Public School Library books should exude quality content with morals and ethics; after all schools are for educating students. Should children’s desires be what guides the books procured for school libraries? Is that what guides the classroom?
Mabry Elementary is considered one of the best schools in Florida’s Hillsborough County and is used here to discuss unabridged elementary library (physical) holdings. The findings from a review of Mabry’s unabridged holdings in Fall 2017 were not good.
Thirty-five unique authors of quality children’s literature were selected (like C.S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jean Fritz, Judy Blume, and Lewis Carroll)². Surprisingly, there were only 58 copies of books in the Mabry library from these 35 quality children’s authors. On average that is 1.7 books per author in a school with over 800 students, a bad statistic. It is bad because most of these authors have written a number of excellent children’s books and series. For example, C.S. Lewis wrote seven books in Narnia and Wilder wrote nine. Fifteen of the thirty-five authors selected (43%) were not represented at all in Mabry’s library holdings. Some of the missing authors include Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lloyd Alexander, Eleanor Estes, Elizabeth Enright, and Rudyard Kipling. How can there be exactly zero books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in an elementary school library?
So what authors are well represented? Two current and popular authors include Erin Hunter (Warriors) and Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Erin Hunter has multiple series and is actually a pseudonym for seven or eight different authors. These “two” authors represent an extraordinary number of books in the Mabry library, 70 copies of books from two authors! And that is only two of the many currently popular authors.
Writing series after series of books is a great strategy to fill shelves in book stores and libraries, however, it doesn’t help children read material written from diverse perspectives or different time periods. Instead a child can read book after book from the same author with the same storyline. It is kind of like an adult sitting down to watch Netflix, and hour after hour just hitting the next episode button, the difference is adults have a more developed executive function, making adults better at managing impulse, judgment, and emotion. Most responsible adults don’t watch Netflix without knowing they should enrich their minds in other ways. Children have a much greater need for direction and assistance in managing their lives and are already distracted with video games, apps, texting, You Tube, and now we can add instant gratification from pop-reader books to that mix.
Are we setting students up for a lifetime expectation of instant gratification, what does that mean for them when they get older? How does instant gratification help them learn to self-discipline?
Some of these pop-reader authors put out so many books that a library might seem flooded with them, possibly at the expense of better quality literature. While many of the classics or more current quality books are completely missing from the library. A mind-boggling thirty-five copies of books written by Dav Pilkey, author of the controversial Captain Underpants series were listed under current holdings in Mabry’s library.
Not all Hillsborough Schools seem to lack discernment when procuring library books. There is a much better representation of the 35 quality children’s authors at Grady Elementary, another highly regarded school in Hillsborough County. See the comparison below, where unlike Mabry’s 58 copies of the selected 35 children’s authors (at 1.7 copies per author), Grady Elementary held 217 copies by those same authors (at 6.2 copies per author). Enrollment at Mabry is currently 67% more than Grady¹; making the significance of these numbers even greater. Based on enrollment, Mabry would need 362 copies of books by these 35 authors to be comparable to Grady. That means Mabry is short 304 books from that group of authors to have the same book to student ratio as Grady! While Grady’s holdings appear significantly better, where do other libraries of Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) stand? Of all the schools reviewed, Mabry was the worst.
A children’s library should offer the excitement and beauty of quality literature to children of all ages and abilities. Offering an abundance of quality literature over culturally insignificant material is important. We talk about making healthy food choices for children, what about their brains?
When offering an apple or a piece of chocolate to a kid, which one do most children pick? In some cases, the library has a lot of candy to offer. The unfortunate reality is that some of the “candy” offered isn’t even the good quality chocolate; it is the cheap candy from the bottom-of-the-barrel with the twisty wrappers that are falling off. With an abundance of candy for the brain sitting on library shelves, your children might balk at deeper thought-provoking material that pushes their vocabulary and knowledge of the world to new places.
It will take a larger voice from parents and communities than the silence that persists across the country. A few outspoken individuals are unlikely change trends alone. If it is important to you, then ask for more of the classics and quality contemporary books (e.g. those not filled with thought bubbles, large graphics, and comic strip stories) to be represented in libraries and reading award programs.
This is the fourth post in Kids Need Better Books, a series discussing topics that influence or are related to a child’s reading experience.
1 Enrollment figures from HCPS school websites in March 2018.
2Thirty-five well-regarded children’s authors were selected and queried for copies (of their original works) in each library in Fall 2017 using CyberCat. Authors include E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Elanor Estes, Elizabeth Enright, Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, Daniel Pinkwater, Betsy Byars, Carol Ryrie Brink, C.S. Lewis, Scott O’Dell, Andrew Clements, Frank Baum, Frances H. Burnett, P.L. Travers, Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, Lynne R. Banks, Anna Sewell, J.M. Barrie, Margery Sharp, Washington Irving, Louise Fitzhugh, Walter Farley, Jeanne George, Johanna Spyri, L.M. Boston, Mary Mapes Dodge, Mary Norton, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Sterling North, Rudyard Kipling, Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Jean Fritz.
3Fishhawk Elementary held over 25 copies of one book, Charlotte’s Web.