In October 2016, I attended the School Library Journal Leadership Summit and was honored to hear YA author Shaun David Hutchinson speak about the impact of his mental health and sexuality on his writing and his life. He said, “I wonder what my life might have been like if a teacher in high school had given me Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. I wonder if slipping into Simon’s world would have given me the ability to imagine my own happy ending…You never know, the kid you give a book to today could be standing up here tomorrow telling you the story of how it saved their life.” For me, a lightbulb went off: why hadn’t I made it a priority to connect with my middle school’s fantastic counseling team, when I had taken the time to connect with other departments in my school?
The brainstorming began almost immediately. I envisioned creating something that was simple and discreet that students could carry with them. For that reason, I ruled out a brochure–too clunky–and a poster in the library, which wouldn’t promote the access that I was hoping for. I finally decided on creating a bookmark with title suggestions based on mental health topics the counselors saw in our students. They would be easy to distribute and empower students to explore and access the recommendations easily.
I scheduled some time to meet with the counseling team to go over my idea. They were delighted, so we began brainstorming a list of topics that could be included, such as some mental health topics and social-emotional learning, as well. I went back to my library and began searching our catalog for these topics, finding some titles but not as many as I had hoped. I made notes of topics I needed to expand on my shelves and created drafts of a few different bookmarks, making them double sided and putting four copies to a page. I also made sure that the titles I included were widely available outside of my school library so students could access them wherever they felt comfortable.
When they were finished, I shared them with the team via e-mail for feedback. They loved the bookmarks and wanted them printed as soon as possible so they could distribute to students in need. I copied the bookmarks on bright cardstock and gave some to each counselor. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from a counselor asking if they could share my bookmarks with other counselor colleagues; it was a fantastic moment for libraries and the power of collaboration!
Finding More Options and Expanding the Cause
I set to work looking for books that expanded the topics the counselors requested. I browsed the public library, asked my librarian friends for suggestions, and did a deep dive into our book vendor catalog looking for potential titles to include. When the new titles arrived, I made sure to let the counselors know and updated the bookmarks to reflect the new additions. Now, I’m thinking about ways to expand this. I already integrate stories with aspects of mental health into my book talks and displays, but I’m continually looking for new ways to promote these books. I am currently planning e-book additions, a page on our library website with the recommendations, and possibly a version of the bookmark for parents, as well.
Librarians have incredible power to put the right books in readers’ hands at the right time. Shelves should reflect all kinds of experiences, backgrounds, and topics, providing readers with the opportunity to see themselves and others on the pages of a book. More and more frequently, books are being published that reflect various components of mental health, which enables readers to expand their understanding of these topics and empathy for those experiencing them. Fortunately, this includes fiction and nonfiction, as well as picture books and graphic novels, too.
As the final weeks of the school year approach, you have a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with the counseling staff at your school, either to create something for the end of this year or to get ready for the next school year. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and what better time to expand your support for students’ mental health in new ways!
Did You Know?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health and National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness, and 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14. As school librarians, we have the duty to support not only students’ academic and personal interests, but also their mental health. By collaborating with school counselors and ensuring that our shelves include titles that include mental health topics, we are creating opportunities for readers to not just be seen, but also acknowledged and supported.
- Learn more about resources to support Mental Health Month with teens in this YALSA blog post.
- For some suggestions for new books to include in your school library, consider this School Library Journal list, which suggests nonfiction mental health books for all levels.
- Want to hear the part of Shaun David Hutchinson’s keynote that inspired me? It’s here on YouTube.
Featured image courtesy of https://storyset.com/work Illustration by Freepik Storyset
Author: Rachel Grover
Rachel Grover is a middle school librarian in Fairfax County, Virginia, and a member of the board of directors for the Virginia Association of School Librarians. She has published articles on ways to make school libraries accessible for Knowledge Quest and on genrefying the library collection for School Library Connection. She also has developed workshops for beginning librarians for School Library Connection. Rachel was an elementary school teacher for two years before beginning life as a middle-school English teacher in 2009. In 2014, she joined Libraryland, finding a dream job she didn’t even know was her dream! When she is not working, she loves reading, tinkering with technology, traveling, taking photographs, and sleeping in. Her passions include genrefication, makerspaces, technology, collaboration with teachers across the curriculum, and making school libraries equitable and accessible for all learners.