Seattle Public Library Global Reading Challenge Offers First All-BIPOC Book Selection

by Mark Van Streefkerk

This year, the Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) Global Reading Challenge (GRC) looks a little different than past years, and that’s a good thing. The 26th annual citywide book trivia competition for Seattle Public Schools’ fourth and fifth graders found new ways to reach kids and families during the pandemic. This year SPL teamed up with Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and East African Community Services to distribute books and host virtual author talks. The result was a greater coming together to celebrate books and stories, the success of which will help shape upcoming SPL youth programming. 

Some of GRC’s seven BIPOC-written books include When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, a story about growing up in a refugee camp based on the life of Somali author Omar Mohamed, Sasquatch and the Muckleshoot by Joseph Bruchac and Adam Gidwitz, Sadiq and the Desert Star by Siman Nuurali, and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, which takes place in the 1960s and tells the story of three girls who reconnect with their mother, who is active in Oakland’s Black Panther Party. A committee of Seattle Public Schools librarians select the books each year. SPL’s Global Reading Challenge librarian Jenny Craig said diversity is always prioritized in book selection, but this year “we really want to see windows and mirrors in our books. We want the kids to be able to either see themselves represented or see a window into another world that they’re not as familiar with,” she said. 

The seven GRC books were announced last November. In non-pandemic years, SPL supplied participating public schools with the books, which then stayed with the school after competition. School librarians coordinated trivia competitions at their respective schools in February and March. Winning teams went to the downtown library for nine rounds of semi-finals. The winners then went on to a final round. “We basically turn reading into a sport, and the kids have a great time with it. The goal of the program is literacy and fun, fun being high up on the list,” Craig said.

With in-person schooling out of the picture this year, and SPL restricted to curbside pickup, the GRC teamed up with SHA and East African Community Services to get books and materials directly to participating families. Through teen-led pop-ups, and in some cases, direct distribution to households, SPL distributed 1,600 books to five SHA campuses. The books were also available as e-books, automatically downloadable from SPL’s website.  

“We engaged Seattle Housing Authority, which has about 7,000 Seattle Public Schools students who live there. There’s about 796 students who are in the group of fourth and fifth grade,” said Ayan Adem, SPL’s interim K–5 program manager. “We had pencils, library bags, and information about library services, and we hired teens from Seattle Housing Authority to pretty much lead and moderate these events with three awesome authors.”

Adem noted that in SHA, 62% of residents identify as Black and African, and 60% are immigrant refugees, a population that doesn’t often see representation in kids books. “I identify as Black. I’m a Somali American woman. Growing up, none of my identities were ever celebrated in schools — there was never a curriculum about the Somali experience, or the Black experience that was positive or authentic in the books I read,” Adem said. 

An important part of connecting with the books was author talks, hosted by teens from SHA. Kids and families are able to connect virtually with authors from three books in the program, Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, Rita Williams-Garcia, and coming this Wednesday, Siman Nuurali. Adem said the energy and engagement has been beautiful to watch. Remembering the Q & A with Williams-Garcia, Adem said kids were able to make connections between issues faced by Oakland’s Black community in the 1960s and the fight for racial equity now. “We made it so much more real and possible for young people to not only see themselves as potential authors but see themselves represented in the stories,” she said. 

This year’s GRC includes a new art component that will feature youth art in an online gallery and displayed at SPL locations. While there will be no central competitions this year, each of the 65 participating elementary schools will have their own finals. 

The success of the GRC at creating a much broader community response will help guide upcoming programs like the Summer of Learning, which launches in June. In partnership with Africatown, SPL is pushing the boundaries on what a summer program can look like when developed with, and responsive to, the needs of communities. 

“Since our buildings are closed, how do we still support families and youth directly where they are? We are so grateful to partner with them and respond to the needs that we hear from community,” Adem said. “I look forward to doing more of this, and I think this is what we need to be doing.”

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

Feature Image: Students from MLK, Jr. Reading Squad represent their school in the Global Reading Challenge City Final, 2018. (Photo: Chloe Collyer, courtesy of SPL)

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