The Something of Books

Photo by Cullan Smith on Unsplash

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

― Ray Bradbury,
Fahrenheit 451

I work in a high school library and made a banned books display a couple of years ago. I chose the words above to be the centerpiece, not merely because of the censorship flowing through Bradbury’s novel, but because I loved this quote on its own. Sometimes when people ask me about my favorite books, I can’t explain why I like something. When I read a poem or a complicated text that I don’t fully understand, I can still find it beautiful and essential. I echo Bradbury’s words in those moments: “There must be something there.“

fahrenheit 451 book cover

Reading is an endless search to find that something. For some, it’s comfort. For others, it’s entertainment. William Nicholson writes, “We read to know we’re not alone.” Realizing there’s someone else in the world who thinks what you think or feels what you feel is a wonderful thing, especially when those thoughts and feelings are dark and isolating.

I think about the link between reading and loneliness a lot since working with teenagers. I feel a unique duty to these kids to be able to point them toward books that will inspire and teach them, but also toward books that will lessen the blows of that still-familiar teenage feeling of aloneness. A fictional character can say to them what someone else might not: “You’re okay. You’re not the only one. Life gets easier; I promise.”

Before I took my current job, I never read many young adult books, even as a teenager. I still don’t consider myself well read in the world of YA lit, but I do have a few favorites that I recommend frequently. When I dipped my toes into the water of YA books, I was surprised at how stellar the writing is and how adult the subject matter can get. I realize that sounds snobbish, but it’s true. I’m thankful for great writers like Sara Zarr, Courtney Summers, and Laurie Halse Anderson, who not only address hard topics but do so with eloquence.

Some of my favorite young adult books

For me, the element of surprise is one of the best things about reading. Not only does surprise open my eyes to whole new genres, but it gives me pause. A beautifully written sentence or paragraph makes me slow down and take note. Sometimes I end up seeing more in the long run by focusing on one small thing. Throughout my reading life, I’ve had my eyes opened so many times to new ideas and unique ways of seeing the world. Whether it’s discovering a whole new genre or reading a line of poetry that invites me to pause and see something ordinary in a new way, those moments of newness and wonder are necessary elements to the something of why I read.

There must be something there. I want each student who walks through the doors of my library to sense that truth. I want them to develop their own reasons for reading. I want books to become a joy and not a chore. Not every student is going to become a reader, but I want even the ones who don’t to be curious about how any character could stay in a burning house for the sake of some words bound together.

On Losing School Librarians

Photo by green ant on Unsplash

Last Thursday, I found out that all of the librarians in my school district had been laid off. I’ve been a library clerk in this district for nearly eight years and had no clue this was coming. I still haven’t heard if I have a job next year or, if I do, how that job will change in light of these recent developments. The district claims school libraries will remain open and that students will continue to have access to books and other resources. If we clerks get to keep our jobs, books will be cataloged, processed, circulated, and repaired just like they are now. But elementary students will no longer have stories read to them each week. Middle school students will no longer have a librarian to hand them that perfect book that would make them feel a little less alone, a little less awkward. High school teachers will lose classroom collaborators and students will lose the person who knows just what database they need to use for their assignment. The library is the heart of some schools, and with librarians gone, that will be compromised.

Like so many issues, this one boils down to money. (I should note that teachers and other staff members have been laid off, too.) Logically, I realize that when schools are forced to make cuts, keeping teachers is their priority, as it should be. Having teachers in the classroom is an obvious necessity. Still, it saddens me to know that some people see librarians as disposable. I want librarians to be essential in every school and for others to see their work as crucial to student success.

I’ve asked many questions over these past few days, such as:

  • Do librarians not promote themselves and their work enough to be appreciated and given credit?
  • Do people believe that librarians only check books in and out all day?
  • If school administrators value student literacy, how can they get rid of the people who are experts on the subject?

I can’t answer these questions, and even if I could, I doubt I’d be satisfied. People I care about would still be laid off, programs I’ve seen flourish would still come to a halt, and students who need librarians would still be without them. Other than contacting my state legislators and asking for more funding, there’s not much I can do in the face of the school district’s decision. I can keep talking about libraries, though. I can tell people about the little kids who stop at my desk and tell me how much they love coming to the library each week. I’m happy to share stories about energetic classes who become silent when a librarian reads them a great story or focuses their attention with a fun, hands-on project.

If you too love libraries and appreciate librarians, speak up! Show your support, whether or not jobs are on the line. When you notice a librarian who’s doing great work, spread the word. Use your public library and vote for library bonds. Enthusiasm is contagious, and while it’s not enough to make up for budget shortfalls, it certainly can’t hurt. If you believe librarians matter, do what you can to spread that message.

YA Fiction & Nonfiction Pairs

In the high school library where I work, it can be difficult to get students to read nonfiction. One of the ways I like to promote it is to do a display in which I pair high-interest nonfiction titles with a novel about the same topic. Today I want to share a few pairs with you in case you too are looking for ways to promote nonfiction to your teen patrons.

Click here to read the rest of the post over at Teen Services Underground.

3 Reasons Why Weeding Matters

Today I have a blog post up over at Teen Services Underground.

If you went into your local library looking for a book about space, would you want to check out a copy that was published before the moon landing? If you wanted a travel guide, would you choose the one written twenty years ago? Of course not, yet I know from experience that books like these occupy the shelves of many school libraries. I’m going on eight years as a public school library clerk, and during that time I’ve worked in six different schools. Several of them had books on the shelves like the ones I described above. The tape on the book jackets had become yellow and brittle, the information inside was obsolete, and the books hadn’t circulated in years, but they remained on the shelves because no one had bothered to weed the collection. Today I want to share three reasons why weeding matters to me and the difference I’ve seen it make in the libraries where I work.

Read the rest of the post here.

Why Bother Having a School Library?

For the past seven years, I’ve worked as a library clerk for a public school district. I spend my time in three different buildings working with elementary and high school students. I love my work and believe it can make a difference.

When you think of a school library, maybe you think of old books, slow computers, and encyclopedia sets from 1982. Perhaps you imagine the librarian glaring at you for talking too loudly, or you still feel a bit guilty about all those library fines. If you don’t have good memories of your school library or maybe never even used it, you might wonder if they matter. I think they do, and here’s why.

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STUDENTS CAN SIMPLY BE IN THE LIBRARY.

There are many demands placed on students by their peers, parents, and teachers. There’s constant pressure to perform and excel. While such pressure is necessary for success, kids need a break from it sometimes. The library offers students something unique because when they walk through the doors, they can just be. They can come in with friends to chat and study together. They can come in and sit alone, enjoying some quiet time. They can read, listen to music, do research, play computer games, flip through a graphic novel, or create something. In short, they can relax. I don’t care about homework, grades, reading level, or popularity. I care that students can visit the library and feel free to be themselves.

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A LIBRARY IS FREE FROM JUDGMENT.

Not all libraries are judgment-free zones, of course, but that should be the goal. Students should be able to use the library to learn and discover without being evaluated. They should feel free to research what they’re interested in without raised eyebrows. They should be able to choose books about tough topics knowing that what they read will stay confidential. I hope when students use their school libraries they’re greeted with kindness and warmth. Kids know when they’re wanted and when they’re not. Those of us who have the privilege of working with students every day need to remind ourselves that our small acts of kindness toward them make a more significant impact than we know.

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STUDENTS CAN BE CURIOUS IN THE LIBRARY.

Whether a student wants a book or online resources, they can use the library to examine what they’re curious about. I’ve had students ask me for information about many different topics, including computer coding, drawing, writing, religion, mythology, and so much more. Once I had a student ask for books on World War III, and I had to reassure him that hasn’t actually happened yet. Kids are naturally curious. The library provides a place where that curiosity can be fostered.

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THE LIBRARY IS FUN!

Focus and hard work are essential if a student is going to succeed, but having fun is important too. If we want kids to love reading and learning, they have to enjoy themselves in the process. I’ve worked in libraries where elementary students have access to stuffed animals, bean bag chairs, puzzles, games, and art supplies. A high school I worked in had computers with specialized software so students could edit photos, videos, and music. The high school I’m assigned to right now offers chess sets to kids. Learning is a big part of the library, but fun is vital if students are to be lifelong library users. I’d hate to think someone never sets foot in public libraries as an adult because they were so bored in their school library.

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STUDENTS ARE REPRESENTED IN THE LIBRARY.

The schools I’ve always worked in have been predominantly white. That’s why it’s so important that when I do social media posts and book displays, I feature people of color. Students who look around at their peers might not always see other kids or teachers who look like they do, but it’s essential that they see themselves reflected somewhere. I want students of color to recognize themselves in their library’s book collection. I want them to see lives and stories like theirs in the titles we display and the posts we share. People have an innate need to feel seen, and school libraries can help as long as they make diversity a priority in both their collection and marketing.

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THE LIBRARY IS A PLACE WHERE STUDENTS HAVE A VOICE.

Another way libraries make sure students feel seen and represented is to give them a voice regarding the library’s direction. After years of research and experience, I’ve developed a little trick I like to call asking. Ask kids what books they’d like to see on the shelf, and they’ll know you care about their opinion. Ask the ones who always run toward the computers what kind of programs they’d enjoy, and they’ll know you noticed their excitement about technology. Ask the student who says your horror section is too small what books she’d suggest the library purchase next and she’ll know you care about her favorite genre. Asking for feedback is such a simple thing, but it helps students understand their opinions count for something.


I could go on (and on and on), but these issues are the ones I’m most passionate about at the moment. How do you feel about school libraries? What did you like or dislike about the library as a student?