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by Caroline Downs

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Stories and libraries . . .

Posted 1/26/10 (Tue)

Note: The first half of this column was written as an artist’s statement I needed to include with a grant application, while the second part expounds on my convictions about the role of libraries for children. At times, it’s a good idea to make a point about something that matters.

 I believe in story.
 
I believe in the power of stories to teach lessons, share information, explore new places and passions, expose secrets, answer questions and spawn inquiries, and, most important, help each of us discover who we are and who we can be with one another.
 
I believe we tell ourselves stories to help us make sense of the world, and we tell each other the story of ourselves to find and define our place and purpose.
 
We were made for story, starting with the first pictographs drawn on a rock wall and continuing today with social networking websites, graphic novels, and YouTube videos.
 
And, regardless of the format, I believe children need access to story most of all. Most of the time, such access comes through books.
 
I was a voracious reader as a child, starting at the age of 2 according to family lore. I don’t recall a time without books or the ability to read; books accompanied me to bed each night, books filled my arms after stops at the library, books traveled with me to sleepovers at friends’ homes and visits to my grandparents.
 
While reading came easily for me, I realize it doesn’t for all children. As a middle school language arts teacher for 10 years, I saw firsthand how many children struggle to enjoy the act of reading, even given our human inclinations toward story. I also witnessed, again and again, the power a book can hold over a child. Kids in my classes knew how to read, but many times they needed a reason to care about what they were reading.
 
Compelling characters, collections of facts, themes, settings, moral dilemmas, problems or mysteries to solve--any of these alone or in combination can become that reason. For some children, entertainment from the latest book in a fantasy or goofy horror series worked; others became fascinated with a particular character, like Wilbur and Charlotte, Harry Potter, or Shiloh the beagle; still others craved the facts or adventure presented by non-fiction.
 
Matching kids and books became a particular passion of mine, which grew into a desire to write books for this audience. I credit Rodman Philbrick’s young adult novel Freak the Mighty as the tipping point. This novel won no major awards, but I read it aloud to six groups of students every year for seven years, simply to revel in the characters and the themes, the language and the plot.
 
Class discussions, writing assignments and even spelling lessons grew naturally from our reading time, but more than anything, I wanted to write stories that would speak to kids like Freak the Mighty did, across the social, economic and ethnic divisions I saw among my students, until all that mattered was the story itself and the opportunity we had as readers to share in that experience.
 
I’ve been writing for kids ever since that book took my breath away in 1993. Throughout my life, I’ve found plenty of other stories by amazing children’s authors that inspire my craft, and I offer my own stories as an addition to the canon of children’s literature. My goal is to write books that leave children breathless, that elicit laughter, tears, outrage, questions, sympathy or support; stories in which kids recognize themselves; stories that spur children to find another book and then a second and third until reading and sharing stories becomes as natural for them as eating, breathing and sleeping.
 
* * *
 
And to find those books, mine or any other author’s, children need libraries, and they need space and time in those libraries to make decisions about what they’re going to read.
 
Have you ever watched a kid in a library? As a teacher, one of my favorite places in our school was the library, a place my students browsed for books. When given the opportunity to make their own choices about reading, kids amaze me.
 
They choose books because of the number of pages. For some, the fewer the better, but other preferred thick books on purpose.
 
They choose books because a cover grabbed their attention, or because they had read another book by the same author, or because a classmate browsing next to them reached onto the shelf, pulled off a book and said, “Hey, I’ve read this.”
 
They choose books because they want to read about dogs or football or kids growing up in California or here in North Dakota. They choose books from a series because they’re safe to read, or books about kids in trouble, because they’re not so safe.
 
They may carry around a stack of books, then sit down to read through the first pages of each one before investing themselves in a full story.
 
They may already have a book in mind and head directly to that shelf, or they may look over all the new titles displayed in a special location before taking a chance on one.
 
They may ask the librarian or teacher for help in locating a book, or find one book but notice three more they would rather read, or ignore everyone else and let their eyes roam over the titles.
 
Generally, kids who spend time in a library, whether at school or in the community, become confident readers because libraries are a place where kids can have control over their choices. At times, students need to be nudged a little to challenge themselves to try a new author or genre, but when child and teen readers have some say in what and how they read, they’re usually willing to accept that challenge. They know they can go back to the library and change their mind if they run into trouble.
 
They know, and expect, the library will have something to offer them.
 
But while kids make decisions in libraries, adults make decisions about libraries, and this is the tricky part. When space and time become issues or cause problems for adults in charge of kids, the space and time kids need in libraries often gets compromised.
 
As a writer, a teacher, and an advocate for children and teens, I implore you to prevent that from happening. Guard and support your libraries; there is no substitute.
 
Even as libraries expand and transform to include various forms of media, some not even invented yet, think about the role a library plays in the development of young readers: providing that safe place to explore the ideas and themes, facts and characters all found in books, found in stories, that provide the foundation for our lives.