Amy Cheney is a librarian and advocate who currently runs the Write to Read Juvenile Hall Literacy Program in Alameda County, CA. She has over 20 years experience with outreach, program design, and creation to serve the underserved, including middle school non-readers, adult literacy students, adult inmates in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users and people of color.
Cheney was named a Mover and Shaker by Library Journal, has won two National awards for her work, the I Love My Librarian award from the Carnegie Institution and New York Times, and was honored at the White House with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Her six word memoir: Navigator of insanity, instigator of enlightenment. Her theme song is Short Skirt, Long Jacket by Cake.
Thank you for being with us, Amy! Let’s start with the basics: how would you describe your job, for someone who has no idea what you do?
Entrepreneur, innovator and relationship builder. But my overall job title would be Schlepper.
How did you become a librarian for incarcerated youth? Was it something you always knew you wanted to focus on, or did you begin your career with a different focus?
When I was a teen, a neighbor was friends with Maya Angelou, and they invited me to hear her speak in a church basement. I remember clearly not wanting to be there, and then as Maya Angelou spoke with such passion and intensity, I felt the hard armor around my heart begin to crack. I remember the struggle to hold onto what I thought was me, or at least my protection: the rage, indifference and sullenness. I recognized that if I was struggling with it, then I wasn’t a fundamentally hateful person. That was life changing for me. I felt such a deep connection with her as a result of this inner experience, I read every book she wrote as it was published.
It took me a long time to realize that this experience is the basis of my passion for bringing in speakers and activities to stimulate the minds and hearts of those incarcerated. From Shakespeare to Cupcake Brown to Ishmael Beah to MK Asante (wonderfully, one of Maya Angelou’s protege’s), I see kids feel encouraged, enthusiastic and interested in a place that tends to dampen all of that.
In the 80’s I was a part of the anti-nuclear protests – when my friends were released from jail I was horrified to hear there were no books where they had been housed. I immediately started a book drive for the jail and that ultimately led to employment at the library serving those incarcerated in Alameda County.
What does your average day look like? Do you even have an “average day”?
Almost every day involves advocacy. Today one of the staff told me that going to the library was like a field trip, all the kids love it. But, she said, the girls had not “earned” a visit, so they couldn’t come. This didn’t make sense to me. I am constantly trying to advocate and educate for the library to be a right, and not a privilege that can be taken away. I am advocating for youth to be able to come here, as well as in general, advocacy for the youth, library, etc.
What kind of relationship with books do your students have? What kind of role do books play in their lives?
I think initially, many of them have a negative relationship with books and reading, and others have a non-existent relationship with them. Some students do have a positive relationship with reading before they come here, but there is a huge percentage—probably the majority—that start reading here and get excited about it and read more than they ever have in their life.
Regardless of their relationship to books and reading the library is a desired destination and activity. They are fully respected and acknowledged here. And the atmosphere is remarkably different from the rest of the facility. There are plants in here! And windows! And outside the window you can see trees and clouds and birds and grass! Real furniture and comfortable chairs! We play a game (Taboo) and laugh almost every library visit.
The majority of the kids here ultimately develop a positive relationship with books and reading. Books are a de-stressor, they are a life saver. In fact, the staff that call me the most, that request that I come down and talk to a kid or bring a kid a book, are the therapeutic staff. They also advocate with me for kids on suicide watch, etc. to be able to have a book. Today I went out and talked to a kid that has been under a blanket for hours if not days. He actually sat up and showed some life when I brought him some books.
Are there any books that your students are scrambling for? What flies off your shelves?
The bottom line is a. anything with action, and b. something they can personally relate to. And c, it makes huge difference if the cover is dynamic. My job is to find those books that have the right combination of the above. It’s a constant part of my job. While there are a few authors
whose books I can’t keep on the shelf no matter what (Sister Souljah, Cupcake Brown, Tookie Williams, Coe Booth, Alison Van Diepen, Alan Sitomer), there are others whose books I work hard to bring to light. Right now as I look around I don’t see any of MK Asante’s Buck, for example. That’s an accomplishment: a cover with only words and no visuals isn’t something that in general attracts them. He visited here and so his book has taken off. He also stimulated the youth to read about their history, the history of rap music and books about the educational system in the US. Yah Hoo!
What kinds of books are allowed in a juvenile detention center? What kinds of books are not allowed?
In general, what is NOT allowed is anything that’s graphically sexual or violent or that outlines how to make a weapon or alcohol—something that would be a direct threat to the security of the institution.
What is “allowed” is a huge issue, and is one reason that we wanted to create a listserve, web page Library Services for Youth in Custody, and now the In the Margins book award. My hope is that the book award will lend legitimacy to our titles and hopefully enable more facilities to carry them. I am working with a facility right now that says, “Books must be limited in violence, sexually explicit material, promotion of drug or alcohol abuse and vampire stories.” It’s just bizarre the things people come up with to exclude and how they word and interpret it.
In my facility, I’ve made the choice not to advocate for “street lit” mainly because I think that battle is too big to fight since I’m fighting for kids to get to the library. In addition, I spend a huge portion of my life finding books that I believe will work with both the authorities and the kids. Street Lit titles often do have a lot of violence and sex in them which is why I’ve chosen not to advocate for them – but it’s a hard choice every day, and one full of contradictions. There is definitely a group of kids – maybe 5% – I am unable to engage in reading due to my choice to not advocate for street lit.
What do you wish people knew or understood about incarcerated youth?
They are super resourceful. They are caught in a trap not of their own making—poverty—and are punished for many of the things that I, and honestly, most of us did when teenagers. I am constantly amazed the privilege afforded the white middle class and what people of color and/or those from the poverty and working classes have to work extra hard for.
A recent example: Kareem, who is a college educated African American wrote me an email and then recalled it because of the typos. Meanwhile I wrote an email to the head of a very lucrative organization. My email was typed in lower case, and even had the phrase, “gratitude for all you do, dude.” I mean, not exactly thoughtful. Would anyone question that I was college educated? I doubt it. Kareem, and his beautiful, eloquent email with a few typos—he felt the need to correct it in order to present himself in the best possible light. It’s exhausting to constantly have to do that. And that is a *minor* incident.
There is so much policing and criminalization of poor youth and youth of color, I don’t think the majority of white middle class people really understand the depths of the inequity and the daily assaults. The juvenile hall (criminal justice system) is the crucible of race and class inequity in America.
Being in a detention facility, what unique limitations are you working with that a public or traditional school librarian might not be dealing with?
You know the supposed foundation of our country, that we are all innocent until proven guilty? For the most part, that’s not in operation here. There are a lot of unspoken power dynamics and struggles. When I’m in the living units I’m on the staff’s terms to a certain extent. When they are in the library, it’s more on my terms, but they always have the power to override me. It is definitely a dance.
There is a completely different culture in a facility and if you don’t learn what the norms are you can’t be effective. There are unspoken rules and meanings. For example, kids walking down the hallway with their hands behind their backs are living there—on their way to court or medical. Kids walking with their hands by their sides are on their way out of the institution. There is a spoken language that is not used “on the outs” with phrases like, “the tone is high,” “live scan,” “pods,” “talking is dead,” and “prepare for transition.”
The biggest limitation is “security” issues. Those can run the gamut from restricted access to the internet or books on tape to candy, pencils, and envelopes, or even to students being prohibited from getting out of their chair on their own volition. Things that you would never imagine are security issues can be seen that way from a certain perspective (that I actually have come to understand on some level). These limitations force a creative response.
Are there any common misconceptions you’d like to correct about what you do?
I think the biggest misconception is that the kids are hard to work with. And I’m not saying they aren’t hard to work with. I’m also not saying we don’t have seriously disturbed and disturbing kids. But in actuality, it’s the entire toxic system of mass incarceration that’s hardest to work with. Finding your correct place in that toxicity is challenging, ever evolving, yet doable. The kids are the least of the problems.
Filed under: Musings & Ponderings
, The Diversity Gap
, justice system
, juvenile justice
, social justice
, Why I Love Librarians
In this guest post, Dr. Henrietta M. Smith, Professor Emerita and the first African-American professor at the University of South Florida, School of Information shares her memories of how the Coretta Scott King Award began:
The news of the damage sustained by the boardwalk in Atlantic City during Hurricane Sandy brought back memories of where the Coretta Scott King Award started. This writer’s mind went back to an earlier time, to an American Library Association annual meeting in Atlantic City. The year was 1969. Two librarians walking through the exhibit hall stopped by a booth where a poster of the late Martin Luther King Jr. was on display. This was the start of a genial conversation that evolved into the observation that never since the inception of the Newbery Medal in 1922 and the Caldecott Medal in 1938 had any award committee recognized the work of a person of color.
John Carroll, a publisher from a small company in New York, overheard the conversation. It was reported that he said, rather matter of factly, “Then why don’t you ladies establish your own award?” The seed was planted. Before the conference ended, in an informal meeting on the boardwalk in Atlantic City under the leadership of Glyndon Greer and Mabel McKissick, the idea of a award for African American authors was shared with a group of African American librarians, including Augusta Baker, Charlemae Rollins, Ella Mae Yates, and Virginia Lacy Jones, to name a few. At this seaside gathering, the struggle for recognition began.
The ALA questioned the need for another award. A majority of publishers informed the committee that they did not have enough children’s books by African Americans to provide for evaluation. And many librarians were skeptical of anything becoming of this fragile brainchild. Undaunted and unconvinced that this venture was fruitless, the committee moved on. In 1970, the first Coretta Scott King Awards breakfast was scheduled in a hotel that just “happened” not to be on the ALA list of official hotels. After a meager meal and short program, the first recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award was announced. A school librarian from New Jersey, Lillie Patterson, went down in history as the first winner of the award for her elementary level biography, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace.
from Ray Charles
It was not until 1974 that the award breakfast was held in an ALA conference site, but even then, the CSK Award was not recognized as an official ALA award, nor was the award committee recognized as an official ALA body. But to the joy of all, publishers were now sending more quality books, and attendance at the 7:30 a.m. breakfast was steadily growing! Another change came in 1974 when the committee presented its first illustrator award. George Ford, who is still painting today, won for the illustrations he created for Sharon Bell Mathis’ biography Ray Charles.
In the years that followed, a major breakthrough came when E. J. Josey was elected president of the ALA. One of his first concerns was to bring the Coretta Scott King Committee into the official folds of the American Library Association. In 1980, the Coretta Scott King Committee became the Coretta Scott King Task Force, a viable part of Social Responsibilities Task Force (since 1993 a part of EMIERT), with founder Glyndon Greer as its first chair.
Growth and changes can be seen as the benchmark of this dynamic group of librarians. Artist Lev Mills designed the medal that is placed on each award-winning book. The symbols in the medal’s design each carry a special message; even the colors of the winner and honor book medals, and the more recent new talent award medal, have significance. The monetary prize for the winners was first given through the efforts of the late Basil O. Phillips of the Johnson Publishing Company, and today the encyclopedias from Britannica and World Book have moved from print into the digital age.
Following negotiations with the ALA parent body on Awards and Recognitions, and the late John Steptoe’s son, illustrator Javaka Steptoe, in 1995, the New Talent Award was established. It was named in honor of John Steptoe, whose first book, Stevie (1969), won national acclaim when the author/illustrator was only nineteen years of age.
With each meeting of the Coretta Scott King Task Force, new ideas for growth are on the docket. Among the newest is the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, which goes to an African American author, illustrator, author/illustrator, or practitioner (such as a librarian) for his or her body of work or contributions to reading programs involving African American literature. Changes are constantly in the works too. New ideas for creating greater visibility and wider use of Coretta Scott King Award books and materials are a part of every Task Force meeting.
To think that all this started with a meeting on the boardwalk in Atlantic City! The very spot may not be there now, but surely the news reports about Hurricane Sandy conjured up many of these same memories for those who met on the boardwalk way back in 1969.
Dr. Henrietta M. Smith, native New Yorker, received her MLS degree from Columbia University and EdD from University of Miami, Florida. She teaches in the Materials for Youth in the School of Information (University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida). Longtime member of the ALA, Smith has served on Newbery Caldecott, Wilder (Chair), and Pura Belpré Award committees for ALSC and has chaired the Coretta Scott King Task Force and the CSK Award Committee. Smith received the ALSC Distinguished Service Award in 2008 and in 2011 was the first practitioner recipient of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in Librarianship.
Filed under: guest blogger
, Musings & Ponderings
, Publishing 101
Tagged: African American history
, African/African American Interest
, american library association
, black history month
, coretta scott king awards
, Why I Love Librarians
We took a short break from blogging in the wake of last week’s big event in the children’s book world: the American Library Association’s annual announcement of their Youth Media Awards—or, as some like to call it, “The Oscars of Children’s Literature.” No outlandish outfits at these Oscars, but a few of our books do now have nice, shiny accessories on their covers:
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor and an ALA Notable Children’s Book
Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, winner of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustration
¡Olé! Flamenco, winner of the Pura Belpré Author Award Honor and an ALA Notable Children’s Book
And a bit more good news we received:
Yummy is on YALSA’s Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and the Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists for 2011!
Seeds of Change is on the Amelia Bloomer Project 2011 List from the American Library Association’s Feminist Task Force
and Sharing Our Homeland is a Sydney Taylor Notable Book from the Association of Jewish Libraries
We are THRILLED THRILLED THRILLED to have so many of our books honored this year! It’s really something for a small indie publisher like us to be able to make a showing in the big leagues like this.
On that note, Kyra over at Black Threads in Kid’s Lit has a fascinating breakdown of Coretta Scott King Award statistics, including some interesting numbers on winners broken down b
Winning a major book award is surprising every time it happens. Like all publishers, we pretend not to pay attention to the mock award committee announcements that multiply in our inboxes each December and early January. Of course, we do not deny ourselves a little excitement when we spot one of our titles on someone’s favorites list, but we try to keep our expectations realistic. The chances of winning one of the “big” awards are like the chances of winning the Lotto, and it is a good idea to protect ourselves by not letting our hopes get too high.
This season, however, we did win some big awards, and it felt great to have our books recognized and included in the good company of books from other houses that we know and respect. Also worth mentioning is the fact that we received as many awards as quite a few larger houses, which is an accomplishment for independent publishing.
An award designation means a book will be read by a wider audience. As our books are included in library collections across the country, those collections become more diverse by the sheer presence of our books. Awards give validation not only to the quality of the books we publish, but to the very core of our mission to promote cultural diversity, take risks on stories that need to be told, and nurture new talent.
January was a fantastic month for LEE & LOW, and our hopes that 2011 will turn into a year to remember would not be possible without readers like you who have supported us year in and year out. We are grateful to everyone out there who has read and enjoyed our books and has helped spread the word about books that are “about everyone” and “for everyone.” We could not do what we do without you. Thank you all.
Filed under: Bellringers
, Dear Readers
Tagged: Why I Love Librarians
We’re getting excited to head down to New Orleans this week for the American Library Association Annual Conference. New Orleans has always been one of my favorite cities, and I’m looking forward to
eating piles of beignets meeting many awesome librarians while we’re down there. If you’ll be there too, please stop by booth #1132 to say hello! Here’s what we’ll have going on:
SATURDAY, 2-3PM: Under the Mesquite ARC signing and giveaway with debut author Guadalupe Garcia McCall. This is a PHENOMENAL book – it made me cry right at my desk – so you’ll definitely want to snag a copy.
SUNDAY, 10:30-11:30AM: Signing with Christine Taylor-Butler, author of Sacred Mountain: Everest
2-3PM: Signing with Anastasia Suen, author of Pencil Talk and Other School Poems
3-4PM: Signing with Marilyn Singer, author of A Full Moon is Rising
MONDAY, 10-11AM: Signing with Javaka Steptoe, author and illustrator of The Jones Family Express
11AM-12PM: Signing with Sonia Lynn Sadler, illustrator of Seeds of Change and winner of this year’s Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustration
We’ll also have ARCs of our first three fall titles from TU BOOKS, our new science fiction/fantasy imprint.
ALA goodies - come and get 'em!
Trust me you guys, you won’t want to miss these.
Looking forward to seeing some of you there! If you’ve got fun restaurant recommendations or things to do, be sure to leave them in the comments. And if you can’t attend, stay tuned for a special giveaway just for you!
Filed under: Book News
, Publishing 101
, Why I Love Librarians
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