Thursday, January 12, 2012

Great Books in Children's Hands

Librarian Booktalk with Elizabeth Bird – Part 1
Partial transcript from a phone interview with Elizabeth Bird, Youth Materials Specialist at the New York Public Library; former Newbery Committee member (2007); “School Library Journal” blogger for its FUSE #8 Production blog channel; professional reviewer for Kirkus, New York Times, and TimeOut Kids New York; regular contributing author to “The Horn Book” and author of CHILDREN'S LITERATURE GEMS: CHOOSING AND USING THEM IN YOUR LIBRARY CAREER (ALA Editions, 2009); and author of the forthcoming children’s picture book GIANT DANCE PARTY (HarperCollins).

From librarian to blogger, author and committee member, with your active involvement in so many different facets of children’s literature, how do you hope to make an impact or difference?

Elizabeth: My goal in life is to bring all the different aspects of children’s literature together; booksellers, academics, librarians, parents and bloggers. To do that I have to sort of spread myself a little thin, but I’ve tried to touch into a bunch of different areas to get good books and the books that I love publicized as humanly possible in the hopes of getting them into the hands of as many kids as possible. There are just so many different places for people to look for and discover books. So, I sort of try to find every place that a person might possibly go to find a children’s book and tell them about the good ones there.

My position at the New York Public Library (NYPL) allows me to do that in a very direct manner. My reviews on my blogs, Amazon and Goodreads let me alert people to good books there. But a lot of librarians don’t read blogs. They just read the professional reviews. That’s why I review for the New York Times, which will also be seen by the general public. What I’d really love to do would be to review or get a column in a parenting magazine, because that’s another area where people are really paying attention. I just want to reach as many people as possible to tell them about what’s out there, what’s new, what’s great, and what’s being overlooked in a given year.

What do you say to parents or librarians to help them get reluctant readers or any child or teen to take better advantage of all the good books that are available?
Elizabeth: The librarian mantra is always “The right book for the right child”. There was a great book that came out last year called Miss Brooks loves Books (And I Don't). It’s about a little girl who hates books until her librarian reads her Shrek, which is so gross and disgusting and then the girl is like “THIS IS THE BEST BOOK EVER!” That is my take on it. There is a book for every kid. You just have to find that book, which can be tough, especially for parents.

You have to find a resource that you can trust, that’s not going to lead you astray, and that can consistently give you great books for your kids. That’s tricky, unless they’re getting something like the School Library Journal. So what they have to do is go to their local librarian or local bookseller and consistently ask for recommendations.

You have to let parents know to a certain extent that a book for a child does not have to be War and Peace. You can give children Captain Underpants and it will not rot their brain. It may even make them want to read another book. From there you can kind of move them into Diary of a Wimpy Kid, to a book with slightly less pictures, and then into longer novels. That is sort of a path that you can follow. There are a bunch of different techniques for getting kids to read, but my favorite is definitely parental involvement.

NYPL just came out with its latest 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2011. Tell me a little about it’s history and how it comes about.
Elizabeth: The library has been doing the list for 100 years. It began in 1911 by Anne Carroll Moore, who was the great children’s librarian of NYPL. She was also the person who started Children’s Services within the library system. There weren’t recommended lists like this back then or one-stop shopping places for parents to go for recommend books. We think it’s tough today, but back then, oh man, you couldn’t find them anywhere. So, the list originally began sort of as a gift list that she would bring out before Christmas every year.

Now the librarians meet through the entire year, reading everything they can, debating, and winnowing it down to just 100 titles out of all the books that are published in a given year. Generally speaking it comes out before Christmas, although this year it came out a little later. Still, it has consistently come out every single year since 1911. So this year we had the 100th list of the 100 titles.

What are some of your favorites on this year’s list?
Elizabeth: Actually, on my blog post I show a sample cover of my favorite from each section on the list, but I can tell you why I selected each one. (Elizabeth’s discussion on her favorites from the list will be posted in Part 2 of this interview on Monday.)

Tell me about your experience with the Newbery committee.

Elizabeth: My experience was strange because it’s not how people typically get onto the committee. Usually you are either appointed or you’re voted onto the committee long before the first meeting in January and then you have a full year until the final decisions are made the following January. Around June of that year, I was having dinner at a restaurant with my husband and my phone rang with an area code that I didn’t’ recognize. It was the president of ALSC, who said we had someone drop out of the committee, can you fill in? I was like, “Oh, Yes. Yes. I will.”  But I came in half way through the year, which is not normal. And usually when someone drops out, they pull somebody from the ALA Notable Committee. I’m not sure why they didn’t do that that year, but I’m very grateful that I was plucked up instead.

Do you have any predictions for this year’s Newbery?
Elizabeth: This year I’m going to make a weird prediction. All the talk has been about Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now. Often when people are on committees and they get down to the wire with five books still in front of them, their inclination is to disregard anything that they can object to and make it an honor instead. People love Okay for Now, but it has a problematic ending. The ending tears people apart. They either think it’s fine or they hate it more than anything in the entire world. So, I think Okay for Now is going to get an honor.

The book I think that is going to win is the one that I have not been able to hear a single objection to and everybody loves, but no one has seriously considered it because it’s non-fiction. I’m pretty sure Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming could get away with the gold. That book is brilliant and there hasn’t been a non-fiction winner since something like 1988 when Lincoln: A Photobiography won. She has a really good shot.  And if a Honor goes to The Trouble with May Amelia, then this will be the year of the Amelias, which would be awesome.

Last question. Tell me what you enjoy most about being a librarian?
Elizabeth:  What it is, doesn’t even take place when I’m in the library. But if I’m on the subway or somewhere else, and I see a kid with a book that is a library book, it makes me so happy. I really have a practical way of getting books into the hands of kids. Right now it’s more direct than ever. I can get people to read good books. I can really highlight good books. I can buy great books. And that’s what I like best. I like to get books into the hands of kids.

To get more children’s literature insights and advice from Elizabeth Bird, visit her blog at

The New York Public Library first officially opened its doors on May 24, 1911 on a two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. Today the Library has 90 locations, four research centers, and a network of neighborhood libraries throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The library provides free and open access to its physical and electronic collections and information, as well as to its services for people of all ages, from toddlers to teens to adults. For more information about the New York Public Library visit