By Emily Williams
It looks a bit like an oversized birdhouse, a bright red and blue book-sharing hub on Clermont Drive in Homewood. What’s perhaps more eye-catching than its color is the large black lettering along each side that announces “Antiracist Little Library.”
On Aug. 27, the Berthiaume family awoke to find that their little library out in the front yard had been unceremoniously cleaned out.
“While I’d love to believe the books were taken to be read and enjoyed, I don’t,” Kristen Berthiaume wrote in a post on the @antiracistlibrary20 Instagram account. “The library was completely full yesterday evening.”
Whether they were taken to be read or taken to be trashed remains a mystery. Regardless, the community banded together to breathe new life into the empty shelves.
Within days, a Facebook post about the incident garnered hundreds of likes and numerous shares.
Berthiaume and her family set up an Amazon wishlist of books that the people were able to purchase as a donation. As the weeks have rolled along, the delivery truck has dropped off mountains of boxes of books, often stacked taller than the youngest of Berthiaume’s three kids.
“We definitely had visitors before,” Berthiaume said. “We’ve had books come and go.” The library’s mission has reached neighbors passing by on a walk and social media followers mailing in donations from as far away as British Columbia.
“It has definitely been a little life lesson for all of us, but particularly for our kids to see these huge piles of boxes,” she said. “Just being able to see that in response to this one bad act is pretty incredible.
“It feels more like a community library now versus our little library.”
The library was created as a quarantine project by the Berthiaume family and made its first appearance in late spring.
“There were a lot of race-related issues in the news,” Berthiaume said. “We were looking for some sort of project that we could take on to, just in some small way, help with some of those issues.”
Now that the family is swimming in literature, they are planning to share the wealth with other local book-sharing programs in need.
“There are a couple of other libraries in the Rosedale neighborhood that are apparently not being maintained or don’t have a lot of books in them, so we hope to send some books over there as well,” she said.
Berthiaume noted that there are books in the library for all ages, as well as all interests – from coloring books to memoirs.
“If we have kids walking down the street who are Black or Hispanic, I want them to be able to open that and definitely find a book where they are represented in some way,” she said. “So, that is another kind of positive.”
Social issues surrounding race have repeatedly come up in Berthiaume’s world, both as a mother now and as a clinical psychologist for adolescents.
“There are times when there will be something in the news and I’ll have a black adolescent male patient who is maybe anxious about it, or his mom might be anxious about some kind of violent issues involving police,” she said.
Lately, she has seen some of her white patients’ desires to educate themselves.
“They’ve wanted to know, what books should (they) read and they’ve wanted to talk about how they can be an ally – just understand their own role in perpetrating racism,” Berthiaume said. “So, I definitely have seen some patients really start to think about this probably more than they ever have and start to figure out what they need to do differently.”
For her own family, books have been a great place to glean information and start a conversation.
Build Your Book List
Throughout the process of maintaining the library, the Berthiaume family has been reading along – diving into some of the books before they are placed in their library’s shelves – and have identified a variety of books for all age groups that they have found helpful.
“In terms of looking at babies and preschool, I think what is (most) important is just talking about different skin tones – normalizing that these are OK things to talk about and OK things to have questions about,” she said.
A great option is books that have central characters who aren’t white, such as Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” and other works.
“The central character is black, and these are just sweet little stories that are very easy to understand,” Berthiaume said.
Other suggestions that tackle the subject of race in a concrete way that still are 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 overt in talking about antiracism, but that might be of interest to some parents who really want to tackle the issue.”
For the elementary-age child, Berthiaume loves “The Undefeated,” by Kwame Alexander, and “Black is a Rainbow Color,” by Angela Joy.
“They are both picture books that are celebrating black culture,” she said. “One thing that is cool about both is that they have a lot of historical background information.”
The background information is in the form of an appendix in each book. As kids age, they can revisit the book and learn more about the poetic portions of the story as it relates to famous Black Americans throughout history.
A more challenging option is “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” by Anastasia Higginbotham, and it is more overt in 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.
“Those are both great because they deal with micro aggressions,” Berthiaume said. The examples of micro aggressions serve to help kids ponder their own language, she said, and are a great way to start a dialogue about how micro aggressive language is hurtful.
“What could you do if someone else in your class said that to a black boy?” Berthiaume said. “What could you do if you accidentally said something like this and you want to make it right?”
Though she is 13, Berthiaume’s oldest tends to read at an older level and has some suggestions suited for teenagers.
“She really liked “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas,” Berthiaume said. “Again, it’s got some serious issues in that one. It deals with the protests, police violence against black people and some of those more serious issues.”
Another suggestion from one of the family’s favorite authors, Ibram X. Kendi, is “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” which is the teen version of his adult book “Stamped From the Beginning.”
“It’s basically the history that you didn’t get in school,” Berthiaume said.
“This Book is Anti-Racist,” by Tiffany Jewell, is filled with short vignettes that discuss different ways to identify racism, how to intervene, how to change your behavior and more along with engaging illustrations.
For adults, the options are endless, but for those looking for a place to start, Berthiaume has identified three books that she has found helpful.
“How to Be an Antiracist,” also by Ibram X. Kendi, was the seminal book for her in exploring antiracism and white privilege.
“It talks a lot about how you can move from racist behaviors to actually fighting against racism,” she said. “He shares some of his personal experiences and talks about research in racism and how it is prevalent in society.
“Another one that I read and got a lot out of was ‘White Fragility,’ by Robin DiAngelo,” she said. “It helped me to understand how white people, in particular, engage in conversations about race and why it is so hard to have those conversations.”
Finally, the 2015 nonfiction book “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 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 helped me understand more about what other people are dealing with, experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily have learned from anybody just in conversation,” Berthiaume said.
Finding literature by black authors and other people of color has never been easier. Berthiaume’s best friend throughout the process of creating the library has been the ever-faithful Google search.
“I had no idea until we started doing this just how many books I have never heard of that are on this topic or have central characters who are black,” Berthiaume said. “I thought, well, I’ve just been missing out on all of this. So, we have been trying to beef up our own library plus the one outside.”
There are new books coming out and the family has done their best to keep themselves updated and engaged.
“The New York Times bestseller list at one point was almost entirely books by black authors, or at least on the topic of antiracism, so that was kind of cool to see,” Berthiaume said. “It’s clear that people are at least trying to educate themselves.”
For more information, follow @antiracistlibrary20 on Instagram.