dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author
Youth Librarian and his Kidz

Youth Services Librarian in Brookville with some of his teen library volunteers

Many Pennsylvanians have been disappointed to discover that our new Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, hasn’t turned out to be any better supporter of libraries than his much-despised predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett. Libraries aren’t even on Wolf’s radar and continue to be the loser when it comes to where PA tax dollars are spent.

I know that funding libraries is a problem across the country. But I think it’s particularly shameful in Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin founded the first public library in America in Philadelphia – a city where, currently, school budget cuts have reduced the number of certified librarian positions from 176 to 11 … for 218 schools.

Worse, some of the tax payers think this is just fine …

“Librarians are a relic of yesterday’s education models.” That was a comment on an article about the library crisis in Philadelphia schools. “Any student can access virtually all necessary information from their phone or computer. The only purpose of a librarian was to help you FIND information among the books. That’s no longer necessary.” Another commenter said that Philly schools needed to focus on teaching reading and math, not the Dewey Decimal System. These people seem to think that all librarians do is help kids “look stuff up” and find books on the shelves. They also see no connection between a working, thriving library and kids learning to read.

They have no idea what a community of readers looks like, nor do they understand that libraries — and librarians — are the foundation for creating one.

Dover Area Library Signing

At Dover Area Library in York County, PA, kids line up to get their free books signed

In my former school, the librarian (with the help of the PTA) budgets money for “Student Choice Books” every spring and invites students in grades 3-6 to recommend books to be added to the library collection. Not content with having students slap together a list of their favorites, this librarian supplies a set of criteria for choosing worthy books, requiring students to research new titles before submitting their proposed lists. Likewise, in Troy, Michigan, librarians at their four middle schools organize a massive reading program to award a Troybery – a mock Newbery – each year. (The Eighth Day was first runner up this past year.)

Many states take the Reader’s Choice Awards to the next level, with public libraries and school libraries collaborating to create a yearly list, make the selected titles available across the state, and promote the program with activities, author visits, and rewards for participation. The Caged Graves has been on such lists in Utah, Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, and Alaska. The Eighth Day is currently on Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers Award list.

Chips

Kreutz Creek librarian serves up an Eighth Day-themed barbecue for her summer reading club

Many libraries across the nation make use of the Collaborative Summer Library Program to entice kids to spend their summer reading. The 2015 theme: Every Hero Has a Story. I was invited to participate in several programs with tweens and teens this summer under that program. Thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Henrietta Hankin Library in Chester County, PA, every teen who participated in their Summer Book Club received a copy of The Caged Graves to keep and was invited to attend a book club meeting led by the author. Likewise, the youth services librarian at the Dover Area Library in York County, PA wrangled a deal with Scholastic to get 100 copies of The Eighth Day into the hands of local middle school readers – and he shared a few with the neighboring Kreutz Creek Library for their Under the Floor Book Club.

The little town of Brookville, PA also has a thriving library with an active community of readers and benefactors. This year was the fifth summer they brought in a YA author for an afternoon teen program and an evening adult program, generously putting up the author in a local B&B and providing dinner at a local restaurant between events. My dinner was attended not only by the librarians, but also by teen volunteer workers and members of the local writing group. Because of the subject matter of The Caged Graves and We Hear the Dead, my evening talk also drew in members of the local historical society.

So, for politicians and anonymous internet commenters who believe that librarians are dinosaurs of the past who can no longer compete with Google and smart phones and iPads … I ask you: When’s the last time you met one?

 

Just in case you missed my cover reveal over at Project Mayhem last week …

MorrigansCurse_REV cover

The release date for The Morrigan’s Curse is January 26, 2016, and you can read a synopsis for the book on my website’s Eighth Day Series page.

But if you have any interest in art or how book covers are designed, I still recommend you check out the interview I did with the designer and the cover artist. As my husband said when he read the interview, “I looked at the cover and thought: Wow, that guy can draw. Then I read all the work that went into creating this, and it’s not just ‘drawing’ at all.” SO MUCH work goes into this — just like writing the book itself!

In other news, it’s been a busy month for me and promises to be a busy summer. My younger daughter turned 15. My older daughter graduated from high school. I had a number of book events in June, and I have more events in July, as well as a class to teach. Also, we’ll be hosting a French exchange student all next month, and we have many events planned to entertain her.

Therefore, except for First Impressions, I’ll be cutting back blogging to once a week until further notice. First Impressions will still be available in the first 3 posts of every month. (And I have 2 openings in July, by the way. Any takers out there? I KNOW some of you are working on projects!)

Book ShelvesThe only other news I have for you is this: I mentioned last month that my husband assembled and installed new bookshelves into the room we’ve called “the library” ever since we moved into this house in 2003. For twelve years, we’ve been meaning to replace our crappy Office Depot shelves with something worthy of the name “library.” Those shelves were double and triple-stacked. Now, with all our books adequately displayed, I’ve uncovered books that I haven’t seen in years and started re-reading some old favorites from high school.

Right now, I’m on Sign of Chaos, by Roger Zelazny. I never before realized how much The Chronicles of Amber influenced my writing. It has literally been decades since I read these books, but there are concepts here that I see echoed in my own work. Except for his 1-dimensional portrayal of most female characters, sadly. But other than that, I have to say, “Thanks, Rog, old boy. You really shaped my thinking, even if it took years to reach fruition.”

After I’m through with Amber, I’ll be turning to C.J. Cherryh. (Is this where I get to brag that I’m Facebook friends with her? Not that she knows who I am or anything. She has thousands of Facebook friends. But still, if I could go back and tell my teenage self, “Some day you’ll be Facebook friends with C.J. Cherryh!” my teenage self would say … “Face-what?”)

This will be the final post in a series of Why I Had to Leave Education … for now. (Until something else sets me off.)

When my nephew started third grade at my former school this past fall, my brother-in-law asked me, “What’s this ‘content class’ Joe keeps talking about?”

And I groaned. Because the dismissive term administrators used to refer to science and social studies had finally trickled down through the teachers and is being used with students. That was something I always refused to do. I always called the class science or social studies in spite of what it said on my schedule. (Social studies was a term that confused kids enough, since it included history, geography, civics, and economics). Calling any part of a student’s day “Content” is like — in my daughter’s words — offering a high school class called “Stuff.”

I can trace the use of the term “content” back to a philosophy of education that states: “Process is more important than content.” That is, teaching students strategies for learning was more important than what you were actually learning. The facts themselves didn’t matter. I disagree with this philosophy. Yes, it’s important to teach students how to find the main idea and supporting details in a non-fiction text. It’s important to teach them how to research, how to summarize, how to analyze — how to learn.

But the content matters! Elementary students should be learning the classification of animals (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians), the continents and oceans of the world, the difference between climate and weather, the geography of the U.S., the water cycle, etc. These facts produce a wealth of background knowledge that American children should have – and that actually improves their reading comprehension! (Something administrators tend to overlook.) It may be true that in today’s modern world, we can Google anything we want to know, but that does not replace the benefit of having a wealth of information already inside our heads!

I saw this for myself every year when I used a released item from the PSSA as a reading assessment. The story was called Running from the Sun, and it was about two space cadets trying to survive on an asteroid after their shelter explodes. A rescue ship is hours away, and the cadets are in danger of being boiled alive in their space suits when the sun rises. So, they decide to run across the surface of the asteroid – using the low gravity to help them – keeping just ahead of the sunrise until the rescue ship can arrive. It’s a great short story, one of the very few reading tests from the PSSA that was worth reading on its own (exciting, with themes of friendship, perseverance, and bravery) as well as an excellent reading assessment.

Over the years, I saw reading comprehension greatly decline on this test. Why? When I started using it, I could count on fifth grade students knowing what an asteroid was and some facts about space. In my final year of teaching, most students did not know even the most basic concepts necessary to understand the story.

The final blow for me, as a teacher, came last year when the 60 minute Content class was slashed back to barely 30 minutes to make room for RTII – Response to Instruction Intervention. What the heck is that? It’s a Pennsylvania mandate requiring reading intervention for 100% of students, based on data from diagnostic tests. For RTII, each teacher in my building was assigned 2 or more different groups for reading intervention, including a “core” group that didn’t really need intervention but was going to get it anyway. The groups ran for 6 weeks, and then we would have 2 weeks off to analyze the data and form new groups.

What did we do with the 2 weeks in between?  Here’s a quote from my former principal:

“Keep up with the reading strategy instruction. I don’t want to see you using those 2 weeks to sneak more content in.”

Sneak more content in. Remember: Content is science. Content is history. Not … you know, cigarettes.

This was yet another nail in the coffin for me: Why I Had to Leave.

 


My 5th grade students were excited when they heard the book I’d been telling them about was going to be published as a series. And both my reading classes wanted THE EIGHTH DAY to be their next read-aloud. When I cautioned them that the current version is unrevised and not the one that will be printed, they were even more adamant.
“We’ll be the only ones to hear the original version!!!”
This was a new thing for me. My other manuscripts were all YA. They weren’t necessarily inappropriate in content; they were just over my students’ heads. Reading my own book to my students was going to be a first.
I was surprised by how nervous I was. My mouth got dry, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the first chapter. But the students were enthusiastic, interested, and encouraging. And wonderful reading-writing conversations ensued.
 “Why do you have to end every chapter like that – so we don’t want to stop?” complained one boy. It was a rhetorical question. He knew the answer. (I checked.)
“How did you come up with the names for your characters?” asked a girl. I’ll never forget the dead silence in the class when I told them the characters chose their own names. They looked at each other with raised eyebrows, and I could see them trying to figure out if I was joking – or nuts.
And then there was the afternoon one of my students wailed in great distress, “I don’t get it! I don’t understand this book at all!”
I turned to him with concern – as a teacher and as an author – and asked, “What don’t you understand?”
Then he fired off a series of questions that proved he understood everything perfectly. He had noticed every event that was mysterious. He was halfway toward connecting the dots that would explain those events, and he was wondering all the things I wanted him to wonder.
I had one of those TEACHER REVELATION moments.
You see, some students do not start out as strong readers, and they know it. Their grades have always told them so. They know they’ve always been in the lowest reading group. They know they get extra help. When they start to become stronger readers (and when teachers stop giving them low level materials), they don’t recognize their own improvement. When they encounter a place where they have to draw their own conclusions or wait to get more information, they just assume they don’t understand … which is business as usual for them.  They haven’t learned to differentiate between a comprehension problem and anticipation/suspense set up by the author.
I assured this young man that he was not confused. “You are exactly where the author wants you to be,” I said. “You are noticing all the right things and asking all the right questions. The author is trying to keep you puzzled right now. The answers are coming. You have to wait for them.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve had a conversation like this with a student. But usually the response is a frowny face from a downtrodden reader who thinks the teacher is trying to be nice.
This time, I got a big grin. My words carried more weight than usual because I was the author I was talking about.

I know most (if not all) of you have read the article in The Wall Street Journal highlighting the dark and disturbing nature of today’s YA literature. It’s time to consider: Maybe they’re right. Maybe YA authors are poisoning young minds with a tasteless exploration of the darker side of human nature. Maybe it’s time we returned to the classics for a brighter outlook on life.

Here’s a list of some of the heart-warming classics I was assigned to read when I was in high school:

The Outsiders: Two rival teenage gangs violently clash with each other and with the police.

Moby Dick: A megalomaniac self-destructs while trying to kill a white whale that may or may not symbolize God.

Heart of Darkness: An exploration of the darkness of the wilderness, the cruelty of slavery, and the inherent ability for evil in every human being.

Huckleberry Finn: An abused boy and an escaped slave wander the country homeless and fall in with thieves and con men.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A young man pursues a life of pleasure through all manner of vice and sin, including murder, while his portrait reflects the evil in his soul.

Romeo and Juliet: Two teenage lovers impulsively commit suicide when rivalry between their families separates them.

The Scarlet Letter: A town ostracizes a woman with an illegitimate child, while the minister secretly engages in self-mutilization as an expression of guilt for his affair with the woman.

Fall of the House of Usher: A disturbed man deliberately buries his sister alive, bringing ruin to himself and his household.

The Tell-Tale Heart: A paranoid schizophrenic kills his landlord, chops up the body, and buries it beneath the floorboards.

What books can you add to this list of fine upstanding classics which are (obviously) better for today’s youth than modern, trashy YA literature? Please feel free to share your titles in the comments!

Report cards and parent conferences are over, and it’s time for Thanksgiving break! I feel like I’ve worked hard enough for it!

Exhaustion makes me cranky and maybe a little fanciful. My over-exerted neurons are firing off crazy ideas and strange little mini-stories. Overall, parent conferences went very well, and I heard a number of times that I’ve made a positive influence on my students. A couple parents have thanked me for placing a particular book into the hands of their child, transforming a reluctant reader into someone hungry for more books by that author/in that series/on that topic. So maybe it’s no wonder the following conversation in the library this week was followed by a paranoid crazy fantasy:

Me: Mark, why haven’t you picked out a library book?

Mark: (skulking at the back of the line, where he always tries to hide) I hate reading. I don’t want a book.

Me: We go through this every week, Mark. Let’s pick something interesting and short.

Mark: (stomping over reluctantly) Nothing’s interesting.

Me: Look, here’s a book on Mt. Everest. (Mark rolls his eyes.) C’mon, Mark. Lots of people died trying to climb Everest. You’ll like that part.

Mark: (with a spark of interest) Really?

Me: Oh, yeah. Look, here’s a picture of Beck Weathers, who was left for dead. But turns out, he was alive and he practically had to rescue himself.

Mark: (pointing at another picture) Are those all tombstones?

Me: Yeah. Pretty gruesome, huh?

Mark: Okay, I’ll take it.

I figured at first that he was only humoring me, so we could hurry up and leave the library. But as we walked back to the classroom, I looked back and saw him reading while walking. I smiled to myself. If he liked this book, I would try to get him interested Gordon Korman’s Everest series. Maybe Mark would get really interested in Everest. Maybe Mark would become a mountain climber. Maybe Mark would someday ascend Mr. Everest. Maybe Mark would get hurt! And I would be to blame! And his mother would be crying on the news, telling the world it was all the fault of Mark’s fifth grade teacher who gave him a book on Everest …

That’s about the time I realized, I really, really, really need this upcoming holiday break.