When I was in school, I could reach anywhere in the library and find a book that represented me, with characters who looked like me and authors who looked like my parents.
But not everyone has that opportunity — something recognized by library media specialist Amy Yuzenas of Emerald Cove Middle School on Stribling Way in Wellington, just east of State Road 7.
If you went to middle school in Wellington since the late 1990s, you probably recognize that name.
I know I sure did when I came across it in a recent news release: There was the name of one of my favorite teachers, whom I knew as Mrs. Yuzenas, my language arts teacher from Wellington Landings Middle School.
The organization We Need Diverse Books announced last month that Emerald Cove, thanks to Yuzenas’ application, received one of five nationwide $5,000 Books Save Lives Grants to choose from more than 250 titles representing people across a spectrum of cultures and capabilities.
The Palm Beach County School District also received a grant, along with school in Orange Park, Florida, and Niles, Michigan, and the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas.
September is National Literacy Month, making this the perfect opportunity to highlight the great work being done by Yuzenas — who was surprised when she realized just how narrow. the field of grant winners was.
“I had no idea how many recipients there were,” she said. “I thought there were dozens and dozens, but no, I was one of five in the whole country.”
The goal of the grant, according to We Need Diverse Books, was to “purchase more than 250 quality, diverse titles, rushing these books to schools to immediately fight back against discriminatory bans barring students from life-affirming texts.” (You can click here to read more about banned books at the American Library Association’s website.)
Yuzenas first applied for the grant in the spring of 2022 after receiving an email from the school district’s grants coordinator, who regularly notified media specialists of grant opportunities. Though Yuzenas’ application was declined at the time, she received a sweet message from We Need Diverse Books. When the application window opened once again earlier this year, she jumped at the opportunity.
While her first application was “very professional, just the facts and statistics,” her second application added more personality.
“I wrote about what a diverse school we have,” she said. “Our English Language Learners is a very broad program. We also have so many exceptionalities in our school. … I wanted the organization to know that I think about every child, and to make sure that I had a book for every child in the school.”
Yuzenas was given a list of books to choose from by We Need Diverse Books. She reviewed that and compared it to the list of books approved by the school district, which has undergone a review of more than 3 million books to comply with new state guidelines. (You can read more about that here from The Palm Beach Post, where reporter Kati Kokal is doing a fantastic job of staying on top of the latest developments.)
In ordering the books, Yuzenas only wanted hardcover editions, and she only chose books that were very recently published, making them more current and appealing to students.
She was also allowed to request books that weren’t on the organization’s list.
“They said I could request up to 30, so I had a handful,” she said. Many of the books on that list are sequels to those suggested by We Need Diverse Books.
“I knew that if a child gets hooked on one of those books, then they’re going to want to keep going and keep going,” Yuzenas said.
She was helped in the process by a diversity audit run through the school district’s library management program, Destiny. The audit reported which percentage of books were written by minority authors, which percentage talked about Indigenous peoples, which percentage were from other countries and more.
“That was my starting point to know where the weaknesses were and what I needed to work on,” she said.
While the word “diversity” may conjure concepts of a variety of cultures, Yuzenas said she included in her grant request books about and by people with different abilities.
“What’s so beautiful about this program is I was able to find books with children with a hearing impairment, books with students with a visual impairment, students with autism, Asperger’s, students who are homeless, students who have eating disorders, anxiety disorders, so many things,” Yuzenas said.
“I honestly feel that I have a book for everyone at this point,” she added.
And isn’t that a beautiful thought? Every child, represented in the Emerald Cove media center.
When I met with Yuzenas late last month, she had just gotten the books up on the shelves. Their plastic covers crinkled perfectly, and the pages were pristine. I’ve always loved libraries — remind me to tell you sometime about how I helped to save the library in Maynard, Massachusetts, when I was 5 — so stepping into Emerald Cove’s media center was a delight.
I could picture students walking in and instantly being captivated by the new display. The media center is welcoming to begin with, and students love to spend time there, Yuzenas said.
“Many librarians, and people who love literature, think of books as either mirrors, windows or doors,” Yuzenas said. “I thought about that the entire time I was making these selections. Many times, when you and I go to pick out a book, we want a book with a character similar to ourselves. And that’s a mirror book, because it reflects our own life back to us and maybe helps us understand ourselves a little more.
“Books that are windows give you a view into another person’s circumstances or time periods or cultures,” she said.
“But a book that’s a door is where the magic is. A book that’s a door allows a person to enter another culture, country, time period, another person’s situation, condition, maybe their disability, and truly, hopefully, develop empathy and lasting understanding,” she said.
A great example of a book being a door would be “The Diary of Anne Frank,” she said, which she taught to my class at Wellington Landings in the screenplay format.
“Can you imagine if our teachers had just said, ‘OK, there were thousands of Jewish people in Europe who went into hiding,’ versus, ‘Wow, I get to experience the daily life of Anne and her family,'” Yuzenas said. “That’s something that people don’t forget. You gain true empathy and understanding.”
Some of the books ordered by Yuzenas for Emerald Cove Middle School:
- “Ana on the Edge,” A.J. Sass
- “Stella Diaz Has Something to Say,” Angela Dominguez
- “Show Me a Sign,” Anne Clare LeZotte
- “The Reluctant Storyteller,” Art Coulson
- “Sal and Gabi Break the Universe,” Carlos Hernandez
- “Root Magic,” Eden Royce
- “Barakah Beats,” Maleelah Siddiqui
- “Once Upon an Eid,” S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed
- “Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story,” Andrea L. Rogers
- “Hurricane Child,” Kacen Callender
- “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,” Kwame Mbalia
- “Blended,” Sharon M. Draper
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