#MyLibraryMyStory Guest Post: Choosing Community

Choosing Community

by Morgan Rose Stewart, Children's Librarian for Memphis Public Libraries

In August 2018, I had a choice to make, a very important “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” kind of choice (happy Poetry Month, everyone). I had been offered a position working for Memphis Public Libraries in my hometown, the library system where my mother began her career and my father spent the entirety of his. Meanwhile, a full time position had just opened up in the children’s department at the Newton Free Library where I had been working part time for two years. When I finished grad school, I naively thought I would just take the first full time position offered to me. I did not think I would have to choose between two wonderful but very different libraries in two wonderful but very different communities. But the offers were on the table, my lease was up, and it was time to put on my big girl pants and commit.

Newton had given me the opportunity to do some really cool things: work in the sparkly new teen area, implement my own one-woman puppet show, and take part in story time programs that were so popular people lined up for tickets. Accepting a job there also meant that I would get to remain a member of Boston’s children’s literature community, a network of librarians, editors, writers, scholars, and booksellers whose collaborations seemed to offer up once-in-a-lifetime experiences every couple of months.

While attending Simmons, my picture book class took a field trip to the Eric Carle Museum to hear Grace Lin’s Ted Talk about diversity in publishing, and I sobbed happy tears through the whole thing. Through my internship at The Horn Book, I got to be present at an awards ceremony during which Ashley Bryan led a room full of people in a call and response rendition of the Langston Hughes poem “My People.” I sobbed some more (and again, a very happy Poetry Month to us all). As an intern at the Boston Athenaeum, I was invited to attend a breakfast at Candlewick Press where Liz Kessler spoke about her decision to write children’s books about LGBTQ experiences in spite of the inevitable hate mail she received from former fans. But the best thing about Boston was my circle of friends, a gaggle of children’s lit nerds that were as excited to debate the impact of fan art on the Harry Potter canon as I was. Where else in the world would all of this be possible? How could I leave it all behind?

While wrestling with my choice, I showed up for work and did the job I loved: reading to the babies and tending to the books. It was in the course of doing this job that I found a book of letters addressed to Martin Luther King Jr. written by children from Memphis, TN, where he was assassinated while supporting the sanitation workers strike on April 4, 1968. Published on the thirtieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, Dear Dr. King was edited by Jan Colbert, who was also my first supervisor at my first public library job, and Ann Harms, the second grade teacher who encouraged me to write even though I struggled to read.

In addition to poignant letters, the book contains black and white photographs taken by Ernest C. Withers during the civil rights movement alongside Roy Cajero’s photographs of public school kids in their classrooms in the 1990’s. One of the kids in the pictures is me. I smile with my arms around a couple of other kids beneath a letter that reads:

Dear Dr. King,
How is it up there?
Is God Black or White?
Do you grow old up there?
Do you sing Christmas songs up in Heaven?
Do you eat ice cream cones?
Do you have birthday parties?
Is George Washington up there?
Your Earthling Friend,
Rashad, Age 8

It seemed so strange that I could spend two years working in that New England library without realizing we owned a copy of this book full of the voices and faces of Memphian children. I showed it to a few of my coworkers and placed it on one of the display shelves in the hopes that some Newtonian who doesn’t often think about Memphis might pick it up and read the words of “Your Earthling Friend, Rashad, Age 8.”

Later that week, during a quiet afternoon working at the teen desk, I checked Betsy Bird’s blog to find an interview with librarian, children’s book author, and native Memphian Alice Faye Duncan discussing her latest books. The first was Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, a picture book about the sanitation workers strike and MLK’s death. As Duncan explains in the interview, she had searched for a book about MLK’s assassination written for school-aged kids and found none, so she spent thirteen years writing a book that would fill this gap on our children’s bookshelves. Unlike other children’s books about MLK, Duncan’s book draws our attention to labor unions and workers’ rights, the issues that MLK marched for in Memphis.

In the interview, Duncan also discussed A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks, which, as the first picture book biography of the poet, fills another gap. Bird’s blog had the great honor of revealing the cover, a portrait of Brooks in rich brown hues, her eyes closed and her smile peaceful, framed by what I think are hot pink flowers. It took my breath away. Between rediscovering Dear Dr. King, hearing a Memphis-based author discuss Memphis-based work, and seeing that portrait, my choice was made. The books had called me home.

In September, I began working for Memphis Public Libraries, and even though I had six years of experience and more than one relevant degree under my belt, there were many days I felt like I was starting from scratch. My previous positions had been at big, bustling libraries in affluent, suburban communities at which people seemed willing to lie, cheat, and compromise the structural integrity of the building to get into our story times. Suddenly, I found myself at a small branch library in a community where parents worked during the day and didn’t employ nannies. For months, no one came to my morning children’s programs, and I spent a lot of time at the information desk helping adults navigate job applications and get into email accounts they’d forgotten the passwords for. These were the most appreciative and patient library patrons I’d ever encountered, and I had never felt more useful!

But deep down, my heart still longed for babies to read to, and if they couldn’t come to me, I would have to go to them. With support from my supervisor, I started visiting daycares and kindergarten classes where we sang, danced, shared books, made art, and played with puppets. In addition to outreach, I added “pop-up programs” to my repertoire. Basically, if there were a lot of young children in the library on a Saturday afternoon, I gathered them for an impromptu story time, something I never would have dreamed of doing at Newton. Working in Memphis has taught me a different method of children’s librarianship.

Working in Memphis also means choosing the community that raised me. It means that, every once in a while, Jan Colbert might bring her grandchildren to my story time, offer to lend me puppets or even an entire puppet theatre, and remind me to take my vitamins. Childhood buddies who now have children of their own might bring their little ones to my programs, too. Ann Harms might stop by to lend me a book, take my picture, and give me the biggest bear hug. At the end of a long day, I might swing by the house I grew up in and pick my dad’s brain about collection development or rifle through my mom’s vast supply of picture books for any treasures she rescued from the discard sale. The next day, I might spend hours shifting the biographies to make room for our ever-expanding graphic novel collection only to discover that our copy of A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks has arrived in time for my Poetry Month book display; I might alarm coworkers with my shrieks of delight. I might let my favorite six year old patron “help me make copies” of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle coloring pages. I might send out an email to parents reminding them that all Memphis Public Libraries will be closed on April 4 to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. I might check out our copy of Dear Dr. King to myself and take it home with me, or I might put it on display in the hopes that some grownup who doesn’t often listen to children’s voices will pick it up and read the words of “Your Earthling Friend, Rashad, Age 8.” I might become a better librarian than I ever thought I could be. Where else in the world would all of this be possible?

Morgan Rose Stewart

Morgan Rose Stewart is an Earthling children’s librarian based in Memphis, TN. She graduated from Simmons College in 2018 with Masters degrees in Library and Information Science and Children’s Literature. While in school, Morgan was lucky enough to pay her rent by working at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Boston Athenaeum, the Horn Book, Inc., and the Newton Free Library. Her favorite ice cream flavor is pine nut. Her favorite MLK quotation is, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”