Author Junot Díaz, acclaimed for his adult fiction, just released his first picture book, and Capitol View Neighborhood Library, 5001 Central Ave. NE, in Ward 7, is hosting one of his first book talks.
Students from nearby Drew, C.W. Harris and J.C. Nalle elementary schools engage with the author, a New Jersey resident born in the Dominican Republic, about “Islandborn.”
The March 15 event is being held in a large, bright meeting room which did not exist before interior renovations, completed in December 2017. The author uses newly installed equipment to project pages as he reads. Classes gather for photos that prompt those who have not yet seen the renovation to respond: “Wait! That’s the Capitol View library?”
In addition to reading, Díaz talks about how he works, enthusiastically asks the young people about their own writing and describes how “reading and writing muscles help each other.” But the conversation quickly coalesces around monsters.
Monsters, Far and Near
“Islandborn” relates how young Lola learns from community members about “the Island,” where she was born and how it was ruled for decades by “the Monster.”
“Monsters aren’t real,” the first young speaker declares. Díaz agrees and disagrees, explaining that his home country was, in fact, once “taken over by a very bad man who was kinda like a monster.”
The ruthless leader’s name is omitted, along with those of heroes who “banished the Monster.” Instead of raising historical detail, Díaz concentrates on the Monster’s defeat through people joining together.
Díaz fields tough questions, such as why monsters hurt people, and offers to chat afterward with the 10-year-old who raised the issue of monsters killing good people. Asked why monsters in movies always trip, the author introduces the concept of “literary trope,” reiterating that monsters have weaknesses that can be used against them.
“I don’t think [local youth] need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face,” Díaz said in a brief post-event interview. “If their lives are anything like mine, they know. The key is to help them confront and work through their experiences, forge friendships and solidarities.” Libraries, he added, are crucial to this work. “They are carrying all the slack for responsibilities that our society is abdicating. Libraries create communities for people to care about the civic and each other.”
Where They Want to Be
The youngest patrons move upstairs for story time, held in the new child-teen space. For years, the second floor served various program needs but languished with no collection or permanent furnishings. Patrons of all ages used one fluorescent-lit floor of worn-out collections and furniture.
DC Public Library renovated or rebuilt 20 neighborhood libraries, in an overhaul begun under Chief Librarian Ginny Cooper (2006-13), but improvements at Capitol View were delayed and funds reassigned. Many feared the library would be forgotten.
“Old patrons have this look of amazement” when they visit the new second floor, says children’s librarian Patricia Ballentine. In addition to the “bright and inviting” design and furnishings, she says, the new collection offers “an abundance of diverse books, reflecting interests of the community.”
DCPL statistics don’t show increased door traffic post-renovation, but Ballentine and children’s librarian Karla Wilkerson, who both served the “old” library as well, see increased interest in books and programs. “More people come to pick up books,” Wilkerson notes. “We have more space for display.”
“It’s packed after school, with kids and families,” says Ballentine. “You see patrons enjoying the new collection, the transformation.”
“People just light up” in the new space, Wilkerson concurs. The natural light is better, she explains, and the dedicated space allows staff to control sounds, use music if appropriate and add programming. They now offer three story times each week and a daily teen lounge. For teens, especially, Wilkerson adds, it’s important that they have a “place where they want to be.”
The Long Run
“I am so glad to see this,” Díaz said on learning about the renovation. “I am sure it was not easily attained.”
Some community members still fault DCPL for delays, lack of community engagement and a budget shortfall that resulted in no interim services for 10 months and interior-only renovations. Exterior work was funded belatedly, after community protest to the DC Council. So, Capitol View is closing again soon, temporarily, with service interruptions for interim set-up. “Inequality is real,” Díaz mused. “That we all deserve equally beautiful, equally well-funded institutions is an ideal that our society has not always lived up to.”
Still, the book talk is a “great opportunity to energize students,” according to Modestine Welch-Davis, instructional coach at Drew. Watching students gather to enjoy their own copies of “Islandborn,” before heading back to school, she adds: “I hope they take some of this energy home.”
“We keep up good communication with schools,” Wilkerson says, “so when there is an opportunity for collaboration, we jump on it.”
The DC Public Library Foundation provided students with copies of “Islandborn” by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa (Dial, 2018). Exact dates for closure, opening of the interim library adjacent to nearby J.C. Nalle Elementary School and reopening of Capitol View are not yet set. Visit www.dclibrary.org for construction updates and information about programming for all ages at Capitol View.
Virginia Avniel Spatz can be found at the Capitol View monthly writers group and www.WeLuvBooks.org.