One of my favorite things about finishing a new YA novel by a favorite or up-and-coming author is reading the acknowledgments. Truly! They always seem more interesting to me than in books for adult readers. I like reading which other authors they pal around with, who read first drafts, and get a sense of what they hope their readers find for themselves in the pages of the book. Often, my favorite part: something about all of us librarians out here, getting the authors’ books, and books in general, into the hands of students who need them. I love reading those words of appreciation and gratitude, and I am more than happy to oblige. I am so grateful to them for writing the stories that my students love.
This is why, when I am reading a YA novel and the main character, along with a friend or potential love interest, wanders into their school library, I brace myself. “Oh boy,” I think. “Here it comes.” The school librarian is so often, by my observation, portrayed as oblivious and bored at best, and a shushing, bitter crank at worst. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for us to get more books in more readers’ hands if those readers didn’t expect us to act this way? I recently found an article by Peresie & Alexander (2005) which let me know that this observation wasn’t just mine; they pose the idea that these neutral-to-negative stereotypical portrayals are not just annoying to us librarians, but could actually be damaging recruitment to the profession. They make the point that if representation in fiction and other media continues to depict librarians mainly as middle-aged white women, it may be harder to increase diversity in the profession if few others can see themselves. This is surely concerning for the future, but in the immediate moment I worry that neutral-to-negative portrayals might influence whether a student seeks out our help with research, or sees the library as a safe space. They might influence whether classroom teachers think of us as collaborative partners and information experts. Taken to an extreme, they might be responsible for perpetuating misunderstandings of our roles in schools, leading to difficult, frustrating advocacy work or even library job cuts.
What gives? Maybe authors are, sadly, writing from their own experience or lack thereof when it comes to helpful, professional school librarians. Maybe the plot requires that characters sneak to a quiet corner of the school where no pesky adults are paying attention to what they’re doing. I am not interested in calling out specific books or authors for these portrayals. For the most part, I love their books, the bad librarian behavior is limited to a line or two of the story, and it’s not all about me, anyway. However, I guess I would ask authors to consider whether that negative portrayal of the school librarian is really necessary to the story, or is just a cheap shot at a group that is on their side. It’s easy to put a bespectacled shushing lady in the scene, but why is she there?
For a breath of fresh air, here are some YA novels published since Peresie & Alexander’s study wherein the school librarian, or sometimes a public librarian, is treated as a responsible, caring, and properly attentive adult who does their job well (though still sometimes stereotyped):
Call It What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer
The school librarian treats one of the main characters with kindness and understanding despite personal reasons not to, and gives him good books to read.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King
There isn’t really a librarian in the book, but librarians are mentioned as people who could and would provide reliable information about sexuality to a teen.
Americus by M.K. Reed
Librarian Charlotte helps the main character in his efforts to prevent the banning of his favorite book series.
Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck
Four young library students make a splash in a small midwestern town in 1914.
Booked by Kwame Alexander
The school librarian helps the main character love words and reading.
I am having a hard time coming up with many more! Any help?
Peresie, M., & Alexander, L. B. (2005, Fall). Librarian stereotypes in young adult literature. Young Adult Library Services, 4(1), 24-31. Academic Search Main Edition. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asm&AN=18695646&site=ehost-live
I’m so glad I’m not the only one to notice this! AISL is full of my people.
I was recently reading one where a plot point was not having enough money to pay to use the Internet in a library. She was chased out by an angry librarian. I wanted to yell at the author…
So true! I haven’t read the book yet (we just got it), but I’m wondering if Gary Paulsen’s memoir “Gone to the Woods” talks about the influence of a childhood librarian on his development and future career as a writer. It is mentioned on the jacket cover and he spoke about the librarian in an interview that aired on NPR a week or two ago. (Link here: https://www.npr.org/2021/04/17/988331566/gary-paulsens-memoir-taps-into-the-childhood-experiences-that-inspired-his-stori).
My Side of the Mountain and All of a Kind Family are older books with helpful and kind librarians. Lirael (Nix) has some seriously kick-butt librarians, though their library is a bit non-traditional, to say the least. In Strange the Dreamer (Taylor) the librarian(s) take on the main character, who can’t stay away from the library. I love their line, “When the library steals a boy, we generally let it keep him.” (Or words to that effect.) The librarians in Mr. Lemoncello’s library are all helpful, and Mr. Lemoncello goes out of his way to defy the stereotype. The librarian that really made me cringe was in New Kid, sigh.
Maybe also Finding Langston? I know he discovers the poetry of Langston Hughes in the library; I can’t specifically remember the librarian(s) but hopefully they were helpful!