On the Shelf with Amy Cheney
Librarian Spotlight #9
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: May 17, 2013
The amazing Amy Cheney currently works at Write to Read – Juvenile Justice Center, an Alameda County Library program in partnership with the Alameda County Office of Education and the Alameda County Probation Department.
Cheney has over 20 years experience with outreach, program design and creation to serve the underserved, serving preschoolers in childcare, middle school non-readers with tutoring program and booktalks, adult literacy students, adult inmates in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users and people of color. She has won two National awards for her work, I Love My Librarian award from the Carnegie Institution and New York Times and was honored at the White House with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. She was named a Mover and Shaker by Library Journal and has an amazing blog, Write to Read Books: Reaching Reluctant Readers, that focuses on reaching “urban” teens of color that are primarily reluctant readers.
We know you’ll enjoy Cheney’s moving interview and wonderful book suggestions. We sure did!
Bianca Schulze: Why did you choose to be a librarian?
Amy Cheney: Interesting question if I actually chose being a librarian or the librarian chose me to be one. I sort of fell into it, meaning I think it chose me. I do love to read and I love the grandeur of some of the old library buildings in San Francisco where I began as a library page. Aesthetically it is pleasing to me to work in a great old building. I worked my way up through the library system—getting an MLS along the way —to what I am doing now: serving incarcerated youth. How that strange calling found me: I was a support person for people who were protesting Nuclear Power and getting arrested as a result. When they came out of the jails they told me I wouldn’t have made it in there: there weren’t any books. I couldn’t imagine that. I became a librarian serving those incarcerated shortly thereafter.
BS: Librarians are the ultimate evangelists for reading. How do you encourage students and children to read?
AC: I read a lot myself and feel passionate about certain books and authors. That passion comes through. One of my students who never read before said when she heard me talk about books it sounded like candy, and she wanted some. She’s an avid reader now! I’d say the three main ingredients are: fun, relevance and interaction.
BS: Which kids’ or teen book is the most frequently checked-out in your library? Why do you think it is?
AC: Right now it’s War Brothers by Sharon McKay—anything about child soldiers my kids can relate to. Gorillaland by Greg Cummings is also doing well. Everyone has read Coe Booth, Simone Elkeles, Alexander Gordon Smith and Ishmael Beah. Action, relevance and overall great stuff.
BS: What is your favorite read-aloud for a preschool story-time? Why?
AC: I once ran a preschool program for kids in childcare, and sometimes did up to 8 storytimes a day. Whew! I love any book that is interactive. My favorite of all time is Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberely. I think it addresses important things: setting boundaries, saying No, banishing fears in a fun and interactive way. Of course the reader has to know how to make the book come to life for the kids. Good News Bad News is so much fun, and is perfect in it’s large illustrations for a crowd. It brings the kids on the roller coaster of life with the ultimate message that it’s all in how you look at things. I also like a good laugh. Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock is always fun. Animals Should Definitely NOT Wear Clothing always gets the younger ones giggling.
I’m also a sucker for the feel good story. I like On the Day You Were Born—I read that to my older youth that are parents and are incarcerated on the pretext of teaching them to read to children. They sit there sucking their thumbs and twirling their hair as they are listening. Really!! Quieter books like Ahmed’s Secret, Open This Little Book are sweet and wonderful for one-on-one. There are too many of my favorites to list, but of course I’m going to list a few anyways (that I read to the older kids—since that’s who I’m predominately working with right now): Round Trip by Ann Jonas (At first they protest I’m reading “baby” books, then they steal this one from the library), Grandfather’s Journey by Alan Say, and I LOVE The House That Crack Built. I read that one out loud all the time to my teens. It’s an overlooked brilliant book.
BS: Which new releases are you dying to lay your hands on?
AC: I rarely read just for me, I read for my kids and to review. For me, I’d love to get a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountain’s Echoed. I have Ruth Ozeki’s new book A Tale for the Time Being and I’d love to find time to read it!
BS: What steps do you take to strengthen the relationship of the library with local schools and the community?
AC: Outreach, networking and providing resources whether that’s my expertise or sharing a speaker or activity. We have Azim Khamisa and Plez Felix coming at the end of the month. Azim’s 16 year old son was killed by Plez Felix’s 14 year old grandson. They will dialogue with my kids and then in the community at a couple of churches and schools. Everyday I work with teachers and the community. That’s a huge part of my job.
BS: What kinds of regular reading events or story-time sessions do you host?
AC: We host a huge amount of author visits and community programming. Last week I had three authors all day on three separate days. Often the Juvenile Justice Center is a One Read—as kids tend to read the same books and discuss them all the time.
BS: Could you tell us one thing about librarians or libraries that you think would be surprising?
AC: I think the stereotype of the librarian as an anal introvert is alive today. People are constantly surprised that I am a librarian and think that I do way more than any “normal” librarian. I think it’s surprising to people the range and creativity that is possible when working in a library.
BS: If you could be any fictional character from children’s literature, who would it be? Why?
AC: I really related to Harriet the Spy when I was younger. Now? And if I could BE anyone? It’s probably a tie between Pippi Longstocking and Alice in Wonderland. Adventures, word play, unusual friends, fun and independence.