Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hot Ticket Item For a Thought Provoking Book Discussion

We currently have three adult book discussion groups here at the library and I am very fortunate to help mediate the group dedicated to highlighting African American authors called "The Soul Collections". One of our regular participants in the group asked if we could revisit some of the classics we read as youngsters and do a comparison on how we differ in our feelings of the books as we have gotten older. My first dubious task was to locate a classic that was readily available (reference the blog by Allison Beasley on January 13, 2007 on "Where is all the Black Fiction?") I decided on Black Boy by Richard Wright for our August 28th discussion. This book is required reading by many public high schools, so I knew there would be plenty of copies in public and school libraries and I was lucky enough to request the ones needed before students got back to class in August and grabbed all the copies.

For those of you that have not (yet) read the book, it is Richard Wright's autobiography. His style of writing is so descriptive and flows so smoothly that the book reads more like a novel instead of non-fiction. He was unbelievably graphic in telling his life story beginning at age 4 in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow laws and prejudices and continuing with his struggles after his move north and his discovery of the power of words – his own words, his own writing.

Well let me tell you, if your book discussion group is looking for a surprisingly thought provoking discussion – this book is the ticket. I went into the venture a little tentatively because although our group highlights African American writers, we are a very mixed group. We are young and old, African American, White, and Hispanic, male and female – well, you get the idea. We always have a very lively discussion whether the material is fact or fiction, and I thought the content of Mr. Wright’s autobiography would cause some apprehension in the group. I also thought people would be afraid to speak their mind on the issue of race relations both then and now. How far from the truth that turned out to be! Some of our older members were actually born in Mississippi during that same time and were more than willing to speak their mind on the issue of discrimination (then and now) and even gave personal stories of things that had happened to them in the South. Some of the younger members that were born north and never had to live through the civil rights struggles of the South could not even relate to some of the things that were commonplace down there - such as separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms and the list goes on and on. No one in the group felt the least little bit intimidated by the subject or the conversation and even though the group was relatively large; everyone got a chance to get in on the discussion. Our meeting is usually from 7 until 8 but it was still going strong as the clock moved on toward 8:45. When we finally broke up, some of us still discussed Mr. Wright as we moved down the stairs to the first floor.

For a man with very limited "formal education" he was a genius with pen and pad.

Yvonne Croswell
Head of Circulation

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Talking to the Wall

I'm sure this sounds odd – and it probably is. But the picture of Mary Jo Johnston (see Library Musings blog entry below) that I keep on my bulletin board at work not only serves as a reminder to me (and everyone who comes in my office) of that remarkable woman, but it also serves as a means to communicate with her. I'm not talking candles and séances. But every day I talk with MJ and ask her for advice. She always says the same thing to me, "Oh, Allison, you know what to do!"

I'm gearing up for fall – we all are at KPL. It's our busiest time of the year in Adult Services. And this is the first fall we're doing programming without Mary Jo's wisdom, experience, and drive.

I'm reminded of the lyrics of her favorite Bob Dylan song that her family played at her funeral, Forever Young...

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.

Well, the winds of change have definitely shifted with her passing. I hope that Mary Jo would be proud of all of us at KPL who are trying to carry on her legacy of outstanding author programs, and the courageous Friends of the Library who are going to ensure that the group remains strong without her. Before her death, Mary Jo had booked two amazing speakers to visit us and do talks this fall – Jonathan Eig (on September 27), the author of New York Times bestselling books Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season and Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig; and also New Yorker contributor Liesl Schillinger (on October 25). If you're a local reader of this blog, you'll likely want to seize the opportunity to come hear these renowned writers and better yet – consider joining the Friends of the Library to help keep their membership going strong.

I'll continue to talk to MJ's picture on my bulletin board on the wall – she may always give me the same advice, but as with everything that Mary Jo said, it's exactly what I need to hear.

Allison Beasley
Head of Adult Services

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Heart of It

I would tell Mary Jo Johnston (MJ as I fondly called her in my emails) that I hope I never have to plan library programs without her – she was one of the main people at the Kankakee Public Library who makes work…well, not work. Mary was the tireless Program Coordinator for the Friends of the Library and also a Library Trustee. In her Program Coordinator role, she and I worked closely together to ensure that the Friends programs were well marketed and publicized. Mary was the brains behind many of the well-known authors and speakers (Luis Urrea, Richard Peck, Lois Lowry, and a Tuskegee Airman, to name a few). She helped put the City of Kankakee and the Library back on the map. She and I certainly fed off of one another's energy. When I would feel drained and tired (and there were times I have), she'd give me one of her patented "you can do anything!" motivational emails or talks and I'd be as good as new. I need one of her talks right now more than ever. During a program at the Library at the end of July, she suffered a severe stroke that left her comatose. Mary died last night.

As I sit here and type this, there's a mixture of disbelief, overwhelming sadness, and anger that she's gone. They say that mourning is really about the survivors – the departed feel no hurt. And there is a citywide hurt with Mary's passing.

I miss MJ in big ways and I miss her in small ways. Her very presence in the Library and the City was so large that the sadness of her death looms over everything. But then there are small things like when I re-read an email the other day that she had sent me months ago enticing a "big city" author to visit Kankakee. She was trying to tell him to check out the KPL podcasts and vodcasts but she mistakenly typed "check out the KPL podcasts and vodkas at" I laughed out loud and instinctively hit "reply" to chide her about luring authors to KPL with vodka. But then I stopped.

I honestly can't imagine her not being here for the Library and for me. If KPL were a body – she'd be its heart.

But that, of course, is all the more reason to ensure that Mary's work was not in vain. The legacy of hope and pride that she has instilled in this community will be continued by those of us she's left behind. It has to. And it will.

I miss you so much, MJ.