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Sweatpants & Culture | National Library Week: I Am A Children’s Librarian, Hear Me Roar

By Abbey Stephens

Ever since I moved to Boston to become a children’s librarian, I call my mom back in Arkansas about once a week. She tells me how the dogs are doing, what she’s cooking for dinner, funny stories about her students – the usual.

And then she’ll ask me how work has been. I’ll flop on my bed and moan and flail my arms and say, “HORRIBLE.” There’s not enough money for a program that I want to do. I had a misunderstanding with a coworker that I like. A kid vomited/peed/bled all over the carpet and I couldn’t get ahold of a custodian. I had to yell at a group of boys for climbing on tables.

My mom takes this all in stride. She’ll listen patiently and respond with things like, “Oh that’s too bad” or, “That must be frustrating.” I can practically hear her rolling her eyes, but I appreciate the fact that she listens. And then when I’m done with my airing of grievances and my blood pressure has gone back to normal, she’ll say, “Well tell me something good that happened at work.”

This phone ritual with my mom has been a staple of my week for the past two years. I always complain, and she always asks me to name something positive in response. So when a friend of mine asked if I wanted to write this blog post in honor of National Library Week, this is the first thing I thought of: my mom asking me to focus on the positives and forget the negatives.

Because in the end, this is my dream job. And sometimes that gets lost in the day-to-day drudgery and it’s helpful to remind myself that I’m doing what I actually want to do. This is it. And it’s beautiful and messy and wonderful – and yeah, sometimes horrible.

So in honor of my mom, and in honor of children and libraries and National Library Week, and in honor of reminding myself why I’m here doing what I’m doing, here is what I love about being a children’s librarian.

The Kids

During my master’s degree program, we spoke often of the divide between Book People and Child People in the world of children’s literature. There are people who hold the book and what the book means above all else, and there are people who put children and their opinions above all else. A lot of my classmates had to do some deep introspection to decide which one they were. I knew immediately. I am a Child Person.

Honestly, I was shocked that so many of my classmates decided they were Book People. Because when it comes down to it, even though my job is to push books on kids like some sort of drug dealer (“Just read the first chapter, I bet you’ll like it.”,) I don’t really care what a book is about. I don’t care about medals, bestsellers, or whether a book is a “classic” (don’t even get me started on what a sham “The Canon” is.) Does a kid like it? Then they should read it.

But sometimes, when a kid comes to the library, they don’t need help with books. Sometimes they need help with a math problem, or finding a game on the internet, or they’re confused about the rules of Monopoly. Or sometimes they have very detailed questions about The Iliad and you have to spend twenty minutes searching through Wikipedia articles to find them answers. Or they come up and ask, “Is an avocado a fruit?” and you don’t know so you both get to look it up and learn something new. When you’re a children’s librarian, you do it all, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it. A librarian’s job is to get your patrons the information they need, no matter the format or type of information. And when you’re a children’s librarian, this can look a little less traditional.

The Books

Even though I firmly identified myself as a Child Person rather than a Book Person just three paragraphs ago, I can’t ignore the fact that I love a good book. Let’s face it: the reason most librarians become librarians is because they love books. A love of books is what turned me toward the profession; and even though it turns out that dealing with books is less than half of my day-to-day job, a love of books has kept me here as well. It’s difficult to find a job where the more books you read, the better you get at it. Who would want to give that up?

Plus, I don’t have to read stinky, boring, adult books! I get to read picture books and beginning readers and middle-grade novels, and so so many graphic novels.

There’s a dialogue that exists around children’s books, and one that I hear a lot as someone who has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature and who works as a children’s librarian. Children’s books are easy. They’re simple and quick. They don’t require as much thought as “adult” books. Or, my favorite, the idea that children’s books can’t be literature.

To that I say, “Bah, humbug!” By devaluing children’s books, we are devaluing children and insinuating that they can’t have valuable and thoughtful reading experience. It’s up to children’s librarians like myself to change the tide against children’s books for the better.

Dancing

Once a week, to finish up my 3-5-year old story time on Wednesday afternoons, we dance. I call it The Silly Dance Contest, and I put on music and we dance as silly as we possibly can for three minutes. There’s no winner – it’s not a real contest – but for three minutes we fling our arms and legs around and belly laugh until we’re so out of breath that it takes us half an hour to fully recover (or maybe that’s just me.)

I hate the stereotype that libraries are quiet places. Whoever said that has obviously never been to a children’s room after school has let out. Libraries are a place of learning, and in my experience, no child has ever learned something by being completely quiet.

Making Progress

If you’re like me, sometimes the current political state of our country can give you the blues. There are times that I feel so full of anxiety and restlessness and I feel like I need to do something to help.

So I go to work. And I give kids books.

I honestly believe the best way to make the future better is to raise our children to be well-educated and well-rounded, and books are the best way to do that.

I’ll admit that I fantasize sometimes about a kid who becomes a neurosurgeon, or a human rights activist, or a best-selling author, all because of a book that I gave them. In reality, I know this isn’t likely. Giving a child a book may not change the world dramatically. But maybe it will make her more empathetic, or make her realize something about himself that he hadn’t before. Or maybe, the book will do nothing more than make her laugh.

And isn’t that good enough?

Abbey Stephens is from Paris, Arkansas and currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She has a dual masters in Children’s Literature and Library Science. Abbey loves hiking, warm socks, peanut butter, and (of course) books.

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