Category Archives: diversity

American Indian Cultural Festival

A lot of the work of being an author is the dull and dry sitting at a desk (even when that desk is in a tree) and writing day after day. But every now and then an event comes along that you know you’ll remember forever. The American Indian Cultural Festival in The Dalles last week was just such a moment. It was a celebration of literature and poetry and music and dance. It involved a group of books that I admire and authors I feel honored to share the stage with: Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Craig Lesley, acclaimed author of contemporary western literature, and National Book Award winning writer Sherman Alexie.

I was lucky enough to spend time with an adult book club and share a poetry reading with some truly outstanding young poets. I got to hear the culture club from Lyle school in Washington give their very first performance in the Sahaptian language with traditional dancing. They were simply amazing. I’m so proud of all they’ve accomplished in a year. I meet with some avid writers in the North Oregon Juvenal Detention Facility, and best of all I got to dance with the Taholah drum group from the Quinault Reservation. My favorite part of the whole thing was the series of classrooms who came to hear me and the Taholah drum group speak. They had all kinds of great questions about the culture and art of the Quinault and Makah and the practice of tribal whaling. It was the sort of mind-opening conversation that cultural festivals are made for. I am very grateful to Julian Peterson and Marko Black and all the tribal dancers from Taholah who shared their songs and prayers and dances so generously, and who invited the students to dance and drum along so whole-heartedly. I know those are memories the students will always cherish.

Thank you to Jim Tindale the librarian at The Dalles School District who made this all happen in conjunction with the great booksellers at Oregon’s oldest bookstore Klindt’s who sold all the books and hosted many of the events. Tina Ontiveros is the manager at Klindt’s and Joaquin Perez is the owner. The fundraising for this event was truly a community affair with donations coming from area schools and libraries, educational foundations, local congregations, Oregon’s poet laureate program, the Wasco County Cultural Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. It’s inspiring to see so many community members come together in support of literacy and the cultural understanding of our local American Indian communities. Thank you!

American Indian Cultural Festival

I am beyond thrilled to be included in the American Indian Cultural Festival held this week in The Dalles. I will be appearing alongside Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth Woody, the poet laureate of Oregon, and adult writer, Craig Leslie. We will be doing a poetry reading which is free and open to the public on Thursday April 13th at 4:00 in The Dalles Middle School Commons. There will be live music and a drum and dance group from the Quinault Nation. Each of the authors will read a new poem. If you happen to be in the area, I’d love to see you there.

Klindt’s bookstore will host a book signing party at 7:00 that same evening. Klindt’s has the distinction of being the oldest bookstore in the state. I am particularly grateful to the owners of the bookstore who purchased hundreds of copies of my book, Written in Stone to give away to the students I will visit the day following these events. I am also very grateful to Jim Tindale, Librarian extraordinaire who did the lion’s share of the work in coordinating this festival which includes coordinating readings and author visits in 7 locations over the course of two days. He also spearheaded all the fundraising that made this celebration possible.

In addition to the poetry event I will be attending a talk by Sherman Alexie at The Dalles High School. Hundreds of children will come in on busses from all over the county to hear him read from Thunder Boy Jr.  which was illustrated by the amazing Yuyi Morales. This event will include drummers and dancers from the Quinault nation.

Ringing in the New Year

What an interesting year to work in a book store! Annie Blooms is in a neighborhood with the largest Jewish community in Oregon and also a sizable immigrant African population. Here’s what I’ve found uplifting in a year full of ugly politics. Time and again, readers came in looking for a book that would help them make sense of their opponent’s point of view.

The conservative who just doesn’t understand what black people are so upset about, was willing to walk out of the shop with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Willing to look into it. Eager, in fact, to understand better.

The talk of several local, and generally liberal, book clubs has been Hillbilly Elegy by S.A. Vance. “How can a bunch of white men feel so discriminated against,” say the bookclub ladies. “Where on earth can all these Trump supporters be coming from?” I don’t know either but these earnest bookclub members are searching for insight and talking about what they find.

Nearly everybody who comes into the shop talking about some crisis or other, the Standing Rock Sioux and the oil pipeline or the tide of refugees fleeing into Europe, has an opinion to start with. But here’s the cool part; they know they need to know more. They know that what is online masquerading as news is often not reliable. They already know what they think, but they want to know what the other guy thinks. They want to know the context, the history, the back story, the supporting science. And very often they want to know how to talk about these issues with their children. And yes, there are books for that! 

Although we need more than a few good books and people reading them to solve the mountain of issues we will need to address in the coming years, I do believe that books are a good beginning. A jumping-off place. An invitation to conversation. I’m grateful to have a shop full of good books to share, and a community open to new ideas.

My hope for the new year is that I will continue to listen and to and learn what I can, not to erase our differences or compromise on values I hold too dear to let go. But that I can see opponants more clearly and understand issues more fully, and rededicate myself to doing as much good in the world as possible–and maybe even a few good things that are impossible.

Diversity in the Bookstore

imagesI  work at my local independent bookstore and it’s been an education in all sorts of ways. I’m astonished by how often people are buying a book for someone they don’t know very well. I’m touched by all the people who come in just to make a face to face connection with one of the booksellers or to pet our store cat, the beautiful and heroically patient Molly Bloom. And I love it when a flock of middle schoolers descends in the middle oUnknownf a hot chocolate date and settles in the picture book section to sip cocoa and read aloud to each other. I think of Annie Blooms as a warm and welcoming place. But I had an experience over the summer that has me rethinking my assumptions.

One day last summer a pair of sisters, one about 12 and the other 4 or 5, came into the shop fresh from the yogurt place across the street. The older settled into the cosy chair in the back with a YA novel and the younger rocked the dragon and sang to herself. This sort of thing happens all the time. About 30 minutes later the mother of these girls came in visibly agitated and asked if her girls had been good. I assured her they had, pointed out other children shopping without their parents, and told her that we love to encourage independent browsing by young readers. It took much more than the usual amount of reassurance to soothe her. IMG_1287I would have just put it down to a mom having a rough day. I’ve had plenty of those myself. But this mother was black. And it made me revisit what I know about the black experience in a retail environment. For many black people their retail interactions are negative, and sometimes overtly threatening. It made me think about whether this bookstore is as welcoming as I want it to be. For one thing, none of our booksellers are black. I know quite a few booksellers in the region and honestly I can’t think of a black bookseller anywhere in town.

This brings up lots of questions for me. Does that lack of black booksellers all by itself make a bookstore a less welcoming place? Does the overall negative retail experience make a black family less likely to bring the family to a bookstore for recreational browsing, even if the bookstore itself is not overtly racist to it’s black patrons? Would a black-owned bookstore make a difference? Why are there so few minority-owned bookstores? And what would make minority ownership of a bookstore more likely?

So often when there is a discussion of diversity in children’s literature the bottom line tends to be “those books just don’t sell very well.” It seems to me that most of the energy in the We Need Diverse Books movement is on the production end of the equation. And yet I don’t see how meaningful change can be made with out as least as much, if not more, attention on the consumer end of the bookstore experience. I wish I had answers. I’m not even certain that I’m seeing this problem as clearly as I might. Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.  I do hope going forward that we have as many conversations about the retail end of diversity in literature as we do about the publishing end.