By Emily Williams
It looks a bit like an oversized bird house, a bright red and blue book exchange on Clermont Drive in Homewood. Perhaps more conspicuous than the color is the large black lettering on each side that announces “Anti-racist small library”.
On August 27, the Berthiaume family woke up to find that their small library in the front yard had been cleared out without further ado.
“Although I would like to believe that the books were taken to be read and enjoyed, I don’t,” wrote Kristen Berthiaume in a post on the Instagram account @ antiracistlibrary20. “The library was completely full last night.”
Whether they were made to read or to be thrown away remains a mystery. Even so, the community has come together to breathe new life into the empty shelves.
Within a few days, a Facebook post about the incident received hundreds of likes and numerous shares.
Berthiaume and her family created an Amazon wish list of books that people could buy as a donation. Over the weeks the van has deposited mountains of boxes of books, often stacked higher than the youngest of Berthiaume’s three children.
“We’ve definitely had visitors before,” said Berthiaume. “Books came and went with us.” The library’s mission has reached out to neighbors who stop by for a walk and social media followers who send in donations from countries as far away as British Columbia.
“It was definitely a little life lesson for all of us, but especially for our children, to see those huge piles of boxes,” she said. “Just being able to see that in response to that one bad deed is pretty incredible.
“It feels more like a community library now than our little library.”
The library was set up as a quarantine project by the Berthiaume family and had its first appearance in late spring.
“There has been a lot of race-related issues on the news,” Berthiaume said. “We were looking for some kind of project that we could take on, just in a small way, to help with some of these issues.”
Now that the family is swimming in literature, they plan to share the wealth with other local book exchange programs in need.
“There are a couple of other libraries in the neighborhood of Rosedale that don’t seem well maintained or don’t have a lot of books, so we hope to be able to send some books over there as well,” she said.
Berthiaume noted that the library has books for all ages and interests – from coloring books to memoirs.
“When we have black or Hispanic kids on the street, I want them to open that up and definitely find a book that has them in some way,” she said. “So that’s a different kind of positive.”
Racial social issues keep cropping up in Berthiaume’s world, both as a mother and as a clinical psychologist for adolescents.
“There are times when there will be something on the news and I have a black teenage male patient who may be concerned or his mother might be concerned about any violent police-related matter,” she said.
Lately, she’s seen some of her white patients wanting further education.
“They wanted to know which books to read and they wanted to talk about how they can be an ally – just understand their own role in perpetrating racism,” said Berthiaume. “So I’ve definitely seen some patients really think about it, probably more than ever, and think about what to do differently.”
For her own family, books were a great place to gather information and start a conversation.
Build your book list
Throughout the library maintenance process, the Berthiaume family has read along – examined some of the books before putting them on their library shelves – and identified a variety of books for all ages that they found helpful.
“When it comes to babies and preschoolers, I think the most important thing (most) is to talk about different skin tones – normalize that this is okay to talk about and ask questions about,” she said .
A good option are books with central characters who are not white, such as Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” and other works.
“The main character is black and these are just cute little stories that are very easy to understand,” said Berthiaume.
Other suggestions that tackle the subject of race specifically and are still easy to understand are “The Skin You Live In” by Michael Tyler and “The Colors of Us” by Karen Katz.
“Then there is this cute little board book called ‘Antiracist Baby’ by Ibram X. Kendi,” she said. “It’s a little more open to talking about anti-racism, but that might be of interest to some parents who really want to tackle the issue.”
For children of primary school age, Berthiaume loves “The Undefeated” by Kwame Alexander and “Black is a Rainbow Color” by Angela Joy.
“Both are picture books celebrating black culture,” she said. “The cool thing about both of them is that they have a lot of historical background information.”
The background information is in the form of an appendix in every book. As children get older, they can read the book again and learn more about the poetic parts of the story that relate to famous black Americans throughout the story.
A more difficult option is “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness” by Anastasia Higginbotham, and it is more open when discussing issues of white privilege.
Two of Berthiaume’s 10-year-old daughter’s favorite books for the tweens are both graphic novels: “New Kid” by Jerry Craft and “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang.
“They’re both great because they deal with micro-aggressions,” said Berthiaume. The microaggressive examples are meant to help kids think about their own language, she said, and are a great way to start a dialogue about how microaggressive language is hurtful.
“What could you do if someone in your class said that to a black boy?” Said Berthiaume. “What could you do if you said something like this by mistake and wanted to get it right?”
Even though she is 13, Berthiaume’s oldest reads at an older level and has some suggestions for teenagers.
“She really liked Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give,” said Berthiaume. “There are some serious problems here too. It covers the protests, police violence against blacks, and some of these more serious issues.
Another suggestion from one of the family’s favorite authors, Ibram X. Kendi, is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, the teenage version of his adult book, Stamped From the Beginning.
“It’s basically the story you didn’t learn in school,” said Berthiaume.
Tiffany Jewell’s “This Book is Anti-Racist” is filled with short vignettes showing different ways of identifying racism, how to intervene, how to change behavior and more discussion, along with engaging illustrations.
For adults, the possibilities are endless, but for those looking to get started, Berthiaume has identified three books that she finds helpful.
“How to Be an Antiracist”, also by Ibram X. Kendi, was the groundbreaking book for her to explore anti-racism and white privilege.
“There is a lot of talk about how to move from racist behavior to actually fighting racism,” she said. “He shares some of his personal experiences and talks about research on racism and how it is spread in society.
“Another one that I read and heard a lot was ‘White Fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo,” she said. “It helped me understand how white people in particular have conversations about race and why it is so difficult to have these conversations.”
After all, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 non-fiction book Between the World and Me was incredibly moving – written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about what it means to be black in the United States.
“It was so different from my own life and it helped me to understand more about what other people were dealing with, experiences that I would not necessarily have learned from someone just talking to me,” said Berthiaume.
It has never been easier to find literature by black authors and other colored people. Berthiaume’s best friend throughout the library creation process was the consistently reliable Google search.
“I had no idea until we started with how many books I had never heard of were on the subject or had key characters that were black,” said Berthiaume. “I thought, well, I just missed all of this. So we tried to spice up our own library and the one outside. “
New books are coming out, and the family has done their best to keep themselves updated and engaged.
“The New York Times bestseller list at one point consisted almost entirely of books by black authors, or at least anti-racism, so that was kind of cool to see,” said Berthiaume. “It is clear that people are at least trying to educate themselves.”
For more information, follow @ antiracistlibrary20 on Instagram.