Many of us think of librarians as the people who told us to be quiet when we were kids. That was what Carmen Agra Deedy thought. The author of The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! and several other acclaimed books for children is one of the foremost storytellers in the United States. When she was a child, it was a librarian who nurtured her love of books.
Because April 16 is National Librarian Day, we thought this would be the perfect time to speak up—and sing like Carmen’s fictional rooster—about the crucial role that librarians play in all of our lives, especially children who find themselves alone and afraid.
When Carmen was just seven and a new immigrant from Cuba, she made her first visit to the public library in her Georgia town. “I had been abandoned for the day to the indifferent care of my big stinky sister,” the author jokingly recalled on our Scholastic Reads podcast.
The big stinky sister, 14, shoved the noisy little sister into the library with the promise that it had air conditioning. “Behave,” Carmen was told, “or she will get you!”
Inside, Carmen found an imposing librarian with perfectly coiffed hair behind an “ocean of a desk.”
“Come here, little girl,” the librarian said. “I’ve not seen you in this library before.”
“I don’t like no books,” young Carmen replied in her thick Cuban accent. The librarian’s smile evaporated.
“If I had taken a rod out of the card catalog and stabbed her through the heart,” Carmen recalled, “she could not have looked more stricken.”
“The best books break our hearts”
It was just a matter of finding the right book, librarian “Miss Mary Mack” explained. “From the minute you were born—every child was born—there was a book in this world that had been written for their mind and no other. And if that book and that child find one another, the angels sing.”
And if they don’t?
“Well,” said the librarian, “I consider that one of the greatest tragedies that could ever befall a human being.”
With Miss Mary Mack’s help, Carmen discovered Charlotte’s Web, “and it changed my life forever.”
But the book also broke the little girl’s heart.
“The best books break our hearts,” Miss Mary Mack explained. She then introduced young Carmen to Anne of Green Gables.
“That’s what librarians do, the good ones,” Carmen said. “They don’t choose any book. They know the child.”
“That ‘heartprint’ book”
As we celebrate the role of librarians, we remember that there are countless stories like Carmen’s—including stories that other authors and educators on the podcast have told us.
Former teacher and librarian John Schumacher, a.k.a. “Mr. Schu,” echoed Carmen’s observations about the right book for the right child. “When I think about recommending books to kids, I want to know about them,” he told us. “I want to know about their reading lives.”
Mr. Schu is now the Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs. “I want to know about that book where kids felt as though they could not put the book down,” he said with the passion of a true librarian. “That [is the] ‘heartprint’ book, the book that’s going to stay with you forever. One of my goals is to help students find their own ‘heartprint’ books.”
When Kelly Yang was a small child, she and her parents left China for America and the promise of a better life. Kelly did not speak a word of English. Her parents were “so busy trying to put food on the table,” she recalled, “that they didn’t even have time to ask me what my homework was.”
Still, the award-winning author of Front Desk would become so accomplished that Harvard Law School admitted her when she was 17. “I was really blessed to have amazing teachers and librarians who saw something in me that no one else—even my parents—saw,” she said. “Literally, they changed my life.”
“A wealth of knowledge”
Everyone who knows the value of helping children develop a love of reading knows the value of librarians. Yet school libraries and public libraries across the country are under siege, often the first victims of budget cuts.
“That’s so short-sighted, particularly in communities that are book deserts already,” observed educator Donalyn Miller. “That has profound consequences on children in poverty and English language learners. They’re the groups of children that seem to take the biggest hit when we take the librarian out of the school.”
Donalyn is an award-winning author and teacher from Texas, as well as Scholastic Book Fairs’ Ambassador of Independent Reading Advocacy. She visited the podcast last fall with co-author Colby Sharp, a third-grade teacher and co-founder of the online community Nerdy Book Club, to talk about Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids, their powerful manifesto for literacy.
Librarians, Donalyn added, “are a wealth of knowledge—not just about books but about so much in regards to information. And that is a loss for the teachers in the school, to not have access to that expert.”
Powerhouse author James Patterson could not agree more. Over the past five years, he has teamed up with Scholastic Book Clubs, pledging millions of dollars to save school and classroom libraries. (Teachers can enter this year's Giveaway for Classroom Libraries here!)
“People don’t understand how important libraries are,” Patterson told us. “If I go in front of a big group of librarians or teachers, I’ll say: ‘I’m here to remind you . . . that you’re saving lives.’”
If we care about saving lives, then we should take a cue from the rooster. “Kee-kee-ree-KEE!” Spread the word: Librarians and libraries matter.