning moment for me, to be able to say: kids want realistic fiction and funny fiction and fantasy fiction that reflect them, so I need to find those books.
The more I read, and the more I know, then I'm able to go to the shelf instead of just pulling Hatchet off the shelf - which is an old, great classic, it's an excellent story, [I] still recommend it. But I can now also walk over to the shelf and pull Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and get that to a kid who wants a fantasy story, with some rich characters, lots of adventure, and characters that look like.
So, just becoming more aware of those things myself. Even just taking a young lady over to the shelf, and there's a series - Jada Jones - and the main character's a Black girl, not about being Black. It's just a Black girl who's living life.
One of my students, her eyes just lit up when I pulled that book off the shelf. She's like, "I want that!" Then she's read all four of them, and I think that's all there are, at this point. She keeps coming back - "Do we have more of those? Do we have more of those?"
I have to keep finding her something else in the meantime until we have more of those we can even buy. So, lots and lots of little moments like that week by week solidify how important this is for kids.
When we opened our elementary school library in the school where I work, it was 2007, and I remember talking to my principal about all the different areas that I wanted to have. I wanted to have graphic novels.
[Who] at the time was sort of a little freaked out like, "Well, you're going to read all those before you put them on the shelf, right?" - they were very foreign to her at the time. I was like, "Sure, sure. I'll read them all." I did for a while, and then at some point, you have to give up.
What I've noticed over time with graphic novels is this incredible evolution of acceptance of that genre. It is a different genre of reading. I would argue that it's at least as challenging as reading prose.
Because, yes, there may only be 25 words on a page, but your brain also has to synthesize those 25 words, with an entire page of illustrations, facial expressions, right words, a flow on the page, and movement in illustration, to put together the visualization of what's happening in that story.
I choose to read graphic novels once in a while. They're not my favorite genre for myself because I'm not comfortable with them as a reader yet. That's precisely why I keep trying because I know that it's a challenge for me to slow down and not just read the words but also read the pictures.
So, over the years, it started when we first had graphic novels. The principal was comfortable with fifth and sixth graders reading them. Then I kind of nudged it down to fourth grade - I might not have asked. Then at that point, it was kind of getting to be more of the culture of our school that it was okay to read graphic novels.
The third-grade team was not quite ready for a while. I finally convinced them that we could do it. The hook for them was they're reluctant readers. So, often, I think that is the hook for reluctant readers. They can navigate 25 words on a page, and a bunch of pictures, because their brains are used to using picture clues to figure out what on earth is going on in the story.
So, I invited 10 of the most reluctant readers in third grade to come to the library, and we work together. We created a lesson plan that they went back and taught to their class and their teachers.
Not just about what the graphic novels were, or where to find them in the library, but how you read them. For them to articulate and feel like an expert in reading this particular genre was powerful. Then the teachers were on board.
Then, of course, the kids were excited. Those reluctant readers felt like rockstar readers because they were ‘the graphic novel experts.’ It was such a decisive moment. We haven't had time to do it in the last couple of years, and the third-grade teachers are now on board.
So, there's not quite as much call for that, but I might start working on second grade. I think it's kind of like a gateway. If you get them reading - let's take Percy Jackson, [the] graphic novel series. So, if you get them to read The Lightning Thief and graphic novel, and they love it, then they now have a bunch of background knowledge that they can bring to the actual book.
So, the story they love is now even more accessible to them. They feel the confidence to take that on. The other part is that I've seen kids reading Greek mythology versions of graphic novels, fairytales of graphic novels.
Classics, like The Hobbit, in graphic novel form, and what they're doing is they're expanding their knowledge base about all of these things that will then make them a stronger reader in other texts. It seems like so much fun.
I had a teacher ask me last year, "when do you think that will outgrow them?" I smiled, and I said: they probably won't. There are lots and lots of adults for whom this is their genre, and they love it. Even though they're quite capable of reading something else, this is what they choose for pleasure reading. There's absolutely no reason for them to do otherwise.
She kind of pondered that for a bit. I don't think she bought it yet, but again, I planted that seed: Maybe someday she'll get it. Maybe when her kids are all grown up, and they're reading graphic novels as adults.
We have always been the resource people. But, when you are a first-grade teacher who has planned on doing an animal research unit, you got 250 animal books out of the school library in your classroom ready for kids to dive in and dig.
Then the school board decides we're not going back to school the week after Spring Break. You turn to your librarian, and your librarian knows precisely where to go find the ebooks, the databases that are accessible for your kids, and puts them in a place where your kids can access them from home.
Suddenly, the librarian, who often is considered just the story reader, turns into the information deliverer. Over and over and over again, last Spring, we had to find a resource that would meet a particular instructional objective AND be accessible from home.
So, that's a massive part of what we've done. We've also helped push the envelope and provide a little bit of fun in the day doing digital breakouts through Breakout EDU. Last Spring, there were a zillion illustrators and authors who have read-a-louds and, and illustration demonstrations.
We would gather those things and send them out to teachers because kids need a little bit of levity, a little bit of fun in their online learning day. Then we've continued to be a partner in doing research.
Kids will still have to learn to cite their sources. Kids will still have to learn how to use qualitative and authoritative sources in their work. Kids will still have to learn how to paraphrase.
So, partnering with teachers to try to get those kinds of ideas and lessons across, I think teachers appreciate having a partner, and librarians appreciate having an avenue to get those lessons into our kid's minds. We continue to evolve and shift.
We're still doing storytimes for the little ones. I've done some first chapter read-a-louds of some of the chapter books to kind of get them hooked on those things. In our particular area, our school library has partnered with our public library system.
So, every resource available to our public library patrons is available to our students. We've done an awful lot of work promoting ebooks through the public library and graphic novels through the public library and research databases through the public library - just helping to continue to make those connections for teachers and families.