[Theory and Praxis, Part 2]
If or when I fail to predict quality, appeal, or popularity accurately, I can at least comfort myself with the thought that not every kid needs or wants the same kinds of books. So even if I push a quirky book or a distinguished, critically acclaimed book and it turns out not to be a popular book, it might at least be the right book for one kid. That’s at least something, although it hurts when budgets are tiny.
But even then, purchased, processed, and sitting on the shelf, will that forlorn book I advocated for, even with its four starred reviews in professional journals, even with its multitude of applicable connections to the common core, even with its luminous writing or its message of hope, even with its creativity and off-the-wall humor, ever get into the hands of that one kid who “needs” it? Is this idea of the obscure, life-changing book (more often than not with a boring or cheesy cover) a truth or a myth? My occasional reluctance to weed certain books from libraries that circulation statistics or dated cover art (or lack of cover art at all) tell me should be weeded is an indicator that I believe in “the myth of the one.”
Is my predilection for the unique, the obscure, and the underdog an asset that brings greater diversity of selection in the library to a greater diversity of potential young readers? Or is it a tendency that leads to weird and boring books sitting on the shelves untouched for years, making the collection look bad, and filling the circulation reports with lists full of sad titles that have never been checked out? Paraphrasing the great King Moonracer, “a book is never truly happy until it is loved by a child.” As much as I like that winged lion of claymation lore, I don’t want to follow his example in presiding over my own Library of Misfit Books.
And Santa is not coming to rescue those books. The other complication of my particular practice is that when I purchase a book or when I leave an older book unweeded, it is not in my own library. I’m not there every day to talk it up, display it, or recommend it to anyone. Many of my colleagues who work in the libraries are hourly employees sometimes overburdened with duties or otherwise unable to promote or recommend books, so in some cases in some libraries the book must wait patiently on the shelf and call that mythical one reader unto itself by fate, coincidence, or good graphic design.
This soft spot for the underdog is bad enough when weeding, but the myth of the one is terrible on small budgets, because when taken to extremes it justifies almost any purchase. Not every book can have it all (both quality and appeal), but most of the professionally published children’s books have at least something going for them. Those award winning books that have little street appeal are frustrating, but what about a mediocre book with an awesome cover or in a trending genre? Are those books any better of a purchase? Is it “selling out” and betraying education and literature to pick that flashy but forgettable book over an unappealing or difficult but more “educational” or message-infused title? Do we give the kids what marketers think they want? What teachers think they need? What others with a specific artistic, moral, or political agenda feel they should be exposed to? What about what the kids themselves want? The easy answer would be to just buy it all and let them decide, but the budgets are not there.
I’ve never actually seen a kid bring the book that will change his life up to the circulation counter, so I don’t know if it’s a real thing. But still, I vaguely remember digging through the stacks of beige books without cover art in old libraries trying to find gold, and sometimes finding it. Once upon a time I was that kid.