When I was a young girl, my mother used to warn me that, if we ever got separated and I became lost in a crowded place, I should stay where I am and that she would find me. That is all well and good as advice from a fretful mother to her obedient daughter, but what happens if no one is looking for you? What happens if you’re just standing there forever? What happens if no one cares about the lost child?
That kind of nightmare-inducing thought dawned on me during my first year as a school library tech. I considered the students whose needs to which I aim to serve; these students are my library users, but how much do I really know about what they want? Sure, I have a curriculum document that I can use to discern what they need academically. I have lists of required reading material that students are going to struggle through (or find effective ColesNotes versions and pretend to have read). But what about reading for pleasure?
If you think you’ve got it all pinned down, you’re probably the person who is wildly offbase but enjoying the comfort of a false sense of security. You must sleep so well; I’m jealous. For the rest of us, please leave all of your hubris at the door.
I run two reading clubs – one for our middle school (grades 7-8) and the other for our lower school (grades 3-6) – and participate in the upper school reading club (grades 9-12), and I have learned I know absolutely nothing. Nada. Zilch. How do I know that? Because these students have told me (usually phrased nicely, but I’m ready for the humdinger).
Students are fickle. Let me rephrase – human beings, in general, are fickle. Timmy and Tommy might both love sci-fi, but Timmy loves Vonnegut and Tommy absolutely hates him. And maybe Tommy loved Dune first semester, but now he thinks it’s so overrated. (Good grief, Tommy. You make life so hard.) On a larger scale, that means that what you thought worked great for any given class isn’t guaranteed to work next year, next month, next week. You cannot say with certainty that everyone that likes this book is going to like that one.
Except Harry Potter. (You go, J.K. Rowling. Whatever magic you tapped into is still working its charms on pretty much every student I encounter.)
But I digress. I like to think I offer a decent reader’s advisory, but you have to start where your student (or faculty member) already is.
Look, I get it – it’s May and the end of the year means we are running on the very last bit of the battery before we recharge over the summer. Let’s pick out the summer read already and send the young ‘uns off into July and August. Still, Arianna Huffington very delicately addressed how fed up we all are just dealing with an endless parade of surface notions and how that impacts reading in an Instagram post in late March 2022:
“Finding the focus to read books has never been harder. Our always-on culture keeps us living in the shallows. Books are the antidote – allowing us to go deeper, nurture our empathy, broaden our perspective and connect with ourselves.”
Books are supposed to make you empathic. Still, don’t begin to pretend that a library user’s dismissive scoff at your favourite book doesn’t rub you the wrong way. You loved Wind in the Willows. If this Ashton kid could only see it your way, he’d understand. So, we forget about Ashton; he’s a lost cause. But why? Because it feels like a slight against your own taste or judgment.
Leave the ego at the door!
Ashton wasn’t being cruel. In fact, Ashton did a brave thing; he told you the truth and let you into who he is. That book just wasn’t for him. That book didn’t tap into his life experience. But I am sure if you listened to what Ashton had to say, you can find the antidote – that is, if you’re willing to give it another go.
Reader’s advisory (RA) is a job duty with entirely no structure. You practice it randomly at any opportunity that springs up, but there is no class or lecture or certificate course that is going to teach you the secrets of RA. You build relationships, no matter how brief, with the person you’re advising and foster understanding of what this person likes. There may be so much nitty-gritty behind your recommendation that you cannot exactly put into words why you know this book is going to be a hit, but you do know that this specific student is going to love it. There’s a tiny pinch of intuition that goes along with RA, an exercise in thin-slicing if I ever saw one.
But you also have to admit that you don’t know diddly squat. This avenue is the one I decided to take a stroll down when I noticed that, even during the pandemic, our digital library was not being used. I searched through title after title and couldn’t see anything wrong. Sure, we couldn’t afford to have everything (who can?), but we had so many interesting titles that were getting no love.
So, I decided to meet them where they were. I went classroom to classroom in the lower school and asked what a good time would be for a demonstration. Teachers gave me a time and I showed up where they were. I emailed the students their user ID information and we all logged on together while I spent fifteen minutes explaining what the digital library was. With the exception of a few hands that nervously popped up, almost no one knew we had a digital library. I explained how the acquisitions process works (a little differently depending on the age and stage of each student) and how ebooks are something we can get faster than print books, while also explaining the distinctive traits of a print vs. e-book (or audiobook). In one of my reading clubs, I tied in the idea of environmental factors when using e-books, which we were able to elaborate on during Earth Day. I also concluded every demonstration by asking the students to make recommendations, as many as they wanted, as often as they thought of them.
These classrooms were silent. There’s not much that holds the utmost attention of boys and I didn’t expect e-books to be the clincher, but, again, check your arrogance at the door – every day, I learn how I know nothing.
So, mystery solved… or so I thought. Over the next few days, I monitored the use. It was kind of lacklustre considering the amount of gobsmacked joy I had seen in their faces.
I went through my email and noticed a sprinkling of messages:
“Um, Mrs. Davidson, could you maybe get some manga?”
“Hi, sorry to bother you, but I don’t see any of the Press Start series.”
“I liked the first Minecraft audiobook, but there isn’t anymore.”
I could hear the trepidation in their typed words. Yes, we could afford more manga. I’m glad you enjoyed the first Minecraft audiobook; let me see what I can do. I’d never even heard of the Press Start series. So, I decided that, by that afternoon, I would respond to all of these emails with an unequivocal “yes.” It was in our budget and, honestly, they were asking so little. They just wanted something they found interesting to read.
And then the emails poured in.
“Oh, I absolutely love this series. I am dying to read #11. Could we get this one?”
“Could we have more non-fiction audiobooks?”
“What should I read if I really like books written by so-and-so? I heard Whats-his-name writes similar books. Do we have any of those?”
Sure, you cannot buy everything, but if you can see that 18 students are begging for a book, maybe that’s not pennies squandered. Now, I can at least say I know a little bit. Still not a lot, but getting there.
I watched unused ebook licences lapse. These books had sat there for multiple years – no checkouts. And I am sure that the people before me thought they were a great idea. Heck, if I had been a student during the era of e-books, I would have read my way through all of them – or at least tried to do so.
But check that ego at the door. What seems like the right idea is not always going to be the right idea. For all the students who love Jason Reynolds and his books, I would have to bribe them with some serious coin to read Elizabeth Acevedo or Kwame Alexander. Why? A million different reasons. And that is the point. We are all products of our place, our time, our families, our friends, our hobbies… what resonates with one is never going to resonate with everyone.
As we enter into that summer reading phase, it is important to remember that your awesome read for the entire school division may not fly. That’s okay – I’ve hoped we’ve all learned that we all know nothing – but it does not mean stop trying. Search into why it wasn’t the right one. It may be something as silly as an unlikable font. (You think that hasn’t happened to me? Oh, boy.) So, try again with a book that sounds more like what they would or have read. Don’t ask them to come to you. Tell them to stay where they are and find them.
Oh, yeah, thanks, Mum, for the advice.