Let the Past Propel the Future

Speakers at AASL 2019 used personal struggles to fuel success

November 19, 2019

Adolph Brown at the 2019 American Association of School Librarians 2019 National Conference. Photo: AASL
Adolph Brown at the 2019 American Association of School Librarians 2019 National Conference. Photo: Courtesy of AASL

“Ladies and gentlemen, there are speakers, and there’s Adolph Brown.” The introduction of the Friday speaker at the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) 2019 National Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, was an understatement. A psychology professor at Hampton (Va.) University, author, and research scientist, Brown donned a sequined jacket and danced around the stage while music cues from James Brown’s 1970 single “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” pumped through speakers in the grand ballroom at the Kentucky International Convention Center. Another individual wearing baggy pants, an oversized shirt, a large backpack, and spiked braids soon joined Brown onstage, taking the role of the traditional hip-hop hype man.

But it was all a ruse. When the music abruptly stopped, the second man revealed himself to be the real Adolph Brown; the sequined dancer was in fact his godson. Brown said he pulls this fake-out whenever he’s invited to speak before a professional organization, donning the “undercover brother” costume to walk through the crowd pretalk to gauge their reactions to his attire. He said he’s been questioned by security on more than one occasion—even at AASL 2019. But he praised this particular audience for their openness and willingness to engage as he wandered through the crowd, specifically recognizing a librarian named Hilda who came up to him, looked him in the eyes, and talked to him because she said she simply “wanted to know him.”

Brown said he uses this exercise to teach about implicit bias and microaggressions. “Stop believing everything you think,” he said. “Any time you have to deal with another human being, challenge your brain. What you think about others says more about you than them.”

It was one of many lessons imparted during his talk.

“I’m not a speaker; I’m an educator,” he said. “This isn’t a speech. You’re my class.”

Brown said that most of our interactions and perceptions of others are based on our own emotional baggage. He stressed that we all need to “unpack our backpacks” and let go of things holding us back to truly understand others and to achieve our full potential.

Brown’s talk was punctuated with jokes, music, and audience participation—particularly when someone in the crowd would stand to leave. Eagle-eyed Brown would call out the person and play music cues from songs like the 1977 soft-rock hit “Baby, Come Back” as they walked out of the ballroom. The levity strengthened Brown’s message, showing how laughter can diffuse potentially tense situations.

Brown detailed a challenging childhood: homelessness, a brother dying when Brown was 11 years old, poverty. He said he was saved by a grandfather who imparted simple but profound wisdom despite having only a 3rd-grade education. Brown said phrases like, “Live every day like it was your last, because one day you are going to be right,” and “When (not if) things go wrong, you don’t have to go with them,” have guided him into adulthood. The school library was another lifeline, he said.

“Whenever I got in trouble in elementary school, I had to go to the library,” he said, laughing. He said the librarians at his local public library knew he was homeless and would provide books they thought could help, including his favorite book as a kid, John Henry: An American Legend, by Ezra Jack Keats (1965).

“Thank you for saving me,” he said. “You are the walking, talking epitome of hope.”

An artist’s journey

The following morning on Saturday, Jarrett J. Krosoczka shared how he became author and illustrator of dozens of children’s picture books, including Good Night, Monkey Boy; Punk Farm; and the Lunch Lady series. It was a story filled with extreme highs and lows, but a common thread throughout was art.

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing pictures,” he said.

Krosoczka said he was naturally talented, but the artwork also served another purpose: It was a coping mechanism that helped process pain and rejection. Krosoczka said he didn’t know his father, and his mother was frequently incarcerated and had a heroin addiction. She left him with his grandparents at a young age. Drawing was a safe space and refuge, he said.

This safe space became a profession when Krosoczka’s first book, Good Night, Monkey Boy, was published in 2001. Its positive reception was overwhelming, he said, particularly when he received a photo in the mail from a young reader’s parents. The photo showed a child’s birthday cake decorated with the book’s title character. Krosoczka said the photo has become a reminder of who he really works for.

“All I wanted to do was draw a lunch lady fighting off robots with fish sticks,” he said, but now he tries to use his craft in the service of his audience—to help them the way that art and reading helped him as a child. The decision, as well as a 2001 TED talk appearance in which he talked about his life, led him to create the autobiographical YA graphic novel, Hey, Kiddo (2018), which unflinchingly illustrates his life story.

Krosoczka said he was apprehensive about creating such a revealing work for an older audience, but he knew he had to be vulnerable and honest to tell the whole story—and that included being open about his mother’s addiction in the book. Krosoczka’s mother died of a heroin overdose while he was working on Hey, Kiddo, and the book’s title is a tribute to her, coming from a phrase she included in letters she sent him during his youth. The book ended up being National Book Award finalist.

Krosoczka said he owes much of his success to librarians, from the school librarians who introduced him to Beverly Cleary’s work, the Bunnicula series, and Garfield anthologies as a child, to those who currently champion his work and other graphic novels to patrons.

“We have graphic novels as we know them now because of you,” he said. He also recognized the opposition librarians face because of their embrace of the medium.

“You’d think we’d be past the part where people don’t think graphic novels are real books,” he said with an exasperated laugh. “They’re well-meaning adults; they’re just not right. You’re enriching lives by having these difficult conversations.”


Author and We Need Diverse Books cofounder Ellen Oh speaks at the AASL National Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, November 14.

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A librarian uses a Bee Bot at Do the Bot—Librarians Using Robots to Impact Learning at AASL 2019. Photo: Phil Morehart

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