Three cheers for librarians everywhere! The Memorial Hall Library in Andover, Massachusetts, is my second home, and I am grateful for our friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable librarians. Visit the Children’s Room any day of the week, and you will witness young families who are clearly enjoying the comfortable, welcoming space. I recently sat down with experienced Children’s Room librarians Kate Belczyk and Amy Martin to talk about children’s books and can’t thank them enough for sharing their wisdom. As Joyce Audy Zarins wrote in her recent post, NINE REASONS YOUR CHILDREN’S LIBRARIAN SHOULD BE YOUR HERO, they know books!
#1: What made you decide to become a librarian?
AMY: Believe it or not, I come from a long line of librarians! It’s the family “business.” My grandmother worked in administration, my mom was a computer specialist, and I work in the Children’s Room. Even my aunt is a library director! We always had lots of books at home, and I have always loved reading. It was just a natural fit.
KATE: I volunteered and then worked at the Children’s Room in the Radnor Library in Wayne, Pennsylvania when I was a teenager. The Children’s Librarian there was my mentor and inspired me to continue in that field.
#2: How long have you been a librarian, and how long have you worked in the Children’s Room at Memorial Hall Library?
AMY: I am currently studying at Clarion University for a Master’s in Library Science, but I have worked in libraries since I was in high school.
KATE: I have been a librarian and worked at Memorial Hall Library for more than 33 years.
#3: What is your favorite picture book of all time? Why?
AMY: It’s hard to choose one favorite book! A standby that I love is Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. I particularly enjoy the surprise ending.
KATE: My favorite picture book is The Three Bears by Paul Galdone. Despite the fact that most listeners already know the story, they still enjoy hearing it, with the different voices and the exciting ending. For me, a good plot is the key ingredient that makes picture books readable. I also enjoy Imogene’s Antlers by David Small and Skyfire by Frank Ash for its thought-provoking ending.
#4: What is your favorite chapter book (or series) of all time? Why?
KATE: My favorite chapter book is The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The story brings together magical Celtic elements and a very exciting plot. I listen to the audiobook every year in December.
#5: What is your favorite middle grade book of all time? Why?
AMY: My favorite middle grade book is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. The author started out as an illustrator, and she illustrated the book with beautiful artwork. The story interweaves Chinese legends with an adventure story in which a girl seeks to save her village from poverty. There’s a talking fish and she rides a dragon – I mean, does it get any better than that?
KATE: I like the fourth Harry Potter book very much, The Goblet of Fire. It has the usual humor and drama of the series, with the World Quidditch Cup and the tri-wizard tournament. I like the sly humor that Rowling uses, modeling the Quidditch Cup on the World Soccer Cup and using puns like Diagon Alley.
#6: What picture books are most popular in Andover right now?
AMY: Pinkalicious, the Pete the Cat series (which is hilarious!), anything by Mo Willems
KATE: Picture books featuring popular characters are in demand. Mo Willems is popular, along with favorite authors such as Leo Lionni, Dr. Seuss, and Rosemary Wells.
#7: What chapter books are most popular in Andover now?
AMY: The Rainbow Magic series by Daisy Meadows, Magic Tree House series and Geronimo Stilton books. The Owl Diaries series is also popular.
KATE: The humorous books are in vogue right now, such as The Wimpy Kid series and Big Nate. The Cupcake Diaries and Dork Diaries are popular, especially with reluctant readers. The Who Is/Who Was Biography series is also popular, with its fun, conversational style.
KATE & AMY: Series are always in demand! And notice how many of them have the word “Diary” in them!
#8: What middle grade books are most popular in Andover now?
AMY: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney and all of the books by Rick Riordan are popular.
KATE: Erin Hunter’s Warriors series featuring animals are in demand.
#9: How do you select books for the children’s room?
KATE: I read five review journals (including Booklist, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Review) every month, and mark my selections before giving them to the Coordinator for Children’s Services to make the final decision and send them to the staff member who does the ordering. Because I have been doing the books selection so long, I am comfortable deciding what will be a good choice to order.
#10: What trends do you notice in publishing? How do you feel about them?
(Picture books written in the 1st or 2nd person, difficult topics being broached, etc.)
AMY: There are lots of great picture book biographies published now about a wide variety of people, both famous and not-so-famous, which are very interesting and eye-opening. Picture books, like the ones by Bob Shea and Mo Willems, are bringing a zany sense of humor to children’s lit which can be enjoyed by both children and adults.
KATE: In picture books I have seen an increase in longer picture books on serious topics, which are more appropriate for first and second graders than for preschoolers. In chapter books there are more hybrid books that incorporate more illustrations, like a graphic novel. These trends sometimes make it difficult to decide where to shelve (catalog) the books.
KATE & AMY: Excellent books that cover serious topics are The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco, The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark by Carmen Agra Deedy, and Walking to School by Eve Bunting,
#11: Are there any topics families ask for, but the need hasn’t been met?
KATE: For years, librarians have been asked for a children’s biography about Bobby Orr, the hockey star. There are a couple of great picture books (Number Four, Bobby Orr! by Mike Leonetti and The Boy in Number Four by Kara Kootstra and Regan Thomson), but these kids want one that they can use for a biography book project. I can’t tell you how many people ask for books about him!
#12: What kinds of talks/activities do the children seem to enjoy most – with authors and with other presenters?
AMY: Baby read-aloud groups (ages 0-2) have become very popular at the library, with families coming from Andover and surrounding towns. Very young children love color, movement, and repetitive sounds. Particular favorites include Freight Train by Donald Crews, where the children yell out “Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo” between pages, and The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle, which we have turned into a song.
KATE: Children enjoy presentations that have some fun activities. We had Jerry Pallotta recently and after reading from his books he did a family craft/art activity that was very popular.
#13: Is it considered appropriate for an author to ask the library about carrying one or more of his/her books? If so, what is the best way to go about it?
KATE: It is okay for an author to ask the library, but they should keep in mind that the librarians primarily rely on the journal reviews to make their selections.
#14: Do you have any advice for writers of children’s books?
AMY: Younger children are often listening to picture books rather than reading them on their own. Some books have a sense of rhythm, much like music, and these books work like magic as read-alouds. Clip-Clop by Nicola Smee is a rousing read-aloud whereas Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown soothes like a lullaby. Is there much of a plot? No, but for the youngest children, the sound of the language is more interesting to them. They are still learning language, breaking it down into patterns of sound, so those rhythmic tones captivate them. That’s why nursery rhymes have stood the test of time. Short and rhythmic books do the trick!
KATE: My advice to writers of picture books would be to study past favorites at great length. It is easy to put too much text on the page. Most successful picture book texts are almost like poems or songs with very few words. To chapter book writers, I would caution against letting the story and plot lag in the middle. Often I read chapter books which have an exciting start, then sag in the middle before picking up at the end. It is important to have a dynamic and visual website. It is also useful to attend library conferences and workshops whenever possible.
KATE & AMY: Rhyme is nice, but rhythm and repetition are even more important.
FINAL PEARLS OF WISDOM FROM KATE & AMY: We advise authors of children’s books to write from their hearts and believe in their own unique voices. Sometimes, a work is so unusual and fresh that it breaks boundaries – and we love it!
Dear Kate and Amy:
Your responses were candid and thoughtful, and I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights about children’s books with our readers. XOXO!!