My first school visit as an author was arranged by my good friend and critique partner, Lu Fiskin Ross. She’s the award-winning librarian at Ewalt Elementary School in Augusta, Kansas. When I arrived, Lu greeted me dressed as the Statue of Liberty, which gave me a good laugh and eased my jangled nerves considerably!
To help celebrate National Library Week, I’ve asked Lu to give us her perspective on the state of school libraries and tell us a bit about herself.
First of all, what book or series have you read recently that you’re excited about? My favorite series that I’m reading now isn’t really for elementary students. I LOVE Maggie Steifvater’s Raven Cycle books. I just finished Blue Lily, Lily Blue and can’t wait to get the new one later this month. Right now, I’m reading Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures that Jackson Pearce and Stiefvater collaborated on. Wow! What an imagination. It is middle grade, so I would like to buy it for my school’s library. Oh, and I love anything by Mo Willems. I would love to write like he does.
I always appreciate the expertise you bring to our critique group. Librarians have an advantage of being in the know when it comes to what’s marketable and what kids want to read. Tell us a little bit about what you’re writing these days. I must admit, I’m a fantasy/science fiction lover. I love to escape to other worlds and places that I can’t go to in reality. I was highly influenced by folk tales and fairy tales while I was growing up. And then came Star Trek. I can still watch reruns after all these years. I want to finish a YA paranormal novel this summer that I started several years ago. I’ve started a YA sci/fi about Mars that I want to jump into next. And I’ve also started doing the research for a nonfiction alphabet book on Celtic mythology.
You recently won $1,000 for Ewalt Elementary School from KAKE News in Wichita. Congratulations! Please tell us about that experience. The award I won was through one of our local TV stations. One of my volunteers nominated me and submitted photos of me dressed up in character costumes. The day of the award, the principal let us know we had a surprise assembly shortly after lunch. I didn’t think anything about it. At lunch, one of the teachers thought it might be the teacher award that the TV station also has each month. Again, I didn’t think much about it. Earlier in the week, my principal asked for one of my favorite books, so I gave her one by David Shannon. She had everyone go to the cafeteria and we waited and waited. The TV crew were running late. As soon as the TV personality came through the door, I was pretty sure what she was there for. My heart started pounding! Thank you so much to the volunteer! The students told me during library times different titles and subjects they would like to see us buy with the money.
Speaking of money, Kansas (as well as other states) has been especially hard hit with cuts to educational funding. How has that affected your ability to purchase books and resources, bring in authors, etc.? The above really helped with funding. I have worked at my current position for about 19 years. My funding has been reduced many times. At one point, because of a change in the district distribution of funds, I did get a slight increase. This really tears me up since there are so many good books that we can’t afford to get. I’m especially concerned about funding for next year. It’s very scary to hear of districts who will cut their librarians. This is a subject I could go on and on about. Let’s just say I’m very disappointed. Our district is fortunate to have a “Meet the Author” program. The district is still helping to fund that program, with help from our PTOs and a share of the proceeds from book sales. This is another area where funding has not been increased in 19 years, so we can’t bring in as many big name authors.
Have you noticed any changes lately in what kinds of books kids are choosing to read? The biggest changes I have seen in student reading is the interest in graphic novels and hybrid books like the Wimpy Kid series and Dork Diaries. A few years ago it was fantasy with the Harry Potter knock-offs. It will be interesting to see what comes next. I have started seeing more MG animal fantasies, recently.
How have changes in technology impacted libraries? I’ve got to get on my platform about school libraries again. Some administrators and politicians seem to believe that because of technology, the librarians aren’t needed. I would say they are needed even more. Students need help in learning how to search effectively. Especially at the elementary level, they have a hard time narrowing or broadening searches to find the information they need. Also, a student may read a review online, but it is usually the human interaction that sells the book to a student. Or, if they’re in a hurry and need a dinosaur book, a human can steer them to the correct area quicker than doing the search.
What are some of the fun and creative ways you’ve used to get students excited about reading? Fun ways? Never! A librarian is supposed to be 80 years old with a bun. I think of myself as a cheerleader for finding the information, whatever the form, to help the student thrive and create something original from that knowledge. We have different themes every two years for reading in our building. I dress up on the first day of classes most years, in a costume to go along with the theme. One year, the book fair had an Egyptian theme. I just had to be Cleopatra and call the students peasants. They loved it. Last week, I was super librarian, able to find information faster than a speeding bullet. One of the greatest compliments I’ve received from a student was a first grader. He told me I was weird. I hope he meant that I didn’t act like a normal teacher. I encourage students to use their imaginations whenever possible.
Since you’re retiring this year, do you have any advice for librarians about how to adapt and thrive in these times of change? My first year or two of being a librarian, I read an article in School Library Journal about how CD’s were awesome for storing information, but they were too expensive to use. Now, we’ve gone to even better ways to store and access information. The main trait a librarian needs is to be flexible. The format of story storage may change, but story itself is universal. Focus on the universal. It is timeless.
Great advice, Lu! Thanks for all of your years of connecting kids to great books and the resources they need to excel. To keep up with Lu and her writing, check out her blog.
We’d love to hear about creative methods other librarians and teachers are using to get kids excited about books!
Louise Galveston is the author of BY THE GRACE OF TODD, a 2015-2016 Young Hoosier Award Nominee, and IN TODD WE TRUST (Penguin/Razorbill.)