School Libraries: A Place at the Table by Victoria Waddle

The table is twenty-eight feet long, and made of solid oak. Its top is a single slab of wood. As I fill it with hundreds of books that our high school students will browse today, I try to imagine the giant tree, felled eight decades ago, from which it was fashioned. I’m both intent on my task and bothered by something I saw in the morning news. The author of an article was lamenting that kids today don’t have empathy toward others. The piece was an argument for providing an empathy curriculum in schools.

Of course the teens at my school should be empathetic toward others. Yet I can’t imagine wasting time and dollars to implement an empathy curriculum. Diversity and equity are key to current educational goals, and as a high school librarian, the longtime teacher in me has decades of anecdotal evidence about what makes a teen care about others, thus welcoming diversity. At the top of that list is reading. So I am adding to the table the sort of books that a decade ago would have been difficult or impossible to come by: an autobiography of a Hispanic American Supreme Court justice (My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor); a book of interviews with transgender teens (Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin); a novel about a girl sent to conversion-therapy camp (The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth); a searing yet strangely poetic novel of PTSD and the Iraq War (Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers); YA fiction about a Muslim girl who wears a hijab (Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah); nonfiction that shows shy kids how really important their personal qualities are (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain).

The reading levels among these books are as diverse as the topics. From professional review resources, I cull low-level, high-interest titles for students who are learning English. I find the most popular graphic novels that will be a springboard into other reading. At the upper end, I include nonfiction that offers depth such as Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar. I learn who the thoughtful, literary readers are and hand-sell tougher works of fiction such as Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. In between, I talk up countless titles of teen fiction, works that appeal to fans of realism, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and romance.

I spend so much time engaging teens with fiction because, as Barbara Kingsolver has stated, “fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous.”

Time was when we bookworms were accused of not having any evidence for such a theory. But that changed when researchers Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that fiction readers are better at seeing the world from others’ perspective.

Happily, access to literature provides teens with the opportunity to develop not just empathy, but rather the perfect trifecta of life skills: compassion; imaginative thinking; and the ability to analyze and evaluate, to engage in higher-order thinking.

The necessity of whole-brain thinking is often promoted in adult nonfiction such as Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded or Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. As Pink says, in a ‘conceptual age’ that demands its workers be creators and empathizers, people will need to fashion the big picture, forge relationships, and tackle novel challenges. So nurturing students with fiction isn’t, as some critics suggest, training them to be English teachers; it’s helping them blend their left-brain analysis of writing with their right-brain imaginative story capabilities. For students who have an innate desire to question and imagine, the library is one of the best places on campus where they can do so.

My book display table is immobile. It is so long and so heavy that it had to be built inside the library. Several someones would have to take a chainsaw to it before it would fit through a door. It has always been an emblem of the permanence of community and communion. Over the years, the community it has served has enlarged; the communion is becoming all-embracing. But like a vast banquet table where nothing is served without the behind-the-scenes work of the chef, a book collection that feeds the souls of students requires the skills of a teacher librarian, one whose goal is to lift individual students to the nearest rung of the literacy ladder and then help them climb.