Librarian Spotlight #2
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: September 16, 2012
Margaret Stawowy is the star librarian of our second On the Shelf installment. Stawowy is a “reluctant reader” specialist, non-fiction enthusiast, and she utilizes her talents that life has provided, to inspire her library work and the children that enter the San Rafael Public Library. Read on and you’ll most likely discover a few books to match the reading flavor of the children in your life.
Bianca Schulze: Why did you choose to become a librarian?
Margaret Stawowy: It was the summer of my junior year in high school. There was a new high school opening in the district, and I, along with two other lucky teens, had the best summer job ever: helping to order books for the new library! I adored my boss, Barbara Vondrak, and admired her commitment to library service for teens.
When I was growing up in Chicago, we didn’t have a library in my neighborhood, though there was a bookmobile that came once a week. Imagine my excitement when I could take the bus downtown all by myself. Back then, the main branch of the Chicago Public Library was what is now the Chicago Cultural Center, one of the city’s architectural masterpieces, and a place where I spent many happy hours, reading and listening to music.
As a young adult, I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do with my life. I loved theater and pursued it in college, but realized after a point that I just didn’t have the required temperament to pursue that sort of living. I returned to the idea of working in libraries, and Barbara recommended me to the program at Rosary College, now Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.
By the way, those theater art skills came in very handy at story time and also, performing in our annual summer reading road show that we perform at local schools. You can really utilize whatever talents life has given you in library work.
BS: Librarians are the ultimate evangelists for reading. How do you encourage students and children to read?
MS: Most of my young library patrons already love reading, but there are still some boys and girls for whom decoding is quite difficult, or reading just doesn’t seem to be their thing. My own son was a reluctant reader, so I feel a particular mission to find ways to help unenthusiastic readers understand the pleasure of a good book. I often suggest non-fiction, which often appeals to boys and girls who like facts presented in a linear format. Graphic novels, humor, and suspense series are other possible game-changers. Family read-alouds and audiobooks are a great way to introduce children to books that are just a bit above their ability. For example, I would read fiction to my son that he had unsuccessfully tried to tackle on his own, and explained plot and literary devices that weren’t obvious to him on first read. Once into the story, he became quite engrossed and would often read ahead on his own, because he couldn’t wait to find out what happened next! I am grateful to my son for educating me firsthand regarding the difficulties some young readers experience. When an exasperated parent comes in for recommendations, I can emphasize with her or him. I am always happy to try and find the groundbreaking book that changes a child’s perception about reading forever. I live for the moments when a parent or child comes in to convey the success of a title or titles that I recommended.
BS: Which kids’ or teen book is the most frequently checked out in your library? Why do you think it is?
MS: You and your readers will not be surprised to hear that Hunger Games was the book that everybody wanted to read over the past few months. Suzanne Collins is a gifted writer who capably wove dystopian elements with action, suspense and romance. She covered all the bases and appeals to males and females of a diverse age range. Other than that, Rick Riordan’s books are as popular as ever, as well as Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband Chronicles. Humor is always a huge draw, including Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, and Popularity Papers, to name just a few. Everybody loves and needs a good laugh, and children are no exception. Our library enjoys a robust circulation. We really make every attempt to match up kids with books, and I think our circulation figures bear this out.
BS: What is your favorite read-aloud for a preschool story-time? Why?
MS: I have so many favorite read-alouds for preschool story time, but perhaps my favorite is Mrs. McNosh Hangs Up Her Wash by Sarah Weeks. I have drawn and cut out all the zany things she washes, and I tell the story while hanging up the items on her clothesline with real clothespins. As mentioned before, I make full use of theater skills learned in young adulthood.
BS: Which new releases are you dying to lay your hands on?
MS: New Releases: Nancy Farmer, are you out there working on something new? I want to read your next book ASAP! I’m not kidding—I think I must be Nancy Farmer’s number one fan. She is such an inventive artist and I admire her work deeply.
BS: What steps do you take to strengthen the relationship of the library with local schools and the community?
MS: Every year, our Children’s Services’ staff creates a road show to promote summer reading to the local public schools. This is our biggest opportunity to get our faces out there, to put out the word that we are the place to be over the summer, indeed, any time of year. We pour our hearts into that show, and the reward is when kids arrive in droves to sign up. It is pure joy when we see a boy or girl in the library for the first time, exclaiming “I saw you at my school! Your show was so funny! Where can I sign up for summer reading?” We also visit preschools, as well as host school groups in the library, which is a great way to get kids interested enough to return with their families in tow. One of the pleasures of my job is penning the script for the summer reading show, where I include plenty of humor and opportunities for audience participation.
BS: What kinds of regular reading events or story-time sessions do you host?
MS: Helping children develop pre-literacy and literacy skills is a priority in our library, and to that end, we present numerous programs. I personally present Mother Goose on the Loose sessions for babies, as well as toddler story times, and a school-age story time. Not a week goes by when we aren’t doing programs. During the summer, I usually host craft sessions, notably origami. I used to work at a nursery school in Yokohama, Japan, in which, not surprisingly, origami was part of the curriculum. I also enjoy seasonal story times, particularly Spooky Afternoon, right before Halloween. There’s nothing better than telling spooky (and mostly funny) stories to get my audience in the Halloween mood.
BS: Could you tell us one thing about librarians or libraries that you think would be surprising?
MS: Most librarians take professional pride in delivering a seamless service to the public. We don’t let them see us sweat. And yet we do sweat. Although it looks as if we live in perfect harmony with our co-workers, there are times we disagree with each other about the best way to deliver service. So, it’s a bit annoying when family or friends assume that library work is stress-free and without challenges. Perhaps there are even people out there who think we spend our time shushing patrons (see the Nancy Pearl shushing doll). They obviously haven’t been to our library after school, which one parent described as “happy hour for kids.”
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?
MS: It had been a long day at the library, and I was working the evening shift when an older man who spoke English as a second language, came in looking for a particular book for his granddaughter: White Woman and Seven Low Men. Nonplussed and clueless, I offered to look it up when (thankfully) the bulb lit up in my head: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!
BS: If you could be any fictional character from children’s literature, who would it be? Why?
MS: There is nothing quite so pleasurable as reading an engrossing book and shape shifting into the main character. I have had the privilege of doing this many times, and so the decision of choosing the one character I would most like to be, is quite daunting. Should I be Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Little House series? Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins? Meg from A Wrinkle in Time? I’ve got it. . . Babymouse! I could wear pink, daydream, eat cupcakes, and say ‘typical’ when reality comes crashing down upon me. But mostly, eat cupcakes and daydream. . .
Update from Margaret Stawowy, September 19, 2012: Guess what? I got an email from Nancy Farmer! Her new book is coming out in autumn 2013 and is a sequel to The House of the Scorpion, called The Lord of Opium, to be published by Atheneum.