Jessica Lee is a teacher librarian at Willard Middle School in Berkeley, California. She has also been an English teacher, a public librarian, and a waitress, but her favorite terrible-teen job was selling snacks at Six Flags Magic Mountain. She is the mom of two boys who are also students at her school, fully integrating the work-life experience.
The Children’s Book Review: Why did you choose to be a librarian?
Jessica Lee: I was working as an English teacher and, during one of my many late afternoons preparing lessons, I was in the library looking for good resources. The school librarian was rhapsodizing about her job and how she felt that she had so many more “teachable moments” as a librarian than teachers did. This struck a chord. A couple of years later I was teaching at a different school. The librarian had quit over a year ago, and they had been unable to replace her. One afternoon, while bemoaning how much of my energy went into discipline rather than teaching, a colleague suggested I apply for the librarian position. The words of that librarian came back to me. I decided to leap into something I had not previously considered, going back to school while continuing to teach full time. I have never regretted that decision. I feel like I have found the perfect place for me, at the intersection of kids, literacy, technology and information. I love this job!
TCBR: Librarians are the ultimate evangelists for reading. How do you encourage students and children to read?
JL: I see my role as a match-maker. I believe strongly in the adage, “To every reader his book and to every book its reader.”
TCBR: Which kids’ or teen book is the most frequently checked-out in your library? Why do you think it is?
JL: At the start of the year: The Hunger Games. This week: Divergent. Clearly, current movies create a buzz. But close behind those in circulation are P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia’s sequel to One Crazy Summer. Most of our 6th grade teachers read One Crazy Summer to their classes for the last two years. Now that a sequel is out, the entire student body is ready to read it. Also, kids and teachers recommend books to each other. A few titles that have very healthy circulation mostly due to word or mouth are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In.
TCBR: What steps do you take to strengthen the relationship of the library with local schools and the community?
JL: I am going to flip this question. As the school librarian, I think it is very important to build a strong relationship with the public library. Most of our students visit the public library as a class trip once a year. The teen librarian from our nearest branch visits the school at least once a month to participate in book clubs, help teach a lesson about using public library resources, promote events at the public library, do a craft project, or participate in a special event. I consider it essential that my students learn about all the resources the library provides. My school library supports them for only three years. The public library is there for them for the rest of their lives.
TCBR: What kinds of regular reading events or story-time sessions do you host?
JL: We have a weekly book club discussion group that meets at lunch time. And I host author visits in our school’s theater about once a year. We have had some great speakers come through the school. Adam Gidwitz was here last month and had those 6th graders squirming in their seats with his gory retellings of Grimm fairy tales.
TCBR: 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?
JL: My favorite reference question ever was “How do birds have sex?” It was so out of the blue, and it surprised me that I had no idea off the top of my head. But it was pretty easy to find a straightforward answer. A trickier question I once got was, “Is my house on fire?” A student could see smoke from the school yard, and it looked very close to her home. With the help of twitter, Google Maps, and local news sites, I was able to reassure her that her house was OK. The fire was two blocks away.
TCBR: If you could be any fictional character from children’s literature, who would it be? Why?
JL: Right this moment, Robinson Crusoe is quite appealing. March is always a hectic time in schools, and Spring Break just can’t come fast enough. I wouldn’t mind spending some quiet time on a desert isle right now… with a very tall stack of books to keep me company.
If you enjoyed this interview with teacher librarian Jessica Lee, please check out our other interviews in the On the Shelf series.
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I concur with Jessica Lee. Becoming a school librarian at 50 was amazing. The idea to go back to get a Masters in Library Science came from the elementary school librarian where I was an assistant. I had been training for the job my whole life and didn’t realize that is what I was meant to be. Being a librarian is the absolute best job in the world–teachable moments, incredible things you learn from your students/patrons, and the idea that you are helping others become lifelong learners. Godspeed, Jennifer Lee