I just finished reading a great article by author Robert Hough in the March 2014 issue of Quill & Quire, called “Book Club Behind Bars”. In it, he talked about being invited to Millhaven Penitentiary to do a book talk to prisoners. It was insightful (his visit was postponed four times due to unforeseen circumstances such as contraband being found in a cell and the prison being closed to outsiders), informative (some of the prisoners had actually read his books), and terrifying (he was led through several series of locked doors and finally locked inside the library with the prisoners for his discussion). It was an eye-opener, for sure.
Strangely enough, it reminded me of many visits I’ve made to schools over the years to do book presentations. While I haven’t had the experience of being locked in anywhere, security is tight on schools now and most times, you have to be buzzed into the school and sign in at the front office. I applaud this type of security. Seems like anyone could have walked in and out of schools during my youth. It’s a wonder there weren’t more issues back then.
Once in the schools, the audience can be quite intimidating. Usually the younger set is open to any kind of presentation about books–I think they’re just happy to have a few minutes outside of the classroom. But if you don’t capture them with your presentation immediately, good luck roping them in over the next ten or fifteen minutes. (Hint: bring props!) And I must admit, some of the best questions have come from this type of audience. They’re not afraid to tell you what they had for lunch, how much they hated the book you’re holding up, or if they like your shoes. They’ll tell you how the last time they came to the library, they weren’t allowed to take out books because their fines were too big. They’ll ask you if you remember them from the last time you were there….and make you prove it by asking you to say their name. And they’ll confess they never read at all, much to the chagrin of their teachers.
It’s the older kids that could really give those inmates a run for their money when it comes to feeling intimidated. While Hough mentioned that most of the inmates weren’t what he was expecting, I think kids can be surprising. While we might expect boys to be the most unruly in a group setting, often it’s the girls who can’t stop chatting. It much more difficult to grab their attention than the boys, too. Older kids have different questions, too. I must admit, during one (mostly) successful presentation, a boy piped up near the end and asked how much money I made. This led to a whole host of other questions along those lines (Who paid my salary? Did I ever get a raise? Is it good to be a librarian?). Needless to say, by the end of that session, I was pretty much tongue-tied.
While I’ll probably never need to venture out to a prison to do a presentation, the similarities between those institutions and schools can be quite surprising. If you’re in the library, don’t forget to stop and read the latest issue of Quill & Quire, which is housed on the back shelves with the magazines.