Librarian Amy Cheney

“Youth of color have much more frequent contact with the justice system than white youth. Black youth account for 16% of the youth population, but represent 28% of juvenile arrests, 37% of the detained population, 38% of those in residential treatment, and 58% of youth committed to state adult prison”.

These numbers originated in The Sentencing Project’s Criminal Justice Primer: Policy Priorities for the 111 Congress 2009 and they’re often repeated to scare or concern us about black youth. I suggest you really read these numbers to understand what they’re saying. In the document, race is the only demographic used to describe incarcerated youth as if race alone determines one’s likelihood of becoming part of the penal system. This discounts the influence of family stability, income, education or other socio-economic factors. It also focuses so much on the disturbing rate at which black teens are incarcerated and camouflages  that the majority of teens incarcerated are White.

Does it matter?

It does if you’re librarian Amy Cheney who works tirelessly for the literacy rights of incarcerated teens. Amy wants to know her teens so she can know what they read. She wants them all reading.

You might know Amy from her YA Underground column in School Library Journal. From time to time, you may see her name pop up on a library listserv when posts updates regarding In The Margins Selection Committee. You may also know her as one of 10 winners of the inaugural “I Love My Librarian” award presented by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New York Times, and the American Library Association that she won for her work at the Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall in California.

Amy visited my blog sometime ago to ask me to post a call for committee members for In the Margins. I got busy and never posted the call. I felt it was only right that I give my readers an opportunity to meet Amy and learn about the work she does so that they may consider volunteering for this committee the next time a call is made. Here’s Amy!

Amy, where did you grow up?

San Francisco, CA. And I’m still here. It’s a beautiful city.

Do you have any pets?

I do. A miniature black poodle named Roxie. I had to a lot to overcome the stereotype of poodles. I thought of them as yippy and prissy. I call Roxie a reverse rescue – she was a show dog and a breeding dog. She’d never been in a car, on a walking trail, to the beach. We are having a blast. She is quiet, smart and a great companion. And I feed the wild birds in my neighborhood. 

Meat or vegetables?

Both – but I eat local and sustainable, and I know sometimes it’s debatable how sustainable eating meat is.

Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?

As a kid I read It’s Like This Cat – it won the Newbery award in 1964. I was separated from my birth family but in 1986 I found out that my great aunt Emily Cheney Neville wrote the book. It still blows my mind – her book won the award and was the first book that didn’t have a “positive” ending and was about “inner city kids.”  It was considered quite edgy at the time. 

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And East of Eden by John Stienbeck. I read a lot as a kid and read a lot of adult books. 

What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?

3 books: Runaway Thoughts: the first Pain of the Prison System (P.O.P.S) Anthology from Venice High School; Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison by Nell Bernstien and War Brothers: the novel by Sharon McKay. I just finished Allison Van Diepen’s On the Edge – her new book coming out in November. 

How did you get involved as a librarian working with youth in custody?

This has been written about a lot – here is a recent interview.  But something I haven’t said in print before is that growing up as an adopted child I felt out of place, that I did not belong, that my parents didn’t want me, that I was somehow bad. I felt isolated. Also, the majority of adoptees today are still denied access to their own personal birth information and their original birth certificate. I could relate to prison – being separated from those you love, from your community and from information. From as early as 8 years old I was aware of prisons and the people in them, and had many nightmares about the holocaust and the separation lines. Many people in prison today got there through the foster care system. 

I often see you call for librarians to work with In the Margins Book Award and Selection Committee. Who are the teens this committee serves?

We strive to serve teens from the poverty classes – those that are in a cycle of poverty which often includes some form of street life/homelessness and juvenile institutions. 

But possibly the more important issue is that we are advocating not only for our teens living in the margins, but for authors and publishing by people living in the margins. There are several books – such as Marilyn Barnes’ From Crack to College and Visa Versa, Ebony Canion’s book Left for Dead – that deserve and need reviewing and promoting and don’t have either from the library world. We are filling a void between writers, reviewers, readers and the book world that shouldn’t be there and I hope will become less because of our work. 

What compels you, what surprises or confounds you about the population you serve?

That we live in the same world but on different planets. 

Could you describe the services these libraries typically provide for young people.

Hope. Possibility. A Lifeline. Diversity.

How do you begin to excite older students about books who have no relationship with them and/or poor reading skills?

It’s really about relevance. I love that my kids are so into BUCK and also MK Asante in general. They are dying to see his film 500 Years After – and they most likely would have never seen either the book or the film as relevant unless they met him.  I had a counselor come up to me and tell me that a kid spoke with her, in awe about a book that he is reading for the third time. He just loves this book, Jasper Jones The kid is a struggling reader – he reads about fifth grade level. Jasper Jones is a sophisticated book with challenging language, but the kid is completely relating to it and so is willing to engage. Jasper tries to deal with the dynamics of being blamed for everything. He is never innocent. He is always guilty in the eyes of the town he lives in. My kids can relate to this. 

Amy and I spent some time discussing authors who are taking non-traditional approaches to publishing and the appeal these authors have to the young people with whom she works. L. Divine and Jeff Rivera and two of the authors she mentioned.

Do you think self-published authors are doing a better job of filling the void for your readers?

I don’t think they are doing a “better job”, but I do think that their books are important, necessary and worth reading and promoting, and they are providing more books for my insatiable readers – many become insatiable once here and they have found excitement, diversion and relevance through books.  Including self-published/small press published books gives a different viewpoint on what is out there, what is available, what people are doing. Some people of color are not finding their place or even wanting a place in the mainstream publishing world due to a variety of factors.

What do you want those who read this to know about ways we can support libraries that house incarcerated teens?

If there isn’t a library in your detention center: Kids are there, kids are bored out of their minds – for the most part – and they need you, books and libraries. If there is a library in your local detention center, there are plenty of ways to partner with them, as well as group homes and other places that teens are living that need you, books and libraries. I asked a kid today what library they went to on the outs and they said, “barnes and noble.”  I had another kid ask me what library to go to and who to talk with at the library because she didn’t know and was afraid to talk to people there. it’s intimidating! remember that. 

Librarians can also support Amy’s work by nominating books to the In The Margins Selection Committee, by volunteering to join the committee next time the call goes out or by subscribing to the YALSA – Lockdown listserv so that we can be aware of issues, needs and concerns in prison libraries. Actually, ANYONE can nominate titles, not just librarians.

I find Amy’s work, energy and story to be quite captivating. I had to ask her how’s she’s doing with the memoir she’s working on.

Agh. I’m stuck. The hardest thing for me is structure. I took a class from one of my idols – Julia Scheeres who wrote a brilliant book about race, religion and adoption: Jesus Land. I admire her skill greatly. She encouraged me to take my 25 page experimental piece into a larger and full sized memoir. It’s hell to do, but her encouragement is what keeps me going. 

Finally, Amy what does diversity mean to you?

Being willing to step outside my comfort zone continually. Being willing to look at my own bias, filters and defensiveness, being open to considering a different viewpoint or way of looking at things, humility, listening, the unexpected understanding leading to connection with another.  

Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to get to know you and to learn more about the work you do.