My current teaching assignment has me away from the library media center, but I do get to visit school libraries from time to time. The other day I heard a little girl – probably a third or fourth grader – ask her library media specialist, “Do you have any zombie books?”
Of course, zombies are very popular in contemporary culture. I really have no idea why, and that’s not the focus of this blog posting. Instead, I’m asking myself this question: how much emphasis (and budget money) should library media specialists place on obtaining books about the latest pop culture fads? My short answer: not much.
Those of us who have been in the education business for some time have seen many different waves of pop culture. At any given time, our students’ minds were filled with visions of an assortment of toys, games, entertainers, TV shows, and music styles, most of which enjoyed their 6 months of fame before passing into cultural oblivion. And there’s probably nothing wrong with that. Every generation has its fashion. But there’s really no reason to deplete library budgets and occupy precious shelf space with topics that will be out of date before the books are checked-out more than a couple of times.
We’ve all made these mistakes. Several years ago I purchased a set of library-bound Lizzie McGuire books for my elementary media center. (Lizzie McGuire was a popular and well-made Disney Channel program that ran from 2001-2004.) I think I spent about $250. A few months after I received the books, the TV show was cancelled. The books – novels on a 4th or 5th grade level – were checked-out a few times. But within a couple of years the students knew nothing about Lizzie McGuire, and of course the characters were the main attraction for the books. Many times I have wished for a do-over on that one.
My goal is not to moralize (although on a blog, I’m allowed) but really, what do you do with your teenage Miley Cyrus biography? What about the biographies of public figures, music stars and athletes who are convicted of crimes or behave badly in public? Do you keep those books on the elementary shelf? The middle school shelf? My answer is “no.” Once again, my goal here is not to scold or pontificate. I want to let you off the hook. You had no obligation to buy most of those books in the first place.
I understand why library media specialists make pop culture purchases a priority. They want their libraries to remain relevant. They want the kids to be able to check-out books about topics that they like. I get that. I applaud that. School libraries should certainly be relevant and kid-friendly. But here’s an idea: let’s make reading relevant.
Reading is reading. Reading is an alternative to television and video games. In my opinion, reading is better. If I hand a child a book and say, “Hey, this is just like the TV show,” then I’m asking the child to lower his standards. It’s like taking the child to a fancy gourmet restaurant and saying, “You’ll like it. It’s just like McDonalds.” Let’s promote the beauty of reading, not bring reading down to the level of a video game.
Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against superhero books or books based on pop culture characters. In fact, as a librarian I actively seek those books. However, I’m not going to lower my standards for good children’s books just because there’s a popular character on the cover. And I could really get excited about great tween authors writing those books! How about Roland Smith writing a Batman novel? I can certainly imagine Gordon Korman writing a series featuring The Flash. Dan Gutman: Teen Titans – run with it! That’s what I’m looking for. Combine great authors with popular tween characters. I can promote that book with a straight face and check ‘em out all day long.
As a school librarian, I always wanted to provide quality books that my students wanted to read, not just use as an accessory. I want them to read during the five minutes of free time at the end of class. I want to see them reading at lunch. I want them to read in the car and on the school bus. I want them to read while waiting for their dentist appointment. I want them to read under the bedcovers with a flashlight.
I want them to be excited when the new books go on display in the library. I want them to reserve the book that their friend is reading. I want them to read about snakes and construction equipment and cooking and magic tricks. I want them to read about Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman and Teddy Roosevelt. I want them to run into the library to tell me about this cool book they’re reading – Island of the Blue Dolphins – and how they can’t wait to see how it ends. I won’t tell them it was written before their parents were born.
So – how do you get there? How do you build an appetite for the enduring? Here are five steps.
#1 Acquire good books. I am convinced that some of the best authors today are writing fiction for kids. With online resources it’s easier than ever to find their books. A quick online search will get you the award books from every state. That’s a good place to start!
#2 Know those books. Become familiar with the new books in your collection, and the books that are already on the shelves. Reading every book in your library is an impossible goal. But you can become familiar with many of the popular books, authors and series. I encourage every library media specialist to regularly read books from the grade-level they work with. Check Amazon.com descriptions and reviews for those you simply don’t have time to read. When that fourth grader comes up to you and says, “I want to read a funny book about dogs,” two or three titles should pop into your head. That’s when you know you’re ready. It’s part of the job – a big part of the job.
#3 Promote your books. I’ve spent a lot of time in school libraries, and never has a book jumped off the shelf. A good library media specialist promotes books. Make bulletin boards and eye-catching displays. Give quick booktalks during library visits. Leave room on your shelves to display the book covers, not just the spines. Book promotion strategies can be found online, in professional magazines, and by networking with peers.
#4 Reward reading. Some of your students will read without prompting, but others need a little encouragement. Positively reinforce reading in your school and in your classroom. Accelerated Reader and Reading Counts programs are great ways to keep track of the books your students read. Go beyond “prizes” and focus on awards. (My recent book, Rewarding Your Accelerated Readers, describes a ready-made reading rewards program for your school.)
#5 Use alternative methods to provide pop culture books. You don’t need a $12 Perma-bound copy of a book about a current fad. The fad will expire long before the book wears out. Instead, actively solicit donations from parents who probably have the once-read book around the house. Used book stores and thrift stores can also be good places to find inexpensive paperbacks on the current fads. And don’t forget BookOutlet.com for inexpensive copies of popular titles. You won’t feel bad about discarding an out-of-fashion paperback that you got for 25 cents at a garage sale.
Remember, your criteria for adding books to your collection remains the same, whether you’re acquiring classics, books by today’s best tween authors, or pop culture paperbacks. Don’t undermine the integrity and effectiveness of your library media center in an attempt to be relevant. The best way to get kids hooked on reading is to expose them to quality tween literature.
Reading is reading. Your library, whether it’s a school media center or a classroom collection, is The Library. It’s not a TV station, a movie theatre, or a video game console. Embrace your role as a literacy leader, and create a fantastic library for your students. Help your students develop lifelong reading habits.
We’ve already got enough “TV zombies,” don’t you agree?