Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sharks, Vets, and Junie B.: From One Thing to the Next in the Children’s Department

by Rebecca Donnelly

“Can someone tell me the title of their favorite book?”

I’m standing in front of a group of 25 second graders, trying to set up a concrete introduction to finding books in the library. Based on past experience, two of the most likely answers to this question are “Junie B. Jones!” and “Sharks!” Well, that’s a good start. I can work with it.

“Does anyone know who writes the Junie B. Jones books?” If someone comes up with “Barbara Park,” I can ask what letter Park starts with and we’ll be off to the fiction shelves.

“Octopuses!” The really eager kid in the back row is still thinking of favorite books.

“Tell you what—we’ll look for sharks and octopuses in just a minute. Does anyone know who writes Junie B.?”


Ask any preschool or elementary school teacher, and they can tell you that the concept of transition is not just a procedure for moving the kids smoothly from one activity to the next. It’s a form of mental discipline on the adult’s part too and it applies to all sorts of work with children. Working in the children’s department of a public library is a daily series of ups, downs, crossovers, and stealth maneuvers. You have programs to plan, meetings to attend, a collection to weed, and at some point you’ll deal with the toilet paper tubes that keep appearing on your desk because months ago you said you needed boxes for something and the staff seems to associate “youth services” with “collections of random garbage.”

School tours, as a type of command performance, require particularly quick thinking. Last Halloween, knowing that we had six classes coming in back to back, a coworker and I dressed like veterinarians, grabbed our stuffed animals, and marshaled the kids in front of the library.

“Welcome to the animal hospital!”

“This is the library, silly,” said the kids. At least the adults laughed. On to the next bit.

“Do you think it’s okay to eat in the library?”

Pious expressions all around. “Oh, no.”

Gotcha! “Guess what? This isn’t your mama’s library. You can eat in here. We even have vending machines.”

This has the kids running to find the vending machines—“Hold on, guys, we’re headed this way.”

Now for the serious part. “We have a lot of books in the library, right? So we have to organize them all very carefully. How do you think we organize our books?”

“You could do it by size!”

“By color!”

“Put all the ones you like on one shelf and the ones you don’t like on a different shelf!”

I like that idea. But this is the library, after all. “Let me tell you how we do it here. Can anyone tell me the difference between fiction and nonfiction?”

Several hands go up. “Nonfiction is true, and fiction isn’t true.”

The inevitable truth discussion. I know what the kids mean by true—a fact, an encyclopedia entry, something they can measure, not something made up. I can’t get sidetracked by trying to define true—“Are you telling me that what Ramona Quimby feels when Beezus makes fun of her isn’t true? You’re breaking my heart, guys.” So I choose a different definition.

“Let’s say that nonfiction is mostly facts, and fiction is mostly made up stories.”

And then I go over the Dewey Decimal Classification, telling a story about an alien coming to earth and trying to find out what this place is all about, or about a guy in a cave trying to figure out the same thing. We do a simple search, maybe for Junie B., or sharks, or octopuses, and all the while my mind is running back and forth wondering if I really answered this or that question as well as I could have, or if I’m doing justice to the library in these kids’ eyes. Am I showing it in all its glory, or am I standing around dressed like a vet for nothing? I'm never sure. The kid who comes back the next week with his dad reminds me of his school visit by saying, “Hey, where’s your stuffed cat? I wanted to play with it.”

My favorite part of the tour is when we pass the children’s reference desk and I point out whoever happens to be sitting there. “You can look for stuff on the shelves,” I say, “or you can use the catalog to try to find stuff. But if you’re really having a problem and you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can always ask the person sitting at this desk. Even if they look like they’re busy doing something else, just come and ask—our number one job is to answer your questions. That’s why we’re here.”

And it’s true, by any definition of the word. No matter how many other things we might be trying to accomplish, no matter how hard it might be to stop doing one thing and start something else, it really is why we’re here. For me, the library is a place of transitioning from one task to the next, and frequently from one level to the next as I go from doing an infant program to talking up a teen book. But those transitions aren’t hard. Just when I’m running out of enthusiasm for editing our online book news, a child might come up and ask me hesitantly for a story about a "dusty row." Once I figure out that it’s really The Tale of Despereaux, we’re off—and I tell them to keep the questions coming.

Rebecca Donnelly is a first year student at SJSU-SLIS. She has been volunteering and working in libraries since 2004. Her writing has been published in Public Libraries, Info Career Trends and on, and she reviews children’s books for School Library Journal.


  1. Your post makes me look forward to becoming a children's librarian,...which is funny because I'm not planning on becoming a children's librarian. Thank you for your post and the reminder that librarians should look forward to those opportunites to drop whatever "important" thing they are working on and help a patron.

  2. I love working with elementary students in our school library media center! When we have the "truth" talk we start with my favorite section the "Everybody" section because picture books are for everybody and there is nothing "easy" about the extravagant vocabulary and the intricate stories shelved there. Then we have the Fiction section where the chapter books are. Stories so long they have to be divided into sections or chapters. And then the "nonfiction" the "not-fiction" the non chapter books section! I don't know about you but if nonfiction are just the "true" books, then where's that big bad wolf, Paul Bunyan, and Garfield? Nonfiction books all have numbers and are organized with a home number to keep them all together in their own section. So nonfiction has numbers, E is for Everybody, and F is for fiction. And we revisit this over and over through the year and more!