I want to share an experience I had recently with one of my students, because it personifies our purpose as librarians (and it’s also a really good story). He came into the library a few months ago with his English class, with the task of finding a book for a free-choice independent reading project. Aside from orientation at the beginning of the school year, I couldn’t think of another time I had seen this student in the library. I walked around, asking students if they needed recommendations, or pointing out what some students chose, saying what a great book they had. Finally, most of the students had checked out their book of choice, but there were still a few meandering around – including the previously mentioned student.
Since this was an inclusion class (special and regular education students), the inclusion teacher was talking to him, trying to suggest books. He wouldn’t even look at her and kept trying to walk away. Seeing a need, I approached and asked if I could be of any help. The teacher stated the student needed a book but couldn’t find one. The rest of the class – including both teachers – walked back to class, leaving me with this one student. I coaxed out of him that he liked scary stories – like really scary. I told him we had a Horror section – and his eyes lit up. I led him over to the section and started pulling a few options. It didn’t seem like any of them were clicking until I reached the last shelf and spotted the Escape from Furnace series, by Alexander Gordon Smith.
(Pause while I tell you another story.)
I have this blessing and curse called a photographic memory. It gives me the ability to remember most of what I see, whether it’s the location of my car keys, where information is on a page, or something that paints a movie/picture in my brain from what I have read. When I was genrefying my library a few years ago, I came across the Escape from Furnace series. Remembering it was popular with my students when I was a classroom teacher, I randomly opened to the middle of the book and began reading – to see if it was truly scary and also, to be sure it would go in the Horror section. Long story short, the three paragraphs I read gave me nightmares for about a week. I was more than happy to affix the Horror sticker and move on with my life.
(Back to the story)
Knowing full well how terrified the first book made me, I billed it as such – I was honest with him and he was like, “Really? Nothing has ever done that to me before.” I suggested he give it a chance, and if he wanted truly scary, this was the best answer I had for him. Cautious but trusting, he checked it out and off he went.
Slowly but surely, I started seeing him come in the library in the mornings before school, carrying his book. I watched the bookmark advance in his book, but I didn’t want to scare him away, so the only interactions with him were when he made contact with me (maybe twice). Then it happened.
One day out of the blue, I was standing at the circulation desk and he bounded in the library, making a bee line for the circulation desk. About halfway to me, he exclaimed, “Ms. Grover! Tell me you have the second one in this series. I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!” With a smile on my face, I walked him over to where we found the first one and showed him the other books in the series that were on the shelf. He said just taking book 2 would be okay for now. He checked out and off he went.
The next day was a Friday. During library time before school, in walks the student, hands me book 2, and says, “Umm, Ms. Grover, I stayed up till 2am reading this. I’ve never read a whole book in one day. It is SO good.” After reminding him it messed with my brain, I asked for a PG explanation of what made it so good. That question just brought him to life. He was genuinely interested and it was clear he had actually read the books. He told me if I wasn’t such a scaredy cat (!) he would recommend them to me, because they were so awesome. He decided he needed books 3 and 4 of the series for the weekend, just in case. When I checked them out to him, he even chose a bookmark. (These were huge steps for him: 2 books for a weekend AND a bookmark? It was making my librarian heart sing.)
I wasn’t sure what I was going to suggest next – it was the end of the series! So I went online to figure out – oh no, there is a book 5, but we don’t have it! Needless to say, I ordered book 5 off of Amazon out of my own pocket (it was a $4.99 book and I wanted the rush shipping. In this case, no one has time to wait for a purchase order to be approved.)
Monday comes, the book has arrived. He comes in and says very solemnly, “I see you don’t have book 5. I was going to order it myself but my teacher said to check with you first.” I told him the good and bad news: I ordered book 5 especially for him and it had arrived, but I didn’t have time to process it yet. And would he wait a few minutes while I got it ready for check out? He couldn’t believe I ordered the book, knowing he would want to read it. I had never seen such sincerity and gratefulness in a student that I did something especially for him. He gladly waited, and oh man, I don’t think I’ve ever processed a book that fast in my life!
He returned it Tuesday, saying he didn’t even care how tired he was, because he couldn’t stop thinking about the book and how he couldn’t put it down so he stayed up late to read it (sorry not sorry, homework that didn’t get done). We had a long conversation about reading, this series, and what was he going to do now that the series was over. (PS: He said before this, he had never finished a book before, let alone an entire series). I recommended The Fury to him, another Alexander Gordon Smith title. Although he was intimidated by the thickness of the book, he said he wasn’t scared off by it and was going to start it that afternoon. I took his picture with the entire series – in front of our Horror section. He asked for his own copy of the photo – so he would remember the experience. I printed him a copy and he beamed with pride.
THIS is our purpose as librarians – to match staff and students (and their interests) to what we have, whether it’s books for personal use, academics, ebooks, audiobooks, online resources, whatever. A kid that I saw maybe twice in my library before Winter Break I have now seen every single day.
THIS is why librarians are needed. The teacher wasn’t getting anywhere with him choosing a book – he needed someone different – someone who would acknowledge that scary books are a thing, and that scary books are okay to read – even if you are 12.
THIS is why we can’t censor our collections and we have to have books and other resources that we wouldn’t necessarily choose ourselves.
THIS is why we have to read books (or parts of them!) outside our comfort zones. Thank goodness I had read what I did (though I’m not sure the nightmares were worth it) so I could recommend that series.
THIS is why genrefying is essential, especially in a middle school library. Our shelf organization should be a help, not a hindrance, to students reading.
THIS is why we need to wake up, ready for work everyday. Because we never know which kid’s life we are going to change that day.