I had a bit of a situation recently after I featured my newest nonfiction picture book in a presentation to a Texas audience of engrossed fourth graders and their unnerved teachers. By “a bit of a situation,” I mean it was a Very 2022 Mess that threatened to spill over into my scheduled visits to several other elementary schools in the same district.
The book in question was Moving Forward: From Space-Age Rides to Civil Rights Sit-ins with Airman Alton Yates, illustrated by Steffi Walthall and published by Simon & Schuster’s Beach Lane Books. At the heart of things was a request—soon followed by multiple requests—that I instead present a different, not-civil-rights-related book to other local students. And behind that initial request? Fear.
The details are convoluted and not terribly important. But there are two takeaways:
1) Through a lot of private dialogue with the librarians hosting me in the district, we worked things out, and my presentations at the other schools I visited did indeed focus on Moving Forward—a story of courage, sacrifice, teamwork, progress, and public service—in its entirety.
2) You and I can help prevent situations like this from occurring in the first place.
I assume it’ll come as no surprise to you to hear that there’s an anti-democratic mob attacking this country’s schools, libraries, educators, and librarians—unless you yourself are part of the anti-democratic mob, in which case that might not be how you’d characterize yourself. (You’d be wrong.)
This mob is deliberately whipping up a climate of politicized fear as it strives to cast books, public education, diversity, and the freedom to read as threats to be repelled by them rather than as resources and gifts to be treasured by us all. I don’t believe that this noisy, unruly element represents the majority of us. What this element lacks in numbers, however, it makes up for in commitment to making itself heard and getting its way. But for those of us in the majority—those of us who, among other things, oppose using intimidation to suppress ideas we don’t like—what we boast in sheer numbers, we seem to lack in commitment to putting our strengths and values to work.
Specifically, I see far too little demonstrated support for the people who keep our schools and libraries going. I don’t mean support only when a particular institution is under assault; I’m talking about routine, proactive, never-taking-them-for-granted support. And if teachers, librarians, and the people who work with them—including administrators and public officials—don’t get a sense of that support from the broader population, what exactly is going to reinforce their resolve to do the democracy-minded thing when they’re under pressure from the aggressive and all-too-visible reactionary fringe?
What I’m encouraging us each to do is pick an institution that we cherish and make sure the people at that institution know that we appreciate them and have their backs. (Not sure how to effectively demonstrate your support? Ask them!)
For me, that institution is the Austin (Tex.) Public Library. At the beginning of this year, I promised myself that each month I would strive to visit a different location, send notes of support to staff members and leadership alike, and point out the APL’s accomplishments to local media outlets. I’ve also started attending Austin Library Commission meetings whenever I can—not because I plan to rant and rave at these meetings but rather to visibly show that any would-be ranters and ravers wouldn’t be speaking for all of us.
Thus far, those meetings have been relatively uneventful. You could even say that they’ve been boring (though informative!). But a willingness to show up for a boring meeting every so often—largely in hopes that our presence will help them stay boring—is exactly the sort of commitment that I’m asking for. Imagine if a dozen fellow supporters commonly showed up in this way. Or a hundred. Or more. Imagine the message that would send, both to an institution and to a mob considering setting it in their sights.
So, am I saying that if only more people who live within the school district I recently visited had been willing to make their support unequivocally clear—to its librarians, teachers, and administrators—then that whole Very 2022 Mess could have been avoided?
Exactly. Or, as I say in the final pages of Moving Forward, “a willingness to fight for what’s just and what’s fair has made the United States of Alton Yates’s life a work in progress.”
Working. Fighting. Showing up. Progressing. What’s our alternative?
Chris Barton is the author of 23 books for young readers. He lives in Austin, Tex.