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Multilingual Family Story Time: A Way to Build and Advocate for Diverse Collections

Jackie Wood (she/her) has worked at the Marshall Public Library in Pocatello, ID since 2015. She started as a library assistant in the circulation department, but recently made the move to library specialist. She hopes to advance in her career after completing her Master’s in Library and Information Science in August 2023. As the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants who came to the United States in the late 1950s, she understands the value of children seeing themselves in works of literature. She has a deep interest in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in librarianship and seeks to find opportunities to help all feel welcome in the library.

In the summer of 2022, I took a class for my Master’s in Library and Information Science degree entitled “Resources and Services for Diverse Populations.” In this class I had the opportunity to learn strategies for better servicing all members of your community and helping them to feel more welcome in your library. One of the suggestions that really stuck out to me was the importance of knowing the languages spoken at home in your service area so that you can have materials available in each language, to the best of your ability.

This led me to an idea for creating a program that would help expand our children’s collection while also providing a means of welcoming members of our community into the Marshall Public Library.

The Idea Takes Shape

I started by approaching our Early Childhood librarian, Becca Hyde, with the idea of a bilingual story time. The more we talked, the more we realized that we have many cultural groups within our community that speak a wide range of languages. We decided that we would instead host a monthly program that would spotlight different languages. My vision was to have native speakers come in and share a little of their culture along with teaching a little vocabulary.

I provided our first story time in October 2022 with a Spanish/English story time where I read a Puerto Rican folktale, Perez and Martina as told by Pura Belpre. I also read the book Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina. This is a beautiful story about a little girl, Mia, whose Abuela (grandmother) comes to live with her. Mia speaks very little Spanish, and Abuela speaks almost no English. During the course of the book, they find a way to break down the language barriers between them by using a method that Mia learns at school with a friend who was also an English language learner. I used this same method (sticky notes) for teaching some Spanish vocabulary. We used sticky notes on objects around the room to familiarize children with the Spanish words. I also brought a favorite Puerto Rican treat, Piraguas (similar to snow cones), to share.

Next Steps in the Journey

After my experience with reading for our multilingual story time, I wasn’t sure how to keep the ball rolling with having community members serve as readers. I decided to start internally with staff members who might either speak another language themselves or might know someone who would be willing to read for us. In November, another staff member who had spent her early childhood and elementary years in France shared some classic French children’s stories and nursey rhymes with us. Another staff member has a daughter-in-law who is originally from Sweden who came and taught us about Santa Lucia Day and made Lussebullar (sweet buns) for us in December. This story time was our breakthrough event.

First of all, for this one we changed the times from a Wednesday night to a Saturday morning because the library closes earlier in the month of December. Second, this was the first event where we saw whole families attending together rather than just moms and children. Third, during this event I had two separate community members approach me to ask if they could provide specific story time events for us. This is what really jump started our story times and turned them into the community-focused programs that I initially envisioned.

The display from our Chinese New Year story time in January 2023.
Jackie’s husband, Scott, was excited to show off a display of Indian/Hindi books during the Diwali story time in February 2023.

Arabic/Ramadan Centered Story Time

It was after this December story time that we saw the snowball effect of community members approaching me to volunteer as readers to share their language and culture with the residents of Pocatello. They saw how much time and effort I had been putting into finding books for our library collection that represented our community. This was particularly true of our upcoming story time.

In February of this year, we had a family who wanted to spotlight the Indian language of Hindi and the Diwali celebration. At this story time there was a family I introduced myself to, Mohammed Alqurashi, Alaa Hassan Almari, and their young daughter. Mohammed told me that he would like to do a story time that centered on the Arabic language and, more specifically, on the upcoming observance of Ramadan. Marshall Public Library had a number of books about the Muslim faith but very few, if any, that included Arabic or that featured Saudi Arabian characters. I decided that I would make it my mission to find such books in an attempt to help this family see themselves in our library collection. I specifically wanted to find a book wherein their young daughter so that she would be able to see herself.

This was exactly the kind of inspiring story that I wanted our young patron to experience.

The Hunt for Saudi Arabian and Arabic Books

The quest turned out to be a lot harder than I had anticipated. I, of course, started by searching the Diverse BookFinder database. While I found a few books that take place in Saudi Arabia, these books were largely historic in nature or centered on important figures such as Ibn Battuta. I wasn’t sure where to turn next in my search. Luckily, I had some books literally find their way to me.

I had forwarded an email I received from the Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL) to our Children’s Services Supervisor. It mentioned that the ICfL had books available for libraries that were bilingual, in both English as well as several other languages. When the books arrived, I didn’t have a chance to carefully look them over until I had a patron asking for Chinese/English bilingual books. This led me to the box of books, which happen to contain at least 3 picture books in Arabic/English.

Jackie holding her golden find!

Another experience I had that was instrumental in my search started with me mentioning to my Public Services Supervisor, Amy Campbell, that I was on this quest. She sent me a couple of links, and one of them was truly game changing. The link was for the Middle East Outreach Council, which, since 1999, presents an annual book award “to recognize books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to understanding of the Middle East.” The 2022 winner in the picture book category happened to be exactly what I was looking for. The book Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Lina AlHathloul and Uma Mishra-Newberry is inspired by the experiences of human rights activist Loujain AlHathloul, who fought to have the ban on women driving removed in Saudi Arabia. It is a magical story about a girl who loves colors and yearns to use her wings to fly, a privilege only allowed to boys, but Loujain is determined to see the magnificent colors of the sunflower fields. This was exactly the kind of inspiring story that I wanted our young patron to experience.

Mohammed was absolutely amazed to see books that contained both Arabic and English in them as he would have never thought to look for them for his daughter before our program.

Sharing My Finds with the Family

As a part of each story time event, I take the time to sit down with the reader to review expectations and plans as well as share books that we will have available for check out the day of the event. I was so excited to share what I had found with Mohammed, Alaa, and their daughter. They came in on a Saturday afternoon, and we talked about Ramadan. It was so interesting to learn about the denominations of Islam, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Alaa shared with me her feelings and reasoning behind not wearing a hijab. She said that while many women chose to wear it as part of their religious observance it is not mentioned in the Quran as essential to the practice of the Islamic faith.

The family asked if it would be okay if they brought in Arabic coffee as they know that Pocatello has a large population of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints members who do not drink coffee. I told them that they were welcome to bring it if they would like and that those who did not care to partake could choose to abstain. This was important because several of our readers have brought in foods and treats to share, and I wanted to make sure that Mohammed and Alaa did not feel pressured to bring anything because I knew that our story time was scheduled to take place during Ramadan which means that they would be fasting during the event.

When it came to reviewing the books with the family, we further discussed the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims as some of the books represented Shia Muslims- and Mohammed and Alaa practice the Sunni traditions. Mohammed was absolutely amazed to see books that contained both Arabic and English in them as he would have never thought to look for them for his daughter before our program. Since they are teaching her both languages, Mohammed said that this would be a great tool for helping her language acquisition. I found our whole meeting to be such a heartwarming experience and am grateful that they were so open in sharing their beliefs and traditions with me.

Key Takeaways

I have been so grateful for the opportunity to help create this story time experience in my community. It has been wonderful getting to know these amazing families and absolutely heartwarming to bring their stories into the library. I recently listened to a podcast from Circulating Ideas entitled “Actively Anti-Racism Service to Leisure Readers, with Robin Bradford and Becky Spratford.” In this podcast, these two amazing librarians and readers advisors discuss the meaning of actively anti-racist service and diverse library collections.

They say that the key difference between not racist and anti-racist practices in terms of readers advisory is not just having diverse books in your collections but using these books in displays and recommending them as read-alikes when appropriate. This multilingual story time experience has proved to not only be a way to bring new books into the collection, but to also serve as an opportunity to spotlight both these amazing books and the members of our community that they represent.

Jackie preparing for our next Hawai’i/Pacific Islander story time program in April 2023.

Diverse BookFinder Titles Featuring Middle Eastern/North African/Arab Characters

Diverse BookFinder Titles on Ramadan

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