If you are a Cumberland resident hoping to read a library book about race, you might have to wait until the fall. Requests for books about race at the Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland have increased dramatically in the past few weeks.

“We’ve done programs and lectures on race before, and they haven’t always been well attended,” said Elizabeth Manning, assistant director of the Prince Memorial Library. “Something has changed, and people are ready to read and to listen. It’s definitely tied to the recent protests and death of George Floyd.”

The books with the longest wait times at the Cumberland library are “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The library has just one copy of “White Fragility” and seven people waiting for the book, which means the wait time could be up to 14 weeks.

“I’m trying to get multiple copies to meet demand, but I see they’re out of stock in all of our vendors. I’ve never experienced this before,” Manning said. “We’ve had (these books) on the shelves all along and just now people are waking up with the recent protest.”

On the New York Times’ Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction bestseller best-seller list, eight of the top 10 books this week are about race. Of those eight, five are new to the list within the past three weeks, roughly mirroring the time since Floyd died of asphyxiation after a former Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, sparking national outrage. As protests have broken out across the nation, demand for books about race has skyrocketed, including in libraries and bookstores in southern Maine.

At Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, “White Fragility,” “How to be an Antiracist” and “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo have the longest wait times. Statewide, there are 53 requests for “White Fragility,” but only 36 copies in the library system. Curtis Memorial Library has 10 copies of the book – all checked out – and nine additional requests, according to Adult Services Librarian Pamela Bobker.

“We are going to be buying more copies,” said Liz Doucett, director of Curtis Memorial Library. “Brunswick is a very ‘thinking’ community, so (demand) increases when there is a topic that is particularly interesting to the community.”

Books on race are prominently displayed in the window at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. Local bookstores and libraries are seeing an increased demand for such titles. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographe

The demand for books about race extends to local bookstores. Nonesuch Books & More in South Portland has seen demand for “White Fragility” and “How to be an Antiracist,” as well as “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad and “Stamped From The Beginning” by Kendi.

“People are calling looking for books before they come in (to the store) because they know for the most part they’re going to have to order them,” said employee Beth Babcock. “Customers of all backgrounds are trying to read these books and educate themselves.”

Children’s books about race or that promote diversity are likewise in high demand. Kirsten Cappy, executive director of the Portland nonprofit I’m Your Neighbor Books – an organization dedicated to providing children’s books for new arrival communities – said both parents and teachers are looking for recommendations.

“We have had several calls from educators and families asking about books that address black lives and racism for children of all ages,” Cappy said. “Adults and children are doing some deep exploration, and it’s pretty exciting.”

Indigo Arts Alliance has launched the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Festival in partnership with two other Maine organizations, I’m Your Neighbor Books and Diverse BookFinder, in order to share the work of black artists and authors with young children.

Krista Aronson, a professor of psychology at Bates College and the director and founder of Diverse BookFinder, says books can provide a portal to having conversations with children. Photo courtesy Krista Aronson

“Books can provide platforms for conversation with our children in a way that is familiar to our kids,” said Krista Aronson, professor of psychology at Bates College, director of Diverse BookFinder and board member of I’m Your Neighbor Books and OurShelves. “Picture books can not only help children but also parents in their thinking and growth.”

Poet, writer and educator Arisa White, who is based in central Maine, explains that books help create a language for important conversations, such as on race. White is also the co-author of “Biddy Mason Speaks Up,” part of the Fighting for Justice Series, which uses poetry and illustration to introduce children to social activism.

“These books operate as a way of giving the reader tools so they aren’t just learning, but are given tools to go out and change their communities,” White said. “We are building a coalition of trust, and being able to do so in an inter-generational way is key to collective change.”

An increased demand for children’s books about race led Prince Memorial Library to create a virtual list of such books categorized by age-level. In Yarmouth, the Merrill Memorial Library, which reopened just this week, already has received several calls about children’s books that promote diversity.

“We are in a time where parents and caregivers feel they aren’t prepared themselves (to discuss race), so they’re turning to children’s librarians to help them find the best materials,” said Cecilia McGowan, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.

At Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, co-owners Beth Leonard and Gary Lawless said the demand goes beyond recent nonfiction books about race in America. Classic fiction by authors of color, including James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, also has seen a rise in readership.

“This is a mix of white folks educating and re-educating themselves,” Lawless said. “The question is what do you do after you have read the books. Is it enough to sit at home and read books?”


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