I have the great privilege of living in the greater Washington D.C. area, which provides me with many spectacular opportunities, not the least of which being the annual National Book Festival. Completing its fifteenth run today (as of four minutes ago, in fact), the National Book Festival brings together authors and their readers. This year, authors included astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Today meteorologist (and did-you-know mystery writer?) Al Roker, popular biographer David McCullough, television journalist Tom Brokaw, We Need Diverse Books co-founder Ellen Oh, YA author Jenny Han, and current U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera among many, many others.
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But there was one group of authors who were not listed by name in the program. Students in fifth and sixth grade (and one high school student) had the opportunity to present their winning essays to a crowd of a few hundred during the Letters about Literature/a Book that Shaped Me awards ceremony. As my boyfriend pointed out, there was little point in watching the ceremony — we neither knew any of the kids who won nor have children of our own (except for Oopsilon, of course). However, I was interested in seeing books from the perspective of the population I’m most interested in serving: youth. The perspectives I was treated to today are, arguably, atypical. These essays were, after all, award-winning. I didn’t let that deter me. I still saw a shining nugget of value in this session and so we got in line until the pavilion was open and ready for a new audience.
Gabriel Ferris, the fifteen-year-old winner of Letters about Literature, chose to write a letter to biographer Walter Isaacson regarding Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. Ferris’ insight to Isaacson’s writing and Jobs’ life is astounding. His letter-essay, which can be read here, discusses the cost at which Jobs achieved his success and the mistake many fans make in their desire to emulate Jobs. While I haven’t read this particular biography, I can’t say that I would have picked up on this poignant understanding. I tend to read biographies as factual pieces of information that don’t necessarily require thought-provoking or critical considerations. Isaacson, who was present at the reading of the essay, responded to Ferris and his letter live on stage. He clearly appreciated Ferris’ interpretation and that Ferris took the opportunity to ask questions about the book and Jobs to himself. Isaacson noted that many adult readers did not achieve this level of reading and, instead, read the book and come away with a greater determination to become the next Jobs, despite the extreme personal costs.
Later, younger students took the stage to read essays on books that shaped them. As fifth and sixth graders, these students spoke on difficult topics such as loneliness and genocide. One essayist described her grandmother’s escape from horrors in Ethiopia, discussing the injustices in a calm and mature voice. The essayist’s efforts to go beyond the text of the book which meant so much to her and interview her grandmother about the experiences of her grandmother and ancestors shows a dedication to a topic many adults prefer to avoid. Her own history and that of her people became an important piece of her own identity thanks, in part, to a piece of children’s fiction. Another young runner-up talked about how Harry Potter helped her cope with a number of personal struggles as a method of escapism, of instruction, and of commonality between herself and her peers as she encountered the difficulties of making new friends.
We too-often imagine people younger than ourselves to be less-smart versions of ourselves. We imagine them to be unworldly and unwise. We do ourselves a grave disservice in believing these lies. Children and young adults are far wiser than we give them credit for. We must, as John Green often advises his readers and viewers, try to imagine people complexly, those who are younger than ourselves included and, perhaps, especially.
As library professionals, imagining youth patrons as lesser-than in one way or another or one-dimensional, we fall short in providing meaningful services and materials. The solution is to let younger patrons lead the way. Encourage them to become involved in their own futures at the library. This can be done in small and large ways — from picking which books that are to be featured during story time to doing the bulk of planning for an upcoming program. Youth members of the community have the intellectual tools to make these impacts and so many more if we only give them the opportunity.