Reading & Literacy

Article on ‘Rock Star’ Librarians Inflames Teachers, Children’s Lit Community

By Liana Loewus — March 10, 2017 3 min read
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A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal brought an interesting literacy phenomenon to light: that a small group of current and former school librarians are having a great deal of sway over what kids across the country are reading.

These literary gatekeepers of sorts have giant social-media followings, and publishers see them as one of few direct lines to classrooms.

At the center of the article is John Schumacher, an elementary librarian in Illinois for nine years who now works as a school library “ambassador” for Scholastic. Two other persuasive voices in the children’s literature world are featured in the piece as well—Matthew Winner, a Maryland school librarian who has a children’s book website and podcast, and Colby Sharp, a 3rd grade teacher in Michigan and a co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club online community.

Reaction to the article from the children’s literature community—including an active online sphere of educators and authors—was quick and harsh. An attempt to characterize kid-lit influencers using only white males in their mid-30s misrepresents the work being done, many said.

Women actually outnumber men in the teaching, children’s-book writing, and school librarian fields. In fact, according to 2011-12 data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey, 96 percent of school librarians are women. (About 86 percent of school librarians are white.)

“Your lack of inclusion of women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented groups shows a shocking lack of awareness about current issues and trends in children’s publishing or the world of school libraries,” Donalyn Miller, a former teacher and the author of books on teaching reading, wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s comments section.

Miller, who said she was contacted for the piece but not quoted, is a co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club. Of the four co-founders, only one is male—and only he was mentioned in the piece. (Miller also previously blogged for Education Week Teacher.)

Tracey Baptiste, the author of the children’s book The Jumbies, told me in an interview that there was a flurry of online activity—much of it in private Facebook groups and messages—about the lack of diversity in the article right after it came out. “By midafternoon Sunday, everybody was up in arms because it was so ridiculous,” she said. “I think we were all just mad.”

All three of the men who were featured were upset as well. Winner called the article an “embarrassment.” He also posted a 12-minute personal video responding to the article on his Facebook page.

A comment on the article signed by Christina Soontornvat, the author ofThe Changelings, called the piece a missed opportunity. “It’s sad, because this could have been a moment to celebrate children’s literature, and to highlight diversity and inclusion,” the comment says.

Steve Severinghaus, communications director for Dow Jones, which publishes the newspaper, responded to the controversy in an email:

As with many of our stories, we speak to many more people than those who end up being featured in the story. We value the candid feedback we have received on our story. ... We understand and appreciate that librarians come from all walks of life. This piece was never meant to paint a complete picture of all of the diverse and dedicated professionals working to further children’s literacy. The world of books, libraries, and librarians is a great story and we look forward to continuing to cover it from many different points of view.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.