Tales of a Library Unicorn: A Magic Spell to Find Any Kid a Book
Best known for finding the wreck of the Titanic, celebrated adventurer Robert Ballard has a lifetime of stories about exploring the ocean depths. From discovering new extremophile life-forms thriving at 750°F hydrothermal vents in 1977 to finding famous shipwrecks including the Bismarck and PT 109, Ballard has made history. For the first time, Ballard gets personal, telling the inside stories of his adventures and challenges as a midwestern kid with dyslexia who became an internationally renowned ocean explorer. Here is the definitive story of the danger and discovery, conflict and triumph that make up his remarkable life.
One day, a friend asked me what I do when a kid comes to the library and says they don’t know what — or if — they want to read. And the weird thing is: I knew.
Part of the reason I go around calling myself a library unicorn is because as far as I’m concerned, kids and stories are magic. It’s magic when kids yell “WOW!” the first time they see the Children’s Room. It’s magic when they pick up the first book in a series and go breathless with love at first sight. It’s magic when they clamber into the storytime chair to read aloud to their caregivers.
It wasn’t until I found myself telling my friend, enthusiastically and in detail, how I find the right books even for reluctant readers, that I started thinking of it this way: as a children’s librarian, I’m also doing magic.
Way too often, even among colleagues in my field, I’ve heard youth services dismissed as “getting paid to play” or “reading books below kindergarten level”; and for way too long, I underestimated myself enough to buy into it. The thing is, though, that it takes work to guide kids and families to magical reading moments. Some of it is work we can learn how to do in classes or professional development sessions. But if a lot of it is also work many of us do intuitively, with whatever combinations of playfulness and people skills and passion come most naturally to us — and, well, that just makes it even more magical, doesn’t it?
That means when we can find the words to share the actions behind great librarianship, we’re writing magic spells. Here’s the one I wrote up for my friend. I’d love to hear one of yours.
- One library
- One or more children
- Welcome the child to your library as if they are Carrie Bradshaw and you are the head salesperson at Prada. You are overjoyed to see them! It’s been far too long since they’ve been here, even if they’re visiting for the very first time! What are they here for today? Perhaps something bright red in a size seven? Why, this just came in from Paris! (If this sounds like it would ring false, consider whether perhaps, instead of an exuberant Prada salesman, you are a soft-spoken gallery docent, a gruff cheesemonger, or the mysterious keeper of a greenhouse. What matters is to show that at this moment, finding this child a book is the most important and exciting thing in the world to you.)
- Ask: “What’s the last book you read and loved?” This is an extraordinarily powerful magic incantation. Unlike “How old are you?”, it gives the child a chance to reveal their reading level independently of what you might imagine someone their age to be capable of. Unlike anything you might assume, intentionally or not, based on the child’s skin color or gender presentation, it tells you what the actual young person in front of you is interested in. And unlike “What kind of book would you like to read?”, it’s specific. People are less likely to shrug and draw a blank when you ask them less open-ended questions, even if they have to think about it for a second. (And if they do? Wait as long as they need you to.)
- Sometimes, however, the child still won’t know how to answer. In this case, go “Hmmmmmmmmm,” like you’ve been presented with a fascinating puzzle to investigate. Which you have. As needed, ask follow-up questions that will reveal more about the child’s skill in reading and areas of interest, such as: “What grade are you in? Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Do you like chapter books? Do you like dogs?”
- Based on the information you’ve now gathered, present Choices. Say why you’re choosing those Choices, too. “Ooo, if you like funny books, I bet you’d love Dog Man” or “This one miiiiight be a little easy for you, but take a look and tell me what you think.” Watch. Listen.
- Should the child not seem interested in any of these first few Choices, ask why. Maybe it looks too hard. Maybe it looks boring. Maybe it just looks like it’s for another kid, not them. Whatever they tell you will tell you more about the book just out of reach that is for them. Your magic spell hasn’t failed; it just isn’t over.
- When you and the child find a promising book, they may need to check it out tout de suite and rush off on their way. But if you’re really lucky, they might have time to linger, and you might too. That’s when you get to ask the most magical question of all: “Why don’t we read it together?”