Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why "Rock Star Librarian" is an Oxymoron

So, in a weird way, I think the Wall Street Journal kinda nailed it this time. If you read it right.

The article talks about a bunch of White men as "rock stars" of the children's literature world. I think that's one of the more accurate descriptors I've heard. Sure, they'll call themselves book "champions," but with cardboard cutouts, fancy titles, huge contests, highly publicized road trips, book deals, and more, who could blame the Wall Street Journal for terming them rock stars--or us, for thinking they doth protest a little much?

"Publishers can’t advertise in classrooms and marketers can’t reach kids who haven’t yet hit social media, but these experts enjoy a direct line to school gatekeepers." Just look at all the blurbs, the cover reveals, the cheerleading blog posts, the fervent tweets, the... um, the advertising, the marketing. And what a sweet deal for publishers! They don't even have to pay these rock stars the usual rates they pay those who work in their advertising departments--free books and some perks (fancy dinners, access to big names for interviews) will do just fine. Unless… until... they do... hire... them. Which makes me ask: Since when are the skill sets for librarian-ing and advertising so similar? And, can we fix that, please? Because they shouldn’t be. And neither publishers nor librarians should think that they are.

Here's the real kicker, as far as I'm concerned: What has the growth of the rock star done to the professional field of librarianship and other children’s literature professionals? Are we just here to function as de facto members of every publisher's advertising team? I know the "right" answer, but I'd believe it a little more if I'd ever seen one of these rock stars do something that might piss off a publisher even a little.

The ugly upshot is what happens to librarians (and other field professionals) who do actually (and thoughtfully) criticize books, book creators, and/or publishers. Especially the women of color and Native women who dare criticize. They're labeled as angry, combative, overly-sensitive, and generally unreasonable. Is it harder to get hired/published? Darn right it is. And perks? Fancy dinners? Forget it.

(A slight pause here to thank those publishing professionals who do, in fact, appreciate the hard work of these librarians, and who expect and encourage criticism and critical conversations. We see you.)

I understand why the article’s subjects aren’t happy with it (and are denouncing it on social media)... and I'd be really interested in what their conversations looked like with the Wall Street Journal.  Did you confront the WSJ about how they've belittled and dismissed calls for better representation in their previous (ha) reporting on children's literature?  Did you say “if you are taking the time to visit me at a work event, please do the same for a woman of color?”  Did you think about saying, perhaps, “I will give you a comment about inequities in the field, including yours, as well as a list of names of people to whom you can talk in order to right some of those inequities?”  I’m grateful to Donalyn Miller (whose voice and advice to include more diverse voices were excluded from the article, despite the fact that she co-founded the Nerdy Book Club), and to many others, for speaking up about this; see this thread by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for one.  I wonder what other conversations took place before the fact.  Did anyone consult with friends and allies about whether doing this piece was a good idea in the first place?

And, what now? Will you take a look at some hard truths and use your power to advocate (not just advertise) for marginalized people? Or will you reap the best of both worlds--you get to be rock stars AND you get to be appreciated because you denounced the article?

What are our responsibilities, as children’s literature professionals living in a rock star world? A few thoughts (add more in the comments, please!):
-If you are in charge of selection/buying, actively seek out voices beyond these white men--for that matter, seek out voices beyond white women and the major review journals too.
-Deliberately incorporate the vital work of librarians and critics of color and First/Native Nations into your decision-making processes. Need somewhere to start? Check out our list of Kindred Spirits.
-If you are a rock star, acknowledge your privileges, and your limitations. Do you practice admitting that you do not know it all, or that you are still in the process of learning about structural racism and unconscious bias? Do you regularly guide people to voices beyond your own?
-Do not put anyone on a pedestal. The truth is, these guys are on pedestals that other white people (largely white women, like me) created. We crowned these rock stars; we can un-crown them too.

This brings me back to the article, which correctly did not include any women, people of color, or Native people under the descriptor "rock star." Because they're not. Partly because “rock star” denotes “white man” in the first place (at least, it does to the Wall Street Journal) but also because they’re so many other things. They're educators. They're critics, and critical thinkers. They're responsible budget-spenders. They’re tireless fighters. They're advocates. Who would have time to be a rock star, on top of all that?

-Allie Jane Bruce


Kirby Larson said...

Thank you for this essay. As a writer, I really do believe ALL librarians are rock stars, because I know how hard they work to connect kids with the books they need. However, there has been something about this "celebrification" (just made up that word!) of certain folks that has felt too much like going back to junior high. Thanks for helping me figure out why I was feeling that. Very grateful for this post and for the work you do.

Sam Bloom said...

Allie, thank you for this. The intersectionality of this situation - not just men but WHITE men at that as the "Rock Stars" - well, there's a lot to think about here. I think we White men need to really focus on decentering ourselves in the world of children's lit. How can we take the lead in doing this, not waiting for women to call us on our privilege but actually checking each other? It's something I'm thinking about and struggling with. And I appreciate your words, and Donalyn's post, and Ebony's thread, and so many other voices (of which 99.999% were women's voices, as usual).

SP said...

Yes, thank you.

Susan Polos said...

I appreciate the righteous and legitimate pushback against the WSJ piece and agree with Donalyn and Ebony and you that the article was a huge missed opportunity to write about more than three white men described as gatekeepers. The perspective was discouraging and even infuriating. I've often thought that I will never be a mover and shaker since I am stuck with my finger in the dam, trying to keep librarians in schools, working to reinstate cut school librarians (like me), working in grassroots advocacy for underresourced communities while watching well-resourced librarians lauded as librarians of the year, etc. "Celebrification" (good word!) can be helpful at times because any positive attention for school librarians helps remind the public that librarianship is valued. Still, no one small group should be viewed as controlling what children read. I know John well and I know he promotes what he loves irrespective of publisher. He's a generous, caring human who consistently eschews the mantle of "rock star" (though some may thrust it upon him). I hope we can separate the sins of the WSJ from the subjects of the piece. And we absolutely do need to work harder than ever for all who don't have the spotlight, may not want the spotlight, but do want to be heard, to be recognized, and not to be marginalized. We need to do this for ourselves but most of all for our children. They are losing access to books at an astonishing rate. That should be the focus as well as, of course, ensuring diverse books. We need all of us in this work. Thanks.

Angie Manfredi said...

Great post, Allie. I think it's important all of us involved in this conversation (and, like it or not, all children's librarians are involved in this conversation because it is about us and the work we do) need to be mindful that the subject here isn't if the men who got featured in this article "do good work" or not. That is literally irrelevant to the larger context that must be discussed which is why (and how) men, especially White men, get the fawning coverage that also marks them as people who are listened to as influencers. Within that, we must also look at how White women (like me) contribute to that by boosting them (gushing over them) and rushing to assure them (and each other) that they "do good work." I wish it were as simple as the work but it's not, it's really not, especially when so many women and women of color and Native women and nonbinary folx do that work too. When we get lost in the circles of #NotAllMaleLibrarians we're back where we started and we're not doing the hard work of breaking down this structural inequality.

I really recommend reading Adam Rex's thread about how he has (and still is) coming to terms with his power as a man in a field dominated by women, I think he's doing hard work and we should ask the same of all our male allies.


Maggie Maggio said...

I love this article because there are a bunch of things I am 100% in agreement with you on and a bunch of other things I am 100% in disagreement with you on.

First, I don't see any reason why the skills for librarians shouldn't include advertising. I am not a librarian, but I grew up with 2 librarian parents so I like to think I know a little bit about it. Advertising is a valuable skill in any field. I work in public health and if I didn't know how to sell myself and the projects I work on (including combating health disparities which, sadly, is never popular) I would be out of a job very quickly. I watched my parents brainstorm programs and events and they certainly used advertising skills to make those successful.

Second, I love your point about whether librarians should function as de facto advertisers for publishers. This drives me nuts. It seems like so many people are willing to sell themselves and their time for a book that sells for $16.99. Certainly librarians (and others) should shout from the mountaintops about the things they love, but I wish more people would think about the amount of time they're spending giving away free advertising.

Third, I heard about this controversy yesterday and my immediate reaction was why are we blaming the Wall Street Journal reporter? It is not her fault that these white men are the ones that the reading community has chosen to exalt. She's writing one story on influencers so it's not her job to think "wow, these are all white men, where's the diversity?" In a perfect world would she think "all these influencers being white men seems strange, maybe there's another story here?" Sure, but unfortunately that's not how the world works. She had however many inches of column space and that's it. It's not her job or the WSJ's job to fix the lack of diversity among influencers.

Fourth, I think your suggestions for overhauling the whole influencer/rock star idea are great. If I was approaching this from a public health perspective I would look at it as a systems problem. There's a system that has led to these people being the rock stars and how do we change that? Hiring one or two more people of color or publishing a book or two with more diverse characters isn't going to change anything if the system is against diversity.

Thanks for reading my long comment! It's so great that we can talk about and discuss issues like this and I hope there are lots more discussions going on, too.

Elizabeth Saxton said...

I had to pause for a moment when you pointed out that we never see criticism from this corner because it says so much, and you are so right. After a couple years of this I feel like I could flip through catalogs, or wander through ALA midwinter and tell you exactly what books they will be cheerleading basically before anything gets read. That says a lot.

Donalyn Miller said...

I appreciate this piece and want to let you know that I was lied to about the focus of the piece when I was contacted for the interview. The reporter asked me about the online reading community that supported and promoted children's literature. She never told me (or anyone else involved that I have talked with) that it was a "rock star" article. After a dismissive response to my email and comment posted to the article, I've written a letter to the editor. We all know they probably won't run it. --Donalyn Miller

Debbie Reese said...

Terrific points, Allie.

I can't read the article because it is behind WSJ's paywall, but I saw on Twitter that one of the people it is about is John S.

I can't see John's name anywhere and not think SCHOLASTIC. He's kind of like a brand for them, now. Your comment about this relationship being a sweet deal for Scholastic is especially worth thinking about. Not him, specifically, but what Scholastic is doing.

Most of us grew up with their book order flyers. The memory of poring over them is powerful.

What I didn't know until I was a teacher, is that a teacher earns points when students buy from those flyers. Teachers buy so much for classrooms, using money from our own pockets. I was really glad to be able to use points I "earned" when my students bought books, to buy things I wanted in my classroom.

Then, I thought it was great. Now, I see it as a clever marketing strategy by Scholastic.

Some years ago, I remember the expose of Scholastic's relationship with the American Coal Foundation. Scholastic was promoting a coal curriculum. That relationship ended, but the news about it brought attention to other relationships Scholastic had (has?) with corporations. Here's a NYT article about it. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/education/01scholastic.html

Scholastic. With all this marketing in mind (including its marketing via rock stars), does it merit the warm fuzzy's we may have for it? I'm really glad Allie wrote this post for RWW. We have to be mindful so that we're not advertisers for Scholastic or its partners.

Kate Olson said...

First of all - YES regarding the Scholastic comment above! Now, I have had a few days to ponder the WSJ article and was so happy to see your response here as well. I am a school librarian who is very active on social media and my blog, and I love to share the books I use in lessons and that kids love in my library. I see that as a service to teachers, librarians, and parents - I myself seek out book recommendations from social media! However, I am always aware of the free advertising I am giving publishers and authors and have wrestled with what that means to lesser known and less-advertised authors and imprints. I always seek out other reviews beyond those of the mentioned "rock stars" although sometimes they are hard to come by as many bloggers simply link back to those blogs. I actively seek out books from marginalized groups and from first time authors and will never positively review a book that I wouldn't purchase for my own library. I review for School Library Journal and due to the fact that I rely on their reviews so heavily myself, I take this role very seriously. I also look beyond the major review outlets to get opinions on books, such as one I just recently mentioned on Instagram and was enlightened by an online colleague about the misrepresentation of the blind community in the book. The teacher I was conversing with teaches Braille and was able to recommend another title that does a much better job with the topic. This is the value of social media, in my opinion - connection with the librarians and teachers and authors "on the ground". We, as librarians, need to hold ourselves to the highest standards when sharing about books - always ensuring to disclose when advance reader copies were given and not becoming the unpaid voices of the publishing world. Thanks again for this post and this blog - this site has become one of my go-tos for checking my white privilege while reviewing books. (Kate Olson - theloudlibrarylady.com)

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Thanks for the discussion, all, I really value it.

Here's a link that gives you a preview version of the whole WSJ article, for anyone interested: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-rock-star-librarians-who-choose-what-your-kids-read-1488715200

@Kirby - YES to "celebrification". I'm seriously considering adding that to RWW's glossary.

@Sam - thank you for doing this hard work on yourself. Are there any networks of men and/or white men in the field specifically dedicated to undoing their gender privilege? I know there are actually quite of few of you out there.

@Susan - I actually disagree. @Angie covered a lot of what I'd say, so I won't repeat her, just point you to her. I do have to say this one specific thing: I actually did not get angry when I read the article (much to my own surprise). My reaction was, "This is a pretty accurate account of the culture of rock stardom in the children's literature field." I appreciate the work you do, and your frustration with knowing that there's no glory in holding your finger in the dam; it's not easy. I hope that you regularly remind yourself you're doing good work. That's the thing about a non-rock-star job--you might not get a lot of glory, but hey, you can sleep at night.

@Maggie - good point re: advertising! My broader point was the one about being de facto members of publishing houses, but you're not wrong, and your advice to focus on the system is spot-on (@Angie's comment taps into a lot of what's wrong with the system). Thanks for adding to the discussion.

@Elizabeth - yup.

@Donalyn - UGH. Thank you for the additional information. I continue to appreciate how you've spoken up in the wake of all this.

@Debbie - Thank you for bringing up Scholastic and the corporate ties!! There's so much to unpack there... maybe in another post... I've been thinking a lot about the corporate nature of (some) publishing, especially in the wake of Milo Yiannopoulos and Simon and Schuster. There's such a wide range, among publishers.

@Kate - Thank you so much for taking your responsibilities as a reviewer seriously. I so appreciate every thoughtful, woke review that I encounter. That's a good bullet point to add to the list.

Matthew C. Winner said...


I was one of the people quoted in the article and, as Donalyn share above, also was mislead to the intent of the article. For me, this is what led to the immediate dismissal of the piece. I was disgusted and embarrassed upon first read, knowing others that were interviewed and seeing myself in the article instantly as one of the white, male, 35-year-olds selected to be featured. In distancing myself from the piece (while also asking that others actually read the article instead of just share it, tagging those involved with elation and celebration, not realizing the harm their allowing to persist.

But you've opened my eyes to a beautiful thing. Much like how picture books are mirrors and windows in ourselves and our world, this article did the same and I was upside down with disgust for what it made me see.

As a school librarian (ironically, the only one quoted in the piece aside from the woman whose quote lent itself to the title), I have to disagree about advertising and marketing. I think that a good deal of what we do is make story enticing. We work to build lifelong relationship with books. McDonald's advertising wants you to have a lifelong relationship with their food. I need to promote these books regularly and continue to feed that interest in order to support the growing and changing needs of the readers in my school. What I choose to share, however, is completely on me and that burden of responsibility is not something that any of us should be taking lightly. However, sharing across social media platforms has been more for me a chance to elevate the person or persons creating the book along with the story itself. I want my students to SEE these authors and illustrators (a reason why I use their photos in accompanying the podcast episodes) so that my students can see themselves and see one another in the role of artist or storyteller.

While I make the choice on who to interview for the podcast, an overwhelming number of requests come in from publishers (these end up making about a third of my interviews) and almost exclusively the books being promoted are written or illustrated by someone white. I have spoken out to publicists and, on rare occasion, to editors as well about this problem, but have not yet seen noticeable change. Since starting the podcast 3 years ago I have been making a focused effort on trying to make my list of guests more representation of the diversity present throughout our nation. I keep monthly and annual statistics and compare them to US Census data (the best I can do for now), and I strive first and foremost to run a show that my students and their families would recognize as representative of our diverse population.

I have a lot of room to grow, but it's voices like yours, Brown Book Shelf, and others that I read and share that are challenging me, opening my eyes, and helping me to do better. I appreciate this discussion, Allie, and I welcome any opportunity for criticism and growth. I care little about being in the favor of publishers. But I can't rest with the thought that any way I might be carrying myself is not lifting up, supporting, or celebrating the diversity of my school community, their lives and families, and their futures. Help me (help us) be better than this.

Elisa Gall said...

Thanks everyone. I appreciate everyone's willingness to engage. Making a list reflect more diversity is important, but what if children's lit didn't have to rely on White men to decide whose voices get heard on the big platforms which they draw as White men? (It doesn't!) What might it look like for White men and White women to work against White privilege and gender privilege in children's books, librarianship, and education? Has anyone noticed that the last 3 Newbery committee chairs have been White men? While each of them did a great job, that's not the point. Considering how ALSC is mostly made up of White women I think it is a helpful example that reflects how this is a systemic problem, whether we are talking about social media influence, publishers' darlings, who gets their photos in magazines/newspapers, or who gets the literal and/or metaphorical microphone. If you are a White man, imagine you just received an invite to chair the next Newbery committee (assuming you are eligible to serve). What questions might you ask yourself before making the decision to accept or not? Would you hesitate? Why? I know that an honor like that would be difficult to even CONSIDER not accepting. But what would your choice communicate?

Debbie Reese said...

Ed Week has an item on this, now:


Matthew--I took a very quick look at your page to see if you've had any Native writers on your podcast. I didn't see any. I'm willing to help with intros if you're interested. dreese at nambe at gmail dot com is the way to reach me.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi @Matthew - I hope that you continue to wrestle with these things.

You're right that as librarians, it's inevitable that we will sometimes serve as advertisers; we do want our kids to become lifelong readers. To me, that's only a small part of the job, though--I also want my kids to be lifelong critical thinkers and activists, not passive recipients of the too often damaging and self-perpetuating messages that infuse media, including books.

You asked for help. I hope you take Debbie up on her generous offer, and make her blog part of your regular reading. I'm here to help too, as is everyone at RWW; that's why we do what we do. My advice for now is to take a metaphorical back seat for a while and listen, read, and learn as much as you can. Check out our "Resources for Further Research" tab (it's deliberately not a thousand pages long so as to not be overwhelming). Get yourself to an Undoing Racism workshop if you possibly can (http://pisab.org/workshops). Seek out people who have been doing the work for a while, and see if you can build relationships with them. Follow people doing the work on social media. Again, I'm here to help; you can reach me at abruce [at] bankstreet [dot] edu.

Last, and this is important: It's not enough for you to celebrate diversity; people have been celebrating diversity for ages without changing the systems and structures that prop up the status quo. We need you to be anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-cis/het supremacy. It's not nearly as comfortable as being pro-diversity, but if you're really as anti-this article as you claim, it's time to dig in.

John Scott said...

Having just attended an Undoing Racism workshop I have to second Allie's endorsement. I had an "awakening" there that has only begun. That doesn't mean I was a bad person before I went but now I know that ally isn't the word for what we need to be doing. I want to join with others who want to be Abolitionists to the systems that maintain Racism in our country. RWW asks the hard questions and I need to learn so much more and be vulnerable to my own lack of understanding, And there is a huge need in the lives of future generations for us, as people who work with children and the media they consume, to jump with both feet into this painful, at least it is for me, work.