Ballard First Lutheran Church, Seattle
Beverly Cleary Endowed Professor in Children and Youth Services and chair of the library and information science program at the University of Washington, Seattle; co-founder and board chair, Camp Read-a-Rama; church violinist and vocalist; Girl Scout troop leader

I grew up in a Baptist church in South Carolina. My husband grew up Catholic. Theologically we had to meet somewhere in the middle, and Lutheranism fit. It’s been hard being a severe minority in the Lutheran church. We’re an African American family, and Lutheranism is very white.

I met Pastor Chris Heavner on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house. His congregation, University Lutheran, was tied to the Clemson University campus, where I worked. They’d done a good job cultivating relationships with students. They were about outreach and being out in the community. I thought, “I can get behind that pastor,” so we joined University Lutheran. We were members for seven years.

We spent five years in Columbia, S.C., while I taught at the University of South Carolina, and our church there was Incarnation Lutheran, where Mary Anderson was our pastor. After we moved to Seattle in 2016, we had a hard time finding a church. We’d been to six Lutheran churches and finally found one that felt like home—Ballard First.

Ballard First welcomed the Girl Scout troop I lead with open arms. Pastor Erik Wilson-Weiberg; his wife, Kristen; and Maddy Barnes, the choir director, have come to our troop’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day songfest events and sat down and chatted with girls and leaders. My church also supports my nonprofit. One Sunday a month, everybody is invited to donate to a particular nonprofit, and for the last few years Camp Read-a-Rama has been a beneficiary.

During worship, I sing and play violin. I also volunteer with our dinner ministry, and sometimes girls from my troop help. With area churches, Ballard First provides dinner every Sunday for unhoused folks. The last Sunday of the month is our church’s turn.

“I thought, ‘Wow, if my professor can break down in tears from reading a children’s book, I could spend a lifetime studying this genre.’”

I grew interested in children’s literature after one of my undergraduate professors taught us Tuck Everlasting. The Tuck family of four have drunk the elixir of life and can’t die. They move around a lot so people won’t notice they never age. The dad, Tuck, who was already old when he drank the water, really wants to die. My professor decided to read aloud this passage to our class, and it made him cry. I just thought, “Wow, if my professor can break down in tears from reading a children’s book, I could spend a lifetime studying this genre.”

For most of my career, I was an English professor. I taught students who were going to be English language arts teachers for grades K-12. Now I chair the library and information science program at the University of Washington. A good percentage of my current students will become public librarians. Some go into industry and do other things, like becoming the librarian for a symphony.

My passion for children’s literacy connects with my passion for children’s literature. Children give me hope.

I’m a Lutheran because my family has always been welcomed in ELCA congregations, and I’ve been fed there in ways that I need to be fed.

In summer 2009, my friend Rachelle D. Washington and I created Camp Read-a-Rama at the Clemson Outdoor Lab. We used a children’s book as a springboard for everything else we did at camp and wrapped each week of activities around a theme. For example, for a “splash”-themed week, the kids performed Elise Broach and David Catrow’s picture book Wet Dog! We talked about the scientific properties of water, made splatter paintings with toothbrushes and visited a water park. Camp Read-a-Rama erases disciplinary boundaries so that kids learn but don’t necessarily know it because they’re having such a good time. Our mantra is “100% engagement 100% of the time.”

I look at books as literary and artistic artifacts, not just how children use them and where they belong in the library.

Camp Read-a-Rama erases disciplinary boundaries so that kids learn but don’t necessarily know it because they’re having such a good time.

My mother was president of the Congaree Girl Scout Council in Columbia, S.C. Then she became a national operational volunteer for Girl Scouts. I started out as a Brownie and went all the way through the program in high school and traveled as a Girl Scout. For one trip, we survived on an uninhabited island in Lake Michigan for a week. For another, we biked 500 miles around South Carolina.

When my daughter was 5, I started a troop with my longtime Girl Scout buddy, who I met at Girl Scout camp when I was in fourth grade and she was in fifth grade. My husband, Glenn, was our assistant leader. My daughter, Amelia, just finished her Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting, which I also earned. For Amelia’s project, she created the Little Queer Library website to help LGBTQIA+ kids and teens find awesome books.

I pray for equity for those who have none.

While I worked at Clemson, I created a service-learning program for students. They’d choose a picture book with excellent illustrations and a good message, then pair it with discussion questions and an activity to give the book a life beyond its pages. I did this from 2001 to 2008.

We’d never done any virtual programming for Camp Read-a-Rama until 2020. March through June we did story time twice a week and provided community for kids who were scared about people getting sick or dying. We also developed, in fall 2020, e-camps that are two hours on a Saturday. We mail them a box of materials to participate in the program. We have had participants from 32 states log in for virtual programs and have served close to 800 individuals since the pandemic started. We hope to transition back to face-to-face programming in summer 2022.

Milo Imagines the World is a picture book about a little African American boy who is on the train in a New York City subway. He makes up and illustrates stories about the people he sees, but he realizes he has made assumptions about them—sometimes negative ones. My takeaway from this book is that when we see people, we need to avoid stuffing them into boxes based on how they look.

Part of what I do as a professor is use children’s literature to get students to ask themselves “What is my cultural competence for serving the kids and adults who walk into my library?” We need to look beyond appearances and really see human beings, like Jesus did.

Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago.  Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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