Librarian Spotlight #3
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: October 17, 2012
Elizabeth Bird is the Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library and the author of Children’s Literature Gems: Choosing and Using Them in Your Library Career. She is also the sensational voice of the School Library Journal’s A Fuse #8 Production, where she is often found predicting (correctly) which new and notable books will become award winners. With her knack for picking out these winners it makes sense that she has served on Newbery. In her usual jaunty manner, Elizabeth talked to TCBR about becoming a librarian and shared many not-to-miss books, new and old. You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter @FuseEight and at A Fuse #8 Production.
Bianca Schulze: Why did you choose to be a librarian?
Elizabeth Bird: I didn’t. It chose me. In fact, if I’m going to be honest here, I fought tooth and nail against it. There was always a palpable sense growing up that I would be a librarian. I’m not sure why I felt this way. I didn’t actually know any librarians very well, and no one in my family had ever pursued a library degree. Nevertheless I was the kid that always ended up creating a cataloging system for the VHS tapes. I alphabetized the bookshelves of my home. I even, in a pique of pure madness, began to create a subject index for my National Geographics . . . for fun. When I went to college I hedged my bets by getting an English degree as well as a degree in Fine Arts/Photography. I was determined to do something artistic, until it became infinitely clear that I was a (pardon my French) crap photographer. I finally turned to the librarianship I always knew would be there for me, but even then I was stubborn. I was convinced that I would be an archivist or some kind of a conservator. It was only when my husband pointed out that I’d placed my coffee cup on my book about preserving books that the light came on in my head that this was not for me. I took a children’s literature course to fulfill a credit and THAT was what ultimately changed my life. I came to the blinding realization that I had been preparing for such a job for years by willingly reading children’s literature for no discernible reason. It was like coming home at last.
BS: Librarians are the ultimate evangelists for reading. How do you encourage students and children to read?
EB: I was going through some old files in the library today and stumbled on an assessment from the early 1930s made by the children’s librarians of NYPL who were going to each branch to determine how well the storytelling programs were going. Over and over they would say that the kids in a branched were “easily influenced”. It took the explanation of my boss to realize that what this term meant was that by watching a storytelling program the librarians were turning that interest into a love of books and reading as well. Now it’s almost 100 years later and very little in that area has changed. Except, instead of just encouraging kids to read with storytelling programs and story times we’re luring them in with a huge variety of programs. For example, I know librarians who have created science programs where they do science experiments in the children’s room. There are author visits and book clubs where the kids discuss a variety of different titles. But really, the best way to encourage kids to read is to find out what they’re already interested in and feed that need. I don’t care if it’s fashion or Justin Bieber or toenail polish. If you can find the right book for the right reader, you got ‘em hooked.
BS: Which kids’ or teen book is the most frequently checked-out in your library? Why do you think it is?
EB: Right now? Well, it’s always one series or another. On the YA side we’re still seeing a lot of love for The Hunger Games, though the focus is now squarely on its sequel. Divergent has also turned out to be a new massive hit, and the sequel Insurgent is doing fairly well too. On the children’s side there’s been love for Wonder by R.J. Palacio but series like Dork Diaries and Big Nate and the ubiquitous Wimpy Kid continue to be requested unabated.
BS: What is your favorite read-aloud for a preschool story-time? Why?
EB: New or old? I have my standard titles I rely on time and time again. Books like Guess Again! by Mac Barnett, Fortunately by Remy Charlip, My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza, Anasi and the Moss-Covered Rock by Eric Kimmel, Katie Loves the Kittens by John Himmelman, and so many more. More recently I’ve adored Up! Tall! and High! by Ethan Long, What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson, It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle, Press Here by Herve Tullet, and Duck Sock Hop by Jane Kohuth.
BS: Which new releases are you dying to lay your hands on?
EB: I’ve seen a couple 2013 titles that I would love to see firsthand. On the picture book side I am VERY excited to see Bob Shea’s Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great, which may prove to be one of the more brilliant books next year. There’s also a Lemony Snicket/Jon Klassen title called The Dark that is bound to get a lot of great attention. On the middle grade side I already know that the Stephen Pastis book Timmy Failure is fan-tastic. I haven’t read many of the other 2013’s or heard what’s in the pipeline, except that I’m very much looking forward to reading Melissa Meyer’s Scarlet, the sequel to Cinder.
BS: What steps do you take to strengthen the relationship of the library with local schools and the community?
EB: While the perception might be that all children’s librarians do is sit on their butts and read, the fact is that much of our job consists of going out into the community to make our presence known. Our librarians have traditionally contacted local school librarians and parent/teacher coordinators so that we could get the teachers into our branches. I’ve even heard of children’s librarians doing readings in hospitals, in old folks homes, in shelters, in juvenile detention centers, pretty much everywhere. It’s not hard to reach out. You just have to do it.
BS: What kinds of regular reading events or story-time sessions do you host?
EB: Well I’m now the Youth Materials Specialist for NYPL which means I’m much more involved in buying the books than programming. That said, I do continue to host the Children’s Literary Salon, which is a monthly gathering of adult children’s literature enthusiasts. We get in panelists who speak on a wide range of topics. Everything from New York Times reviews to stage plays to nonfiction picture books. It’s a lot of fun. I used to do the preschool and toddler story times in my children’s room on a regular basis, as well as a book club for kids ages 9-12. I kept up the book club for about half a year after I got my new job. I miss it.
BS: Could you tell us one thing about librarians or libraries that you think would be surprising?
EB: I don’t know how surprising it is but the recent design choices libraries are making to look like a bookstore is fascinating to me. It was as if Borders died and libraries sucked up all that energy and converted it into their own spaces. Now we’re seeing an explosion in comfy chairs and coffee bars. Next you’ll be seeing SLJ articles on the “death” of the Dewey Decimal System. It’s a brave new world, folks. Brave new world.
BS: I’m sure that you are asked many interesting questions on a daily basis. What would you say has been the most entertaining question asked of you by a parent or a child?
EB: My personal favorite was the four-year-old boy who came up to me and asked me to find his favorite book. “It has a lady with a white hat and she’s NOT a pilgrim [apparently he'd been given one too many pilgrim books in the past] and there’s baby Jesus and a baker.” I was admittedly stumped and asked if he could remember anything else. He thought about it for a second and then said, “There’s a pasta pot.” RIGHTO! I grabbed Strega Nona for him, which was naturally the right book, and he was happy as a clam. I have no idea where he came up with the baker or Baby Jesus, but at least that pasta pot rang clear and true in his memory.
BS: If you could be any fictional character from children’s literature, who would it be? Why?
EB: I would be Tonks from the Harry Potter books. This is the world’s nerdish answer but I’m sticking with it. Only I wouldn’t marry Lupin (issues there) and I’d do my darndest not to die in the last book. But Tonks. You bet. Colored hair and all. She always seemed to me to be the most interesting character that received the least amount of attention in the books.