(Our March Bookstore of the Month selection is not a bookstore at all; instead, we’re going to talk to different librarians at schools around the city. If you know a school librarian you think should be spotlighted on the Seattle Review of Books, please send us an email.)
"These books are pure magic - you'll love this series!" says Serena, who just finished Magic Pony Carousel series. pic.twitter.com/zEMHMdmkJ9— Jeffrey Riley (@QAELibrary) February 10, 2016
Jeffrey Riley is, officially, the “library media specialist” at Queen Anne Elementary, although if you ask him his title, he’ll volunteer that “I call myself a teacher-librarian because I do a lot of teaching.” In his role, he wears “more than five hats,” he says — he runs tech support for the school and facilitates reading programs for the kids — but ultimately it all boils down to two areas of expertise: the literary arts and technology.
Riley’s days are packed; he shows up to work early because he’s passionate about making sure the libarary is “open as much as possible.” Before school starts, he provides an unstructured environment for the kids “and then when the bell rings I wish them all off for a very good day of learning.” From there, he works on the collection, or helps teachers with “a new app they want to learn or a new technology they want to work on.”
After lunch is when students start visiting the library in a more structured way. This is the time that Riley seems to treasure most, when he gets to "introduce kids to a new author, or a book that just won an award, or a new literacy app."
The library, which serves kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, has roughly 12,000 titles in it, and those books are in heavy rotation. “We’re not the traditional library where first graders get [to take out] one book each, second graders get two, third graders get three, and so on,” Riley says. There’s no limit on how many books they can take home at any time, because he wants kids to “have as many books as they need.” He says most students intuitively understand the importance of bringing books back so other kids can read them.
Riley also introduces kids to the authors of the books. He’s an avid Twitterer, and he’ll often let authors on Twitter know when students like their books, and share the author’s response with the kids. He also brings authors to Queen Anne Elementary to visit, and he’ll frequently arrange Skype calls between authors and classes. (Skype is “better for our budget,” he says.) Recent visitors, real and virtual, to Queen Anne Elementary include Derek Munson, author of Enemy Pie, and Dale Basye of the Heck series. The students always have lots of questions for the authors: “what inspires you, what if you don’t want to write on that particular day, that kind of thing. They’re also interested in the relationships between the writer and the illustrator.”
So what are the kids into these days? “Kids are loving series,” Riley says. “You put an action hero or a princess or an animal in a series, it’s gonna be a winner.” Fantasy series are still huge, including the ever-popular Harry Potter books, but also the Fablehaven series and other “mystical, fantastical” books. In Queen Anne Elementary’s library alone, Riley says, “we have over 150 series.”
What else? “Graphic novels are making a big impact,” he says. Riley knows the Dewy Decimal number for comics by heart: “741.5 — that section is really growing. Your Big Nates, your Amulets, Tintin. They are flying through those comics.”
Riley likes to reward kids who read every book in a series. When they finish the last book, he says, “I’ll give them a catalog and let them order a new book” for the library. It’s a program that works to keep kids excited about reading, even if the budget doesn’t allow for its success. “I’m often hitting up parents and community members for funds so that I can reward kids with a new book,” he says. Like a lot of teachers today, Riley has a Donors Choose account, where patrons can donate funds to help keep the library in new books.
Riley has to keep dozens of reading histories in his brain at any given moment. He tracks the kids’ past experiences and always encourages them to expand into new and different reading adventures. What happens if a kid tries to take out a book that’s beyond their reading capability? “I’m not going to tell a kid not to read the book that they want to read,” Riley says. “if a kindergartner wants to read Fablehaven, I say let them have it.” But he does keep a variety of custom bookmarks onhand that he can slip into books to alert parents that “this is a book that I know is harder than your children’s level,” and so maybe the parents should read the book aloud with their children.
“I’ve got three kids on my radar, and they always want the Pokemon books,” Riley says; in fact, they refuse to read about anything but Pokemon. But rather than drop an edict or an ultimatum on the kids, he explains, “I’m going to work with the parents and figure out a plan. I might have to talk to the teacher to subtly introduce something [to the kids] to get them thinking another way. It really does take a village.”
Of course, the books do tend to get a little battered. “We have a big book drop and that’s when a lot of the fragile books get banged up.” Riley enlists the help of parent volunteers to help him repair the books. What’s his secret for book repair? “Glue, glue glue — a special book glue. And I’m constantly clear-taping.” He says with a librarian’s pride, “I have definitely proven that I can keep a paperback book going for at least three to four years.” Those extra years that he coaxes from the books with the help of glue and tape and clamps and a tireless army of volunteers result in decades of lifelong reading enjoyment for the kids of Queen Anne Elementary.