A Passion for Literacy in Petoskey

To create a passionate culture of literacy and learning, we educators and parents must model what it means to be a reader and learner for our students and children.

So, a passion for our family on our travels is to try to embrace learning and understanding while we travel. It is a wonderful way to make learning real. More importantly it makes learning fun. We were very fortunate to spend time recently in the northern Michigan city of Petoskey.

Petoskey has a rich history of literary culture, including being located near the summer home of Ernest Hemingway whose family would spend months in a nearby cottage. It is easy to see the ghosts of young Hemingway and his companions along the trails and riverbanks of this area and to understand how nature and books intermingled in his imagination, being released in a panoply of stories whose spare style belie a nuanced understanding of the human condition.

Currently, Petoskey is home to the delightful bookstore, McLean and Eakin, whose shelves brim with a thoughtful selection of current and classic publications. It is such a gift to go for a hike along the North Country Trail outside of town and then spend the afternoon trying to decide between the latest Ann Patchet or whether to take a chance on the highly recommended, Such a Fun Age.

Such a difficult choice!

Then later in the day, be sure to bring your family to the wonderful Petoskey District Library. The current structure was built in 2004, in a neo-Georgian style that pays respect to the traditional, yet comfortable feel of both the library and the town. Petoskey was home to one of the acclaimed Carnegie library branches, established in 1909.

While I admire the library’s architecture and the outdoor labyrinth, which always helps develop a contemplative mindset, my family greatly enjoys the cornucopia of quality reading and comfort inside the Petoskey District Library.

On a recent winter excursion, my son was obligated to work on his homework, sitting at a hard wood table beneath a generous window to allow natural light in, while I sat nearby in a cozy chair skimming some Cory Doctorow and some Jim Harrison poetry. While neither particularly resonated with me, not at least on that day, the entire experience was, as always, pleasant.

Not every library has such a welcoming and relaxed vibe. We have all been in libraries whose 1960’s low slung architecture feels every bit as awkward inside as on the outside, with large open spaces that echo with unnecessary noises, uncomfortable vinyl chairs and windows that slant awkwardly away from humans, illuminating only the stray shelves of the microfiche repository.

But of course, it is the passion and dedication of the library staff that make all the difference. The youth of Petoskey are fortunate to have a dedicated advocate for youth reading in Ms. Nisa Kesseler, Teen Services Librarian at the Petoskey District Library.

Ms. Kesseler was gracious enough to respond to my email query, as I engage on my perpetual quest to truly understand how to inspire more teens to read. As an educator, parent, perpetual reader- this has become my mission.

I have been motivated to understand more about teen literacy by the work of Dr. Jean Twenge, whose research shows that teens now are reading less on a daily basis than at any point in the last 30 years, with only 20% of the teens reading a book or newspaper article daily. Nearly a third of the students did not even read a single book for pleasure in a calendar year, rather they are spending nearly 6 hours a day texting, using social media and playing video games.

Ms. Kesseler has some keen insights into how to improve the teen reading culture, empathically saying:

“LET KIDS AND TEENS READ WHAT THEY WANT!!!! Don’t criticize or mock their choices.  If you help them build a love of reading for enjoyment, the simple act of reading these materials will build their literacy skills.  Also, let them check out audio books and graphic novels! Both of these formats help build literacy and fire a love of literature. Don’t get hung up on “levels”.  Just allow them to find those books that ignite a passion for reading.  The rest will follow.”

Ms. Kesseler has a lifelong affinity for reading, saying, ”  I have always been interested in reading, from a very young age.  Literacy became a passion of mine during college when I was studying to be a High School English teacher.  Being literate opens up the world of information and entertainment for so many people that it is important for us to reach all the kids, teens, and adults who are struggling, for a variety of reasons, with literacy.”

Additionally, she relies on her own experience as a high school student to look for innovative ways to reach students both as an English teacher and librarian, with her passion fomenting in high school:

“The main thing in high school that moved me to want to teach English was the books we were reading.  I felt that new ideas and books were needed to get teens to actually care about what they were reading.  The canon definitely needs to be shaken up! “

In her efforts to stay current and connected to the community she serves, Ms. Kesseler is a voracious reader:

 “Being a Teen Services Librarian, I’ve been reading a lot of YA fiction, plus some fantastic graphic novels.  But, the one thing that has made a huge impact on me recently has been reading Dr. Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.  We have a large Native American population up here and I want to make sure I am serving them the best I can and, as a white woman, I don’t always know when a book is problematic. This blog is incredibly helpful in discerning the problems so I don’t inadvertently cause pain to one of my patrons. Here’s a link: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/

The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians live in and near Petoskey, Michigan. To learn more about their culture, please click here.

Thanks to Ms. Kesseler for your advocacy and insights for the residents of the great northern Michigan book city of Petoskey and beyond!

Photo credit: http://www.petoskeylibrary.org, About the Library, Building and Grounds.

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