Librarian connects incarcerated youths to lesser-known writers
By Lou Fancher
Literacy can save a life -- or at least define one.
Manifested in the personal and professional life of librarian and advocate Amy Cheney, the idea comes to full fruition for the incarcerated youths at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center.
Cheney's "Write to Read" program brings library services and materials to underserved youth. The 54-year-old Oakland resident has won the "I Love My Librarian" award from the Carnegie Institution and The New York Times and was honored at the White House with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
The library program she has helmed at the center since 2000 is funded by the Alameda County Library and the county's education and probation departments.
Expanding her sphere of influence, Cheney created the annual "In the Margins Award" in 2013. After the School Library Journal published lists of the top books the 250 kids in her facility were excited about reading, Cheney realized greater attention could come to the authors and small presses whose stories about people of color resonated with incarcerated youth.
"What's important is that the whole world of books revolves around reviews," Cheney says. "If a book doesn't get reviewed, it doesn't get attention."
Furthermore, incarcerated kids represent "niche readership" and the books available to them in juvenile detention centers are limited. The restrictions, like most things in Cheney's life, are simple constructs that flower into complexity under close scrutiny.
"I have several different hats," Cheney says. "As a librarian, a kid should be able to read anything they want to read, even if it's poorly written. That will get them literate."
But any book that poses a threat to the institution -- like books with graphic violent sex or instructions for making weapons -- are banned.
"As a juvenile hall librarian, I have to have high criteria. I don't want to get into battles," Cheney says, adding that she'll "go to bat" if a book conveys messages of survival, learning and hope.
Ebony Canion's book, "Left for Dead," which won the Margins Award for nonfiction in 2015, is a good example of such a book. The first-time author tells her autobiographical story of poverty, sexual abuse, young widowhood and most dramatically, the physical confrontations that nearly took her life. Primarily, her tale is one of faith, family and forgiveness.
"When I was making bad decisions and going through some things that I wouldn't wish on anyone, I didn't
have a book like "Left For Dead" to steer me in the right direction," says Canion, of Cleveland, Ohio. "I didn't have a book that had someone who could relate to what I'd been through, or was going through."
Cheney says Canion's articulate, action-filled story speaks to kids whose lives on the street are characterized by pain and drama and whose world suggests that retaliation and revenge, not forgiveness, are the ways to achieve honor, respect and stature.
"The kids respond to that book so much I can't keep it on the shelf," Cheney says. For Canion, the Margin award is inspiration for a second book of daily motivational quotes she is writing.
Angela Zusman, executive director of Oakland-based Story For All and author of Margin Award Top 10 lists, "The Griots of Oakland," says awards are meaningful because they cause people to take stories from and about people of color and young people's reading preferences seriously.
"One of the most powerfully destructive forces at play for these youth is lack of hope," Zusman says. "This may be at the core of why (Amy) works diligently to find, promote, and bring to young people books that will address their reality, respect them, and open a window into a world where so much is possible."
Growing up in San Francisco, Cheney was a voracious reader. Her fiery imagination, provoked by nightmares about the Holocaust and real-life curiosity about nearby San Quentin Prison, led to fear of disconnection. Her teenage years, she admits, were rage-filled.
"Hearing Maya Angelou's work read aloud melted my persona," she recalls. "I realized I had other feelings. I had grief and hope for myself and for humanity."
Translated into action, Cheney is cautious about portraying herself as the hero in her mission to bring attention to underserved literature. Instead, she aims the spotlight outward, mentioning numerous titles and sharing stories about young readers.
"Every book on our list is a way of advocating and illuminating social justice and the experiences of poor people of color in society," she says. "When I hear kids in our facility having the same conversations as people in all of America, I get excited."
Recently, Cheney crossed paths with a youth who used to read only graphic novels.
"He asked for a book that would expand his mind and help him see things differently," Cheney says. "It shows how kids expand, move their interests, and continue reading after they're outside."