‘A book can show you the world’

A Welcoming Library program highlights stories of new American families


Andrea Hutnak is exactly how you’d imagine a children’s librarian to be. She’s soft-spoken, yet enthusiastic about books, as well as her latest project. After nine and a half years, she can confide with a wink, “We’re loud up here.” After a half-hour visit, I was intrigued, and headed downstairs to apply for my library card.

At the entrance to the children’s section of the Warwick Library you are greeted by friendly Halloween monster faces in the windows. An aquarium lures you in on your left. A child-sized house nearby is a cozy book nook.

Recently, a father and his curious son paused to watch Hutnak set up the special Welcoming Library display in the children’s department. “It was the rubber mallet,” that captured the child’s attention at first, Hutnak realized, as the librarian assembled the Welcoming Library modular crates. “A lot of the books have already been checked out,” she notes, after a glance at the empty spaces on the shelves.

The Welcoming Library is a pilot program being rolled out in Warwick, Cranston, South Kingstown and Tiverton, with the possibility of traveling to all of Rhode Island’s libraries. Designed for children and the adults in their lives, the collection’s focus is on “new American families, immigrants and newcomers,” as Hutnak describes it.

Having completed the year-long program, “Project Ready: Reimagining Equity & Access for Diverse Youth,” Hutnak and her colleagues address culturally responsive themes of diversity, inclusion and social justice by “transforming library collections,” one of Project Ready’s study modules.

This professional development curriculum is comprised of independent study modules and TED (Technology Entertainment Design) talks, rounded out with biweekly meetings in cohort groups. Funding and research is provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, a federal grant making organization. “The Institute helps libraries and museums innovate, fosters lifelong learning and cultural and civic engagement,” the IMLS website reads.

Through the experience, Hutnak paraphrases the words of Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of education at Ohio State University, which resonated most with her. “A book can show you the world; it can be a window, and a book can be a mirror.” She continues, “What if you never had seen a book with a character that had the same experience as you, or looked like you? Books are a window to somewhere you have not been, or a community you have not seen.”

The perspective she gleaned from one TED talk in particular, by “The Daily Show’s” Trevor Noah, whose own parents’ biracial marriage was illegal before the end of apartheid in South Africa, is that reading through such windows “builds empathy, and encourages self worth.”

With “Stepping Stones, A Refugee Family’s Journey,” Netherlands-born author Margriet Ruurs sought an interpreter to contact a stone artist in Syria, Nizar Ali Badr, to illustrate her children’s book. “Several of the stories are about families having to leave their homes because of war.”

“When I wrote it, I remembered what it was like for me to leave my home,” Ruurs shared in an interview, as she described her family’s immigration to Canada.

“There’s a lot of hope in these books, too,” Hutnak adds thoughtfully.

At the end of the stories are “not your typical comprehension questions,” explains Hutnak, “but thought-filled questions, like, ‘What would you have in common (with a newcomer)?’ which are done in a gentle way, not controversial.”

Hutnak recalls when one of the library patrons checked out one of the Welcoming Library books for her children, a story of a Cambodian family. Her children were delighted when they read the book and discovered words which appeared in the story were ones they used when they spoke to their Cambodian grandmother.

Librarian Ellen O’Brien agrees about books being both windows and mirrors to different worlds. “The stories are multi-layered, and a conversation is sparked.”

To connect with the book “I’m New Here” from the perspective of the new kid, and its companion DVD “Someone New” in which m others welcome the new child, the Rhode Island Youth Theatre is offering an acting workshop in gratitude for the use of the library meeting room.

Now it’s the adults’ turn. The Welcoming Library display is being relocated from its spot in the children’s section, among picture book biographies of historical figures, to downstairs across from the reference desk.

To complement the Welcoming Library program, library patrons young and old are invited to create their own “six word memoirs” for the gallery wall entitled, “Every Family Has a Story. Share Yours,” to be displayed during the month of November.

Examples of these abbreviated memoirs from the book “Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America” speak volumes.

“Irish grandmother, age nine, sent alone.” - Margaret Mackin.

“Six months old. First passport stamp.” - Xander Greene (age 11)

How will you share your life story in six words?

The Welcoming Library program is at the Warwick Library through November.