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Juneteenth celebration helps kick off Schenectady City Schools' bookmobile schedule

Juneteenth celebration helps kick off Schenectady City Schools' bookmobile schedule

Diverse festival features diverse books
Juneteenth celebration helps kick off Schenectady City Schools' bookmobile schedule
Kristina Graves, a Schenectady City School District librarian, places a book at the bookmobile table.
Photographer: Jason Subik/Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY -- The Schenectady City School District's summer bookmobile made its debut this year at the 19th annual Juneteenth festival in Central Park. 

Kristina Graves, a Schenectady school librarian and media specialist, said the selection of books offered by the bookmobile fits in perfectly with the Juneteenth theme of celebrating cultural diversity. 

"Every year we try to get the newest, most up-to-date titles, and we try to get books with diverse authors and characters and genres," Graves said. "We try to make sure our collection has people that are represented as characters that our students can relate to. We have books with African-American characters, Mexican-American characters, authors — we want everyone represented."

Representing everyone is always part of the Juneteenth festival. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger, commanding 2,000 soldiers, marched into Galveston, Texas, and read a declaration announcing that all people who continued to be held in bondage as slaves were now free, marking the end of legal slavery in the U.S.

Juneteenth featured tables selling food and other items, as well as distributing information from the event's many sponsors, including the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. The event featured musical acts such as the George Boone Blues Band, and was free to the public. 

Some of the titles on display at the bookmobile spoke to themes of racial and religious oppression and equality, books like: "Internment" by Samira Ahmed, about a near-future distopian United States where Muslim-Americans are forced into internment camps; "Hoop City: Detroit" by Sam Moussavi, about a high school basketball player who uses his skill on the court to transfer to a private school, where he faces an environment with new challenges unlike those of his own impoverished neighborhood; and "Merci Suárez Changes Gears," by author Meg Medina, an award-winning book that also features the culture shock theme of poor children attaining scholarships to wealthy private schools. 

"The 'new kid' in our collection is the 'Carver Chronicles' [by Karen English and Laura Freeman], a popular elementary school-age series, because kids can relate to the characters in this series because it's very much the lives they are living," Graves said. "Another one is the 'Little Shaq' series. Everyone knows [NBA basketball great] Shaquille O'Neal. He's an advocate that fights for diverse books."

Kerri Messler, the K-12 English language arts and library coordinator for the Schenectady City School District, said it's important for the district to carefully curate its book collection with an eye toward diversity of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

She said she tries to update many of the titles in the district's collection every two years. She said only about 11 percent of books published annually are by racial minorities in the United States.

Messler explained why the school chose the Juneteenth festival to debut this year's book mobile: 
"This is an event where we knew kids are going to be, that's part of it, and it's also about making sure the books we are putting into the hands of kids are representative. Almost everything we have in the collection are books published within the last two years, so everything is relatively new, hot off the press."

Graves said the books at the Schenectady schools summer bookmobile are available to any students at any Capital Region Boces, through use of a student ID number. She said they're also available to the general public, including members of the Schenectady County Public Library system, and the libraries it shares books with. She said the school district's books feature bar codes that identify the books as belonging to the school, which enables borrowers to drop them off at other libraries with an assurance they will make it back to the school district.

The bookmobile has wide appeal to Schenectady students, including Dan Gray's daughters Evelyn, 7, Charlotte, 6, and Madeline, 4. Gray said he was at the Upper Union Street Strawberry Festival when he decided to take his daughters to Juneteenth in Central Park. He said his children are enrolled at the Howe Magnet Elementary School.

"It's always good to read, I like them reading. Charlotte is starting to read, she can recognize words, Evelyn can pretty much read anything. Madeline, obviously, just looks at the pictures. She pretends that she reads," he said. 

Dennis Green, the chairman of Boys Day Out, said the Schenectady summer bookmobile, in collaboration with Rae' Fraiser and the Community Basketball League, will be featured at the "Books and Ballin" basketball tournament at Jerry Burrell Park during the summer. Green said the bookmobile will be at Jerry Burrell Park July 13, 20, 27 and August 3 and 4.

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