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At Poor Schools, Time Stops on the Library's Shelves

Ohanian Comment: Savage inequalities are always immediately apparent on the library shelves. Here, Michael Winerip provides the detail of the harm we do to poor children. The very children who need rich school libraries the most, don't get them. Stephen Krashen points to the research that shows a strong connection between recreational reading and availability of books (lots of books) and higher reading scores. Check out his website at


Suggestion:The principal at Edward Williams offered up a great quote: "A library should be seductive." Let's celebrate literacy and offer some seduction. Send a book to the Edward Williams Elementary School? If possible, make it a book featuring African-Americans.

Ernest Gregg
Edward Williams Elementary School
9 Union Lane
Mount Vernon, New York 10553

Thanks to a mom in Connecticut, here are a couple of resources for finding books titles:

African American Bibliography of Books for Children is broken down by categories (e.g., folktales, stories in verse, fiction--various types, poetry, etc.)

African-American Voices in Children's Fiction also gives annotations.


FEBRUARY was Black History Month, and all students big and small at Edward Williams Elementary - which is 97 percent black - were assigned reports on a famous black American. Francis Powell, a sixth grader, wanted to do Langston Hughes, but when Francis visited the school library, there were no books about the great poet, nor any of his poems.

Fahtemah Callands, another sixth grader, planned to do Whoopi Goldberg, but there was nothing in the school library about the actress. Nothing on Oprah Winfrey either. Nothing on Josephine Baker, Cicely Tyson, Leontyne Price, Ossie Davis. Nothing on Spike Lee. There was one book on Duke Ellington.

Students went looking for Benjamin Banneker, the mathematician; Granville T. Woods, the inventor; Alex Haley, the author; but there was nothing. Nothing on Rosa Parks.

One book on Frederick Douglass, but it was checked out fast. Indeed, the best collection available was a coloring book series, "Negro Pioneers," published in 1967.

At a poor school, the library is often the last priority, and at Williams, it has been neglected for decades. Much of the collection is from the 1950's and 1960's, when this was a white school. But it's not just about black and white. Children come in asking for Harry Potter, but there is no Harry Potter here. There is a complete series about a traveling pig named Freddy ("Freddy Goes to the North Pole" and "Freddy Goes Camping"). And Freddy was last checked out in 1967.

Many great young-adult writers are missing or underrepresented. No Katherine Paterson, one Gary Paulsen book, two Roald Dahls.

The shelves are filled with thousands of books, and at first glance, the place looks normal. Only by reading would you know. Typical is "Friendly Workers Visit Larry" (1960), a child's primer on jobs. The first job that young Larry learns about is telegraph delivery boy. Every worker that Larry meets - the dry cleaner, the deliveryman, the cleaning lady - is white and Larry talks funny. When his neighbor Mrs. Gay bakes cookies,

Need a technology book? Try "The First Book of Television," by Edward Stoddard (1955). "Most families in America today have television sets," it begins. "Yet as short a time ago as 1945" Telephones? "Let's Find Out About Telephones" (1967). "When you phone you usually dial the number. But on some new phones you can push buttons."

Feel like singing? How about "When I Grow Up," by Lois Lenski (1960). Boys sing, "When I grow up I want to be a captain brave who sails the sea." Boys become cowboys, pilots, doctors, storekeepers. Girls grow up to be typists, store clerks, nurses, piano players and, of course, "a mother is best of all, with lots of children big and small."

Fahtemah, who is 12, says if you look hard you can find some good books in the library. "But it needs, like, more new and improved books," she says. "Some of the books you read, they fall apart."

Mount Vernon is the first stop out of the Bronx, a mix of urban New York City and suburban Westchester County. Just blocks from the city line, Williams is Mount Vernon's poorest school, with 90 percent on free lunches and nearly 10 percent living in homeless shelters.

Last fall the school got a new principal, its fourth in six years, Ernest Gregg. Mr. Gregg, 55, is persevering (he started as a teacher's aide, kept getting more education and moving up). The principal loves books - Langston Hughes and Dr. Seuss are two favorite writers. When he realized what was in the library, he was angry and embarrassed. "I felt as if I was walking into the past," he says. "It's criminal what's happened."

He has worked to improve the school. He has made the building more orderly, changing one lunch period of 500 students to two of 250. He also hired two extra teachers to reduce class size in kindergarten and first grade and added a reading specialist.

But just as important as teaching reading, he believes, is teaching a love of books. "A library should be the center of the school," he says, "A library should inspire. A library should be seductive."

The students who did the black history reports eventually did get information elsewhere, including using the Internet in the school's computer lab. "But it's not the same," Mr. Gregg says.

He has visited school libraries in rich suburbs like Scarsdale for ideas, and last October hired a licensed media specialist, LaSheune Cantey. But poor schools suck up new bodies. Ms. Cantey spends most of her day in the library teaching students during their classroom teachers' planning periods. She has little time to sort through the collection and figure out what to dump and what to keep. She recently got rid of sets of 1950's and 60's encyclopedias, leaving the newest, the 1991 World Book (missing the "B" and "R" volumes). But there are other books that Ms. Cantey, in her first media specialist job, isn't sure about. Should she dump the "International Library of Negro Life and History" (1968), or does that reference set have historical value?

When there was no librarian, books and equipment were stolen. There is no card catalog - on index cards or computer. Ms. Cantey bought some Newbery award books with her own money, and brought in her own VCR, but, she says, "There are limits to what I can do."

The principal, with the help of Debra Fisher, a Mercy College volunteer, is hunting for book donations, but needs more. He would love to find retired librarian volunteers to help Ms. Cantey reorganize the collection.

Meanwhile, Anna Kagoro, a sixth grader who wants to be a neurosurgeon like Benjamin S. Carson, reads on. "I've read dozens of books in this library and I won't stop," she says.

The shelves are full. There's "The Motorman" (1934), describing how to safely avoid horse-drawn wagons crossing the tracks; "Plastic Magic'' (1959), with all the new uses for that wondrous new synthetic; and "The True Book of Automobiles" (1965), featuring cars of the future, which apparently will look like big-finned Chevy Impalas.

— Michael Winerip
New York Times




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