Gabby Byrne: Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing two of my local Youth Librarians, working their special brand of book-magic here in Olympia, Washington. Now, if you’re a book person, you are already fully aware of this magic. It’s an uncanny blend of mind-reading, match-making and prophesying. How do they do it, and what are the dark wanderings that brought them to their work? Let’s dive in. What made each of you want to become librarians and what did that path look like?
Mary: Mine wasn’t a straight and narrow path! Love is involved—are you curious? When my first love and I were really in love, we were blissfully broke. The library was one of our only options for entertainment. We spent hours searching for and finding treasures. One day it occurred to me that I should try to get a job at there. So I did, and the rest is history! I started as a Circulation Assistant, but when a position opened up in youth services, I jumped on it. Once I got a taste of how amazing presenting storytimes to young children is, I was totally hooked on librarianship. I love being part of an institution whose most basic function is to provide access to information, entertainment, life changing stories, resources to help with issues of daily life, education, social services needs, etc. Programming for kids and teens is such a joy—the library truly feels like the community’s living room when you’ve got a couple hundred kids and adults grooving together to Caspar Babypants or dancing to a local band at our annual Biblioball event!
Sara: When I was a kid, I wanted to do one of two things: be an author, or an actor. The older I got, the more voraciously I wanted to act as a living…and then when I got to college and started getting anxiety stomachaches every time I had to wait to find out if I got a part in a play or not, I realized that the acting life was not for me. It takes a special person to be ok with living job-to-job. I was a double major in theatre and English, so I switched to my other love, and decided I was going to be a literature professor. So I took the English GRE and literally failed. I don’t know if I’d ever failed anything before that, and I felt totally defeated – I was an English major with what seemed to be a completely subpar knowledge of the subject I cared so much about. But then, as I was walking through one of my favorite bookstores in the kid’s section, I realized WHY I had failed. Because in all the self-directed work in my undergrad program, I chose children’s literature. I wrote my thesis about Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I wrote a final paper about the short story version of The Brave Little Toaster. Of course the stuffy old GRE wasn’t going to ask me questions about the literature I loved, because I loved books written for kids and teens. So as soon as I graduated, I got a job in the University of Washington’s Architecture Library and applied for the UW iSchool to become a Youth Services librarian. And it’s funny, because I got into librarianship because I loved literature, but this is not really a book job. Of course, books are a part of it – but it’s really a people job. The kids and the teens I work with and for are by far the best part of every day, and I LOVE developing relationships with them.
Gabby: What was your favorite book, or books, as a kid?
Mary: The first book that made me cry was Gentle Ben, by Walt Morey, about a boy and an Alaskan brown bear. It made me understand the subtle power of books and how a story can help readers recognize and become familiar with the deep, complex emotions within themselves. My sixth grade teacher read the class, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I was so impressed with the possibility of leaving home that I obsessed for weeks about it!
Sara: Every book I remember obsessing over as a kid was given to me by either my elementary school librarian or the children’s librarian at my local library. The ones I remember reading over and over and over again were: The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Terror at the Zoo by Peg Kehret.
Gabby: What books, or series are you excited about this year?
Mary: You know, I read School Library Journal to keep up on what’s coming out and what gets great reviews, but I’m one of those aimless readers. I want to read spontaneously and kind of follow the path of my interests. I read two books by Dan Gemeinhart, a Washington resident. His most recent book, published at the beginning of this year, Some Kind of Courage is a historical survival story that is packed with action and details about pieces of Washington state history back in the 1890’s.
Sara: The best kid lit books I’ve read recently are: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones (an epistolary novel featuring chickens with super powers), The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (creepy adventure story based on Caribbean folklore), Pax by Sara Pennypacker (tearjerker about a kid and his pet fox), and The Detour by S.A. Bodeen (basically it’s Stephen King’s Misery for teens). As for upcoming books – if I’m being honest I have to admit that I always feel a little behind in my reading. There is SO MUCH good stuff being published at all times, that I often feel like I am just staying above water. I try to read as much of the already published awesome stuff, so I can actually put in the hands of kids and teens, rather than getting super excited about things that aren’t out yet. It’s overwhelming how much great stuff comes out constantly!
Gabby: Librarians have a unique perspective on literature. You know what kids are reading, what parents are asking for – and what’s marketable. Talk about that a little. What trends are you seeing in kidlit?
Mary: Kids ask me at least once a day for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. The interest in those books is still very strong–what a genius (rich genius) Jeff Kinney is, especially when you consider that the first book was published in 2007! Rachel Renee Russell’s series, Dork Diaries, are still in great demand as well. Also books that feature fairy tale characters are really popular: Chris Colfer’s series, The Land of Stories, and Micheal Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm. One trend I see, and I actually hope it’s not a trend because it should never go away or pass, is publishing more books that feature non-white characters. There is a huge campaign in children’s books called, We Need Diverse Books, and we’re seeing more books whose characters are non-white and their stories are not about the fact that they are racially/ethnically diverse. Their mission as stated on their website is: “Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.”
Sara: Diversity! Or at least, the attempt at diversity. Things are getting so much better, but there’s still a long way to go. Parents and teachers and librarians are asking for more diversity in youth literature, and we’re FINALLY starting to see it. Genre fiction with people of color. Characters with disabilities. Books written by people of color. I hope that in five years our collections will more accurately reflect the diversity of the people who use them (both the characters and the authors). We’re not there yet, but I feel the surge toward it. Beyond that, it seems like the Greek mythology/fantasy adventure/dystopian trend is going to last forever. Kids read fantasy adventure stories along the lines of Percy Jackson rabidly, and I don’t see that dying down anytime soon.
Gabby: What’s the most difficult thing about being a librarian? How can parents, teachers, and writers support you and your work?
Mary: It’s hard to answer how all those folks can help support me and my work because I see myself as the support person to the above groups. I think supporting libraries and spreading the good word about them with their children, students and audience is an excellent way to support me and my work. You want to make me happy, come hang out at the library, talk to me, tell me what you’re reading, ask me what I’m reading, tell me how excited you are about learning more about a subject, attend our awesome programs, make a new friend at the library!
Sara: Honestly, the most difficult thing for me is finding time to do more than just preach to the choir. The people who physically come in to the library are already in the know about how awesome the library is. They come to our free programs and our storytimes and our book clubs because they know what an amazing community resource we are. I wish I had more time to get out into the community and impact those who don’t already know how magical the library is. I want to do more outreach to at-risk youth and the people who truly need our free services, and can’t get to the library for one reason or another. Basically, it boils down to always wanting to be doing more for our communities, and not having the resources and time to do so. The most important thing that parents, teachers, and writers can do to support our work is to help spread the word about the incredible things the library can do for people. Encourage people to vote for the library when it comes up in elections so we can get more staff and better buildings and more resources. Remind people that they can attend free early literacy programming and social events for teens. The more people who help us spread the gospel of the library, the better we can serve our communities!
Gabby: How have changes in technology impacted libraries? Do you see these changes as mostly positive, mostly negative, or neither?
Mary: As long as kids and teens keep leaving the library with armloads of books, I think something very positive is going on. I love it that digital books are so accessible to people and that patrons can browse our ebook catalog from home and have a book delivered to their device in seconds!
Sara: It’s funny, because I never really worked in libraries before they were filled with technology. I’m a 90s kid – I’ve had a computer since I was in 6th grade, and I have never (not even once) used a card catalog. I see technology as an integral part of libraries. The advent of eBooks and online database resources has been SO amazing for people – you don’t even need to come in to the library to use the library anymore, so the barrier of coming into our physical space is somewhat removed. We aren’t just a building anymore, we’re an online space. The library evens the playing field. You don’t have to pay an internet bill to use the internet if you have a library card.
Gabby: What are some fun, creative ways that you’ve used to encourage kids to get excited about reading?
Mary: Book talks! Sara and I visited almost every elementary school in Olympia in the spring. We prepared book talks and presented them both to classrooms and at assemblies to the entire school. The very best thing about interacting with kids around books is having a sincere conversation about what I loved about a book, or what scared me, or made me laugh or made me cry. Stories have a magical way of connecting us to each other and to that universal experience of being human.
Sara: I think that the number one best way I have to get kids excited about reading is booktalking. Once a year (right before Summer Reading), we get the magical opportunity to visit all the elementary schools in our school district. We use these visits to talk up Summer Reading, but my favorite part of them is booktalking. Booktalking is a pretty library jargony term, so I suppose I should explain it. Basically, it means presenting a book in front of a group of people in a way that will hook them into wanting to read it. I take great pleasure in finding creative and unique ways to get a kid excited about reading a book. For example, I just booktalked Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, and I wrote my booktalk in the style of a letter, which is how the book is written. The amazing thing to me is how well booktalking works. When I started talking about The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste in mid-May, we had eight copies with no holds. Now, more than a month into summer (and more than a month since I stopped booktalking), every copy is checked out and there’s a hold list of 24 people.
Gabby: AND now…our lightning round. Are you ready? *gives Mary and Sara sunglasses for spatial-temporal shift*
Sara: * Makes Wayne’s World sound effects*
Gabby: Coffee or tea?
Mary: Tea— a nice smoky Yunnan with whole milk and sugar every morning first thing. An occasional coffee in the afternoon as needed!
Sara: I have been coffee-less for the last two years, and drink tea every day. I couldn’t cut out caffeine entirely. I tried.
Gabby: Sweet or salty?
Mary: Both, for sure! Salted caramel anything is just fine with me.
Sara: For the most part, salty. Especially if cheese is involved.
Gabby: Dog, cat, or other?
Mary: Dog, yes, dog!! I love books about dogs—Gary Paulsen’s collection, My Life in Dog Years is my go to comfort book!
Sara: Cat. Specifically, my tiny weirdo tortie, Clementine.
Gabby: Paperback, Hardcover, Audio, or E-book?
Mary: In this order: Hardcover, Paperback, Audio E-Book!
Sara: All of the above. Audiobooks while I’m doing chores around the house, E-book if the library copy is available and doesn’t have any holds, and physical book if the E-book is checked out.
Alright! Thanks so much for letting me interview you for The Winged Pen. Want more, dear readers? Go chat up your local youth librarian and find out what they’re reading!
— Gabrielle Byrne lives in rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest, and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.