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Q&A: Betsy Bird, Kid Lit Star and New Evanston Librarian

The Evanston Public Library’s new collection development manager comes by way of the children’s department at the New York Public Library—and has a huge following online.

Betsy Bird   Photo: Taylor Glascock/Chicago Tribune

When the Evanston Public Library hired a new collection development manager, it landed a star in the library world: Betsy Bird, the former youth materials specialist for the New York Public Library, the prolific blogger at A Fuse 8 Production, a children’s-book blog for the School Library Journal, and the author of children’s books Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature and Giant Dance Party.

As a parent, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with children’s books—I was excited to see that my recommendation of Donald Nelson’s Sam & Emma made it into a School Library Journal post about cult children’s books—so I asked Bird, 37, about her area of expertise.

You wanted to be a librarian, but not a children’s librarian.

Initially, no. After finally realizing that I had to be a librarian, because I was ill-equipped to be anything else, I was going to be a conservator. The moment of truth came when my husband—who should be an archivist, because of the way he takes the covers off books, and is always like “don’t break the spine!"—he pointed out, “You put your coffee cup down on your book about how to preserve books.” I was like, “It’s a sign!”

It turns out, with my propensity for destroying books, I was perfect for children’s librarianship, where the books die instantaneously in the hands of very small people who tear them apart.

I’ve been grateful to children’s librarians when I’ve come in and admitted, “She kind of colored on this, I’m happy to pay for it,” and they’re like, “It’s cool.”

That’s why the the budget for children’s books is bigger than other budgets in the library. We understand the turnover rate is very high. If I had an unlimited supply of money I’d replace all the board books. Because they almost instantly go blehhhh with grossness.

You just took a couple classes in being a children’s librarian, and a lightning bolt hit?

I took two, technically [at The College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota]. One in materials, and that was where the lightning bolt hit: This is what I’m meant to be. But I had to take the other one, which was working the desk. That was invaluable. The books are one thing, but you need to learn how to perform. I was an introvert prior to being a children’s librarian, and you have to tap into your performance gene. You have to entertain the hardest audience there is—if the kids are bored, they are not going to humor you. They will check out.

On top of that, you need to answer the reference questions when the four-year-old walks up and says, "I want the book that’s orange about the woman with the white hat, SHE’S NOT A PILGRIM, just Baby Jesus and the baker.” I was like, anything else? “The pasta pot.” Oh, it’s  Strega Nona! I have no idea where the Baby Jesus came from. You have to learn how to do that.

Were you reading children’s books before you had kids? [Bird has a 4-year-old and a 16-month-old.]

Oh, yeah. When I was in college, I went to England for a semester. My mom, who worked in an independent bookstore in Kalamazoo, sent me an email saying, “Hey, while you’re there"—and this was in 1999—"get me the second Harry Potter book." Harry Potter hadn’t debuted yet in America at this point. So I walk into a Waterstone’s and asked, "Do you have something by a Harry Potter?” And they pointed me to "children’s." 

I got it and read it and thought, “This is amazing!" And I came back proselytizing Harry Potter. Everyone thought I was crazy. Then it was on the cover of Time. I was right all along.

I imagine it would be difficult to review and buy children’s books. You almost need a sixth sense for what a child is going to love.

That’s exactly it. You want to criticize on an adult level. Right now we’re seeing all these breaking-down-the-fourth-wall books, which sometimes work really, really well with kids, and they love them. Like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus [by Mo Willems]. Press Here by Herve Tullet, probably the most successful import we’ve ever seen, basically turns the book into an app [in it, readers are asked to press different dots on a page. When you turn the page, the dots have moved around, leading a child to believe they effected that]. I’ve had kids ask me afterwards, “How does it work?” Well, I pretend to do stuff and then I turn the page, but I’m not going to tell them that.

What happens when you have your own branch?

It’s unnerving. It depends on what time of year. If it’s summer, you’ve got kids in your room the minute the door opens. All day. Sometimes it’s the same kids there all day, every day. You’re a free babysitter, unless you have an unattended child policy, but that’s not practicable in big urban locations. If it’s during the school year, you’re kind of in luck—you can kind of ease into it. Then when 3 p.m. comes, bam, you’re hit. But prior to that you can prepare your programs and story times.

What do patrons not see? We see story time, and programming, but what don’t we understand about the job?

You have to do a lot of prep. Especially if you’re doing crafts. One craft prep can take half a day. You’re going out and doing a lot of school visits. A lot of off-site visits. You have to keep your room in order; it depends on whether you have an assistant. If you are doing the shelving, you’re doing nothing else. You have to do your displays. You’re possibly doing your own processing, putting labels on all the books coming in. You’re weeding, removing all the gross books.

And then you have to keep up with everything that’s new: the newsletters, the blogs, the listservs—they’re still hot, who knew? You’re reading the magazines and reviews. It’s busy. I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff.

I didn’t appreciate how much is going on in the professional community until I wrote about Charlemae Hill Rollins, who was a librarian in Bronzeville. She was one of the real pioneers in diversifying children’s books. She was writing for professional journals, going to conferences, writing list-oriented books on how to diversify your collection.

Right now we’re seeing a push for We Need Diverse Books. This started about two years ago, when Walter Dean Myers wrote a piece for the New York Times. I think that was the impetus, honestly. I’d written a piece half a year before where I looked to see how many middle-grade books, for nine- to 12-year-olds, starred black boys. In a year of 500 or 600 of those novels, I found six, and five were written by celebrities. It was the strangest thing.

The year after that it got a lot better. There’s this new blog out now, called Reading While White, white librarians commenting on a lot of these issues. A recent report just found that diversity hasn’t increased. We thought from all this it would. We’re not seeing a huge uptick.

From what I’ve read, and from what I recall of what Rollins had written, I think the numbers are similar to the 1940s.

It was really high in the ’60s and ’70s. Suddenly you saw a ton of diversity. And it’s been going down ever since. But I hold out hope. It’s much harder for a publisher… I think even five years ago, it was very easy for a publisher to have an entire season’s worth of books where there was nobody but white kids. Now they’re getting called on it a lot more. Even then, they’ll have a whole season and there’ll be one book about a kid who’s not white. But at least there’s that one book! We got one!

It’s interesting to watch children’s books mirror societal trends.

Right now the hot middle-grade book is George, about a transgender child. She wants to play Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, but she’s in the body of a boy, she’s never come out to anybody about this, and it’s written for… George, I think, is in fourth grade in the book. We’ve never really seen anything on that; it’s on the much younger side. It’s very interesting. We’re maybe going to see more of those types of books. We’ve seen it on the young adults side, but not on the kid’s side before.

One of my favorite things about being a parent reading to my child is noticing the things I hadn’t noticed, and how they might have influenced me in certain directions. I write a lot about transit and infrastructure; maybe Richard Scarry pushed me that way. One of my favorites is The Fire Cat; I didn’t realize until now that it’s about, well, welfare-to-work.

My favorite is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As a kid, you’re like, “Awesome fantasy, awesome fantasy!” As an adult, you’re like, “Whoa, Christian allegory.” I remember my mom telling me “the Lion is Jesus.” OK, the lion can be Jesus if he wants to be; all I know is it’s an awesome adventure.

Going back to the diversity conversation, one thing people have been pushing for is the idea that when you’re giving books to children when they are born, or for birthdays, always include one diverse book. I think they call it the birthday plan. I think that’s a far more practical way of trying to promote diverse books. There should be more published, sure, but people actually need to buy them. That’s the problem we’ve hit—people will say, “Well, there aren’t many children of color in my community, so I don’t need to buy these books.” Windows and mirrors, dude, windows and mirrors. These are windows—other people out there!

I was once giving a parent some picture books, and she looked at one of them with an African American and said, “We’re looking for something a little less urban." So I got her The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County, about a little black girl who lives in the country. Take that—it’s very rural.

Do you see any difference in what boys and girls want to read?

Boys come in and want non-fiction. Not all boys; you get your Lord of the Rings boys. The number-one request, when you have a huge group of second-graders, is boys will run up to you and be like, “Shark books! Where are they?" Because second grade is too old for dinosaurs. Shark books, snake books, scorpion books. Anything that stings or bites or kills. They’re very into that. Girls like sharks too, but not to the same extent.

And, of course, The Guinness Book of World Records.


To this day. That guy with the crazy fingernails is still the number-one draw.


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