ALA Midwinter Meeting Recap

ALA Midwinter Meeting Recap

January 20, 2010

At the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Boston from January 15-18, 2010, the Seven Stories Press table was set up next to a large display of socks in all colors and sizes. Four for ten dollars, ten for twenty, mix and match: this was the refrain I heard throughout the day from my neighbor at the sock table, along with the question from the librarians: whatever possessed you to sell socks at a library convention?

That my neighbor sold hundreds, thousands of socks to these same questioners isn’t the point. He could have done as much at any other convention, and probably done better financially as well. Libraries are cutting budgets across the nation, starting with travel allotments, and attendance was down significantly from previous midwinter ALA events. In the shadow of the September 2009 scare about the Philadelphia Free Library closing its doors, the survival of libraries is more than ever in doubt—both financially, and in terms of those in power losing respect for a library’s basic mission.

We met plenty of people at ALA who knew about Seven Stories. There were middle and high school librarians who’d adopted A Young People’s History of the US for their courses, freelance reviewers who asked about when they could read the forthcoming Barry Gifford Sailor & Lula omnibus, library coordinators who’d taken classes from Howard Zinn years ago and who wanted to stop and reminisce. In equal measure, there were people who’d never heard of this press, but who stopped at the table anyway to page through Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray’s 10,000 Dresses, which was announced as a Stonewall Honor Book for 2010 during the event.

“This is so beautiful,” they’d say. “What’s it about?”

“It’s about a young boy who dreams about wearing dresses made of flowers and windows,” I said.

“That’s wonderful,” they’d almost without exception reply. They were from Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, parts of the country that you would normally not expect to be all-in for 10,000 Dresses.

But if you’re Carolyn Plocher, who in a recent article re-dubbed the national organization “The GayLA”, it’s no surprise that librarians would respond favorably to Marcus and Rex’s book.

“If past awards are any indication, parents can look forward to the ALA guiding them to dozens of books with themes about “coming out,” pedophilia, trans-gender issues, and sodomy laws,” Plocher writes. “The ALA does not exist simply to provide good, wholesome literature to children. It’s quite the opposite, in fact… The ALA, for whatever reason, has taken up the cause of normalizing homosexuality and advancing the gay agenda.”

“The books that used to inspire; which celebrated American values; that chronicled the exploits of trailblazers, astronauts, soldiers, and other heroes, are fast disappearing,” writes conservative Steve Baldwin in another article. “It has become increasingly clear that the ALA is really not so much dedicated to defending the First Amendment as it is to challenging America’s underlying value system.”

To this last, let’s say this: yes, absolutely. The ALA is challenging America’s underlying value system by attempting to expand its notion of what a hero is. The kids who fought alongside Depression-era adults in favor of New Deal legislation and civil rights protections were heroes. A boy who wears a dress is blazing a trail.

To some kids who live in many conservative areas of the United States—kids growing up queer, different, abused, angry—these are the trails that need to be blazed; these are the heroes that inspire kids who are different to lead exceptional lives—as opposed to lives of lies, silence, sometimes early death. Librarians—and particularly members of “the GayLA”—are the ones who transmit the voices of the survivors of prejudice and hate to the ears of the kids in the process of surviving. What conservatives who talk about “America’s underlying value system” are ignoring is the fact that America’s underlying value system, as it operates in many parts of this country, has historically only existed by hurting and silencing the kids within its geographical reach. There is a difference between “silencing” authors who assert the status quo in these regions—that kids should be punished for who they are and who they love—and taking away the one voice in a community that tells a queer kid in a small town that he doesn’t need to lie about himself to survive.

The “homosexual agenda” is not one of conversion. It’s an agenda of protecting its own, enlarging and expanding the meaning of mainstream America in a way that threatens those who stand to profit by the status quo. In conservative parts of the US, it’s librarians who by and large taken on the work of enacting that agenda: shielding the oppressed from their oppressors. “GayLA” is not an insult; it’s a badge of honor.

Toward the end of the convention, during a slow period, my neighbor at the sock table came over to me.

“I’m going to start sending every one of my customers over to you,” he said. “Everyone’s telling me about how much they love socks, or about how someone they know loves socks. I’m tired of hearing it. I’m going to send them all over to you, and you’ll collect their stories about how much they love socks, and you’ll publish it, all right?”

Librarians love to tell stories, and to hear them. Stories, narratives, are what give ideas a human scale. The people who attack ALA for promoting “offensive” books can’t see past their feelings of being offended, or their perception of a Nation in Peril, to the kids who’ve been waiting all their lives to read those offensive books. Librarians can.

Therefore we love you, librarians; it was great to meet so many of you; we look forward to seeing you in Washington DC for the main ALA convention in June.

—John Thornton

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