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JUNE 23-28, 2016





Jazz Touches the Soul

By Michelle Kowalsky, Rowan University, NJ

Librarians shared their appreciation of transgender teen Jazz Jennings on June 27 as they asked her questions about her experiences, read letters sent from others at home, and described their emotional reactions to her story.

“It’s hard to find good friends who will love you for who you are, and who you can be comfortable with and open up to,” said reality TV star Jennings, who is the recent author of Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen (Random House, June 2016). “It’s sometimes strange when people I meet know more about me than I know about them,” she said.

Jennings received audience applause when describing her strategies for helping people realize that transgender people are essentially just like everyone else and deserve to be treated equally. “Some people are still ignorant, so we must continue advocacy work so that people will learn more,” Jennings explained.

Jennings recommended that the best thing librarians and educators can do is to help others to not feel alone. By offering support and respect freely to those you meet, you can help to remove fears that no one will love and accept them. Librarians can also share books with diverse characters, help to avoid repeating stereotypes, and maybe even write some new stories themselves.

When asked about her future, Jennings was encouraged by several members of the audience to continue on to college. “Reading books and watching shows on my computer immerses me in a world where nothing else matters and I can relax,” said Jennings. “I will just have to keep sharing my story until we come to that point where we are accepted.”

Holly Robinson Peete, RJ Peete, and Ryan Peete Share Family Life with Autism


By Sara Zettervall, Hennepin County Library

Actor Holly Robinson Peete thought she was blessed with a perfect “instant family” when she gave birth to a twin boy and girl in 1997. But she and her husband, former Detroit Lions quarterback Rodney Peete, soon faced the unexpected challenge of an autism diagnosis for their son, RJ. “We call it ‘Never Day,’” she said, referring to the day of diagnosis, when she was told her son would never speak, play sports, or have meaningful relationships. Peete decided to do everything she could to help her son. On June 27, Peete, RJ, and RJ’s twin sister, Ryan, took the stage as part of the ALA Auditorium Speaker Series to share some of their struggles and triumphs as a family united in autism advocacy.

One of the first steps Peete took as an advocate was cowriting a children’s picture book, My Brother Charlie. Ryan, an elementary school student at the time, sparked the idea for the book by saying she wished other kids her age could understand more about RJ, but she hadn’t been able to find a book to share in the library. Peete also found inspiration in the memory of her father, Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to play “Gordon” on Sesame Street and an accomplished storyteller. My Brother Charlie went on to win a number of awards, including the 2011 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature. Peete, RJ, and Ryan continued the family tradition by coauthoring their latest book. Same but Different is a novel based in the reality of being a teen with autism who is learning to negotiate an adult world and also shares the ups and downs of the loving family around them.

Peete highlighted the importance of sibling support and inclusion throughout the presentation. Ryan has always been her brother’s biggest advocate and says she used to speak for him before he found his own voice at age six. “Ryan likes to remind me she has known RJ for nine months longer than I have,” Peete joked. The twins’ relationship provided a special model for “RJ’s Place,” spaces that have been installed in various children’s hospitals and autism centers throughout the United States. Each RJ’s Place is both a technology center and a sibling hangout, creating a supportive and educational environment for the whole family. The spaces are funded by the HollyRod Foundation, which the Peetes established to provide compassionate care for people living with autism and Parkinson’s disease.

The whole Peete family has been involved in sharing their story through a new reality program on OWN – The Oprah Winfrey Network. “For Peete’s Sake” follows Holly and Rodney Peete, RJ, Ryan, and the family’s two other sons as they negotiate life together. Although reality television can be invasive, Peete said that her family “wanted people to walk up to us and say, “thanks for sharing your story.’” She also wanted to present a vision of a real family that is positive and functional. She shared a few clips with the audience, illustrating RJ’s first job search and Ryan’s decisions about where to go to college. Both twins are making successful transitions to adult life: RJ is working for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Ryan will be attending NYU in the fall.

Peete’s efforts to reach out have been successful, if the response from the ALA audience is any indication. As people stepped up to the microphone to ask questions, each spoke with gratitude and praise for a family so willing to share their own experiences. Many reminisced about Peete’s roles on “21 Jump Street” and “Hanging with Mr. Cooper,” and one said that Peete truly embodies how acting can be a noble calling. The question-and-answer period also provided opportunities for RJ and Ryan to speak for themselves. Both said it was difficult to get through middle school, and Ryan gave the advice that families of children on the autism spectrum should “just keep going” and push through those hard times that will eventually come to an end.

Although reality television can be invasive, Peete said that her family “wanted people to walk up to us and say thanks for sharing your story.”

The legacy Peete hopes to leave goes beyond understanding to create a network of support for people on the spectrum. She recommended that librarians create sensory rooms or safe rooms where children with autism can separate themselves when they get overwhelmed in the library. She has never lost sight of the importance of books and libraries. “Books have been such a great anchor for us,” she said, leaving with the hope that her books can also be anchors to others in their time of need.



Reciprocal Fandom for Libraries from Hollywood

By Michelle Kowalsky, Rowan University

Movie star and children’s author Jamie Lee Curtis spoke to hundreds of librarians on June 27 during the Closing Session as if they were her longtime personal friends, recounting poignant library stories and amusing reactions to events in her life. She closed the conference with a lively and candid talk about the impact of libraries in her life outside of her career in the “showoff business.”

“One of my favorite errands was going to the library with my children and their wagon to pick up the maximum number of books we could check out,” Curtis said. “For all of you who have ever sat with a child on your laps, sharing a storybook together, you know that the connection between you and the child as you turn the pages is one of the most beautiful aspects of being a parent,” she explained. Curtis spoke effortlessly about the value of libraries from her own experience as a learner and as a parent.  She explained that she creates her own personal curriculum of library materials when she becomes interested in a topic, reading nonfiction, fiction, biographies, and primary sources, as well as viewing movies and documentaries. Her current research is on Native Americans and the American immigrant experience.

Incoming ALA President Julie Todaro described Curtis as one of the most outspoken and consistent advocates for libraries, and one who is especially accessible despite her celebrity.  Curtis was pleased that her attire was similar to the newly elected ALA leaders who had graced the stage before her. 

“I should be thanking you for this invitation,” Curtis explained. “I am grateful you are allowing me to engage with you, and thank you for your staunch support of libraries. Thank you for keeping the keys to the kingdom of education, ideas, words, and most importantly books.”  

Curtis referenced a passage from E. L. Doctorow, her favorite author, who noted when topics go unexamined for a long time they become mythological, and tend to create conformity. Libraries helped her examine ideas, break up the calcification of entrenched ideas, and help her make her own decisions on things.

Curtis has written a series of rhyming children’s books which address core childhood issues in a friendly and accessible way. Reading her latest book, This Is Me: A Story of Who We Are and Where We Came From, to the audience, she explained how it uses an activity with a suitcase to teach children about the difficulties of immigration and identity. 

In the book, early elementary students are directed to fill a small suitcase with whatever they would like to take to their new life, as if they were permanently moving away and leaving everything else behind. While the standard version of the book comes with a pop-up suitcase for this purpose, Curtis assured librarians that the library version of the book would not include it.

Curtis’ This Is Me: A Story of Who We Are and Where We Came From (Workman, 2016) is illustrated by Laura Cornell.