It’s been there for five years, on the corner of my circulation desk computer: a post-it note with Kate DiCamillo’s wise words, “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell a story. Make some light.” For this librarian, these sentences are equal parts frightening and invigorating. They remind me that it’s my responsibility to love my students by delivering light through the sharing of stories, which is a truth that humbles me daily. The following three books tell the stories of dedicated librarians and the ways in which they change individual lives and entire communities through the power of reading.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise and Paola Escobar
In 1921, Pura Belpré leaves her home in Puerto Rico and travels to New York City for her sister’s wedding. Intrigued by the hustle of the city, she decides to stay and accepts a job as a bilingual assistant at a neighborhood library branch. It’s not long before Belpré sees a need in the diverse community and begins to act. She starts bilingual storytime events complete with puppets derived from Puerto Rican folklore and then proceeds to turn these shows into the first mainstream American-Latinx storybooks. Traveling “from branch to branch, classroom to classroom, to churches and community centers,” Belpré’s dedication, energy, storytelling and love for the Spanish-speaking community transform the New York libraries, making them a joyful haven for children and families. My students—who were already familiar with the Pura Belpré Award—loved learning about its eponym.
• Read Global Folktales and Stories—When she begins working at the NYPL, Belpré is disappointed to discover that, “Not one folktale from Puerto Rico is on the shelves.” Ask students to interview a family member to find out which countries and cultures that are part of their family heritage. Then let students research folktales from their family’s origin country. The International Children’s Book Database has over 4,000 books from 59 countries available to read online. If possible, borrow books published in other countries from the public library and let children spend time reading or looking at them.
• Folktale Writing—After a week or so of reading folktales from around the world, let students emulate Belpré by writing their own folktales. Discuss the components of a folktale and provide a rubric with clear expectations for the final product. Belpré’s folktales have animal characters and settings that reflect her Puerto Rican heritage. Encourage children to create character and settings reflecting their chosen country or culture. A few of my students used folktale books published in a different language and wrote own story to go along with the illustrations. After their folktales are complete, give children time to illustrate them.
• Plan and Perform a Puppet Show—Belpré learns to make puppets and soon her stories are dancing across the stage. Give students the opportunity to turn familiar stories into puppet shows. Model the process of turning a narrative into a drama and then provide your class with fairy/folk tale collections or familiar picture books that have a simple plot and limited characters. Divide children into pairs or small groups. Offer guidance as they work together to turn story into a short script. After they have completed writing the drama let students create puppets out of various materials (encourage them to bring materials from home). After the puppets and practice are complete, throw a class puppet show party allowing time for the groups to perform for their classmates.
Mary Lemist Titcomb grew up poor in rural New Hampshire. Through hard work and determination, she completed seminary school and then fell into her life’s calling after she read a newspaper article about librarianship. When she became head of a large library system in Maryland, she remembered her childhood and decided to act. The library was for everyone—not just the wealthy families who lived in town. Ignoring obstacles (there were many), she worked tirelessly in her mission to bring the library to all people. Her rural book deposits were successful, but in 1905, she had her most revolutionary idea—a horse-drawn “book wagon.” Thus, the very first library bookmobile. Filled with photographs, postcards, old book covers, archival letters and other ephemera, Library on Wheels has the feel of an old-fashioned scrapbook and is excellent for older students.
• Curate a School Bookmobile or Little Library—Discuss how room on a bookmobile is limited and how the bookmobile librarian must choose books carefully. Help your students make a list of the things that must be considered with deciding which titles to put on the bookmobile (age, education level, interests). Give students this challenge: “You are the school bookmobile librarian. It is your job to choose 50 titles (3 copies of each title, for a total of 150 books) that will be purchased for the bookmobile. Which books are you going to buy and why? Be sure to consider the needs of the entire school when you are choosing your titles.” My students loved this simple project and became very invested in researching and selecting their titles.
• A World of Libraries Project—Titcomb worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone in her county had access to books. Read aloud more picture books (here’s a list of my 10 favorites) about individuals who created innovative ways to make books available for everyone. Compare and contrast these stories with Titcomb’s story or let students choose one of the books and complete the printable A World of Reading response organizer.
• Create a Class Book—Provide students with a piece of blank letter paper. Invite students to create/sketch/plan an artistic representation of the library/bookmobile they researched or to design one that meets another need. Provide many different types of mediums (pastels, collage paper, watercolor, colored pencils, etc.) and encourage children to push their creative boundaries. After they are satisfied with their creation or design, give them cardstock for their final creation. Require older students to write a paragraph about their creation and its origin. Bind the students’ art together to create a class book.
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
When author and illustrator Yuyi Morales and her infant son migrate to the United States “thirsty, in awe,” they are met with “words unlike those of our ancestors.” Unable to read signs or understand the English language, they are afraid to speak and make “lots of mistakes” as they navigate the challenges that accompany life in a new country and culture. And then they find the local library. At first “suspicious” and “improbable,” they soon discover that it holds the most unimaginable treasure. The library becomes their second home, “a place we didn’t need to speak, we only needed to trust,” as librarians and fellow patrons give them the tools they need to speak, write and make their voices heard. Dreamers is a book with words and illustrations so rich that it demands to be savored, shared and then read again and again.
• “Books that Inspired Me” List/Timeline—My students loved identifying the familiar picture books that Morales includes in her illustrations. In the back of the book, she includes a list of “Books That Inspired Me (and Still Do).” Prior to the lesson, gather the books that have influenced your life. Hold each one up and explain why and how it influenced/es your life. Challenge students to make a similar list. Give them a few days to think about their books. My students and I created life timelines, drawing and labeling our books at the specific points when they first influenced us.
• Guest Speaker—If you have students who were born in other countries in your class, privately ask them if they (or their parents) are interested in sharing the challenges and victories they experienced upon first arriving in the U.S. Reach out to the school and local community as well. Before the guest(s) visits your classroom, guide students in creating a list of questions and teach them formal interview etiquette.
• Personal Art Challenge—In the back matter, Morales lists the variety of items (a brick from her home, her childhood drawings, an old woven blouse) that she scanned or photographed and then incorporated into her illustrations. After sharing this list with your students, reread the book and look for the ways Morales incorporates the items into her illustrations. Ask students to think about items or surfaces that are a part of their life story. Invite them to bring them to school for sharing. If possible, collaborate with your school’s technology teacher and let students photograph or scan the items and then incorporate them into a piece of personal art.
• Public Library Extra Credit—The majority of public libraries offer resources for immigrants who are learning how to navigate the U.S. Encourage students to visit their local branch and to inquire about what resources are offered. Offer extra credit for students who follow through and can share the services offered. Opportunities to initiate conversations with adults in the community helps nurture students’ communication skills.