This is a guess post by Rita Meade. Rita is a librarian who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She blogs about her (often crazy, always entertaining) library adventures at Screwy Decimal. You can find her on Twitter at @ScrewyDecimal.
There is no Hippocratic Oath for public librarians. There are standards by which we operate, of course, and “core competencies” designed by the American Library Association that we use to structure our sometimes unstructured day-to-day activities. There’s even what I feel to be an unspoken “Librarian Code” that guides us through the grey areas with honesty, compassion, and an aggressive pursuit of information. Still, there are really no hard and fast rules when it comes to one of the most important aspects of our jobs: readers’ advisory.
As a children’s librarian, it’s my duty (and joy) to suggest books for many different purposes: books for school reports, books for free-reading, books to help with language acquisition, books to improve test scores, and even books that will “help my kid to stop hating reading.” Talk about pressure.
Here’s my deep, dark secret, though, and the reason I might be a terrible librarian: sometimes I suggest fiction books for no other reason than because I loved them when I was a kid. And by “when I was a kid,” I mean pre-1993-ish. (Yes, I’m old, let’s move on.) By recommending these books, it’s almost like I’m trying to relive my own reading experiences through the children at the library. On the occasions that they do take my advice and check out the books I push upon them, I’m actually a little bit jealous of them for getting to experience these literary gems for the first time.
This is not to say that I don’t recommend contemporary fiction books that I think are great. Don’t worry, authors and publishing people, I do. If a kid comes up to me with an idea of what they want, we have a discussion and I try to find a book best suited for his or her needs. But if the kid is flailing wildly in the darkness just for “something good” to read, my first instinct is to go to my mental “favorite books from when I was a kid” list. It’s an instinct I need to actively fight against sometimes in the interest of good librarianship, but I hope that my actions allow kids to find wonderful books that they might not have picked up otherwise.
Below are five books I loved as a kid and some general reasons that I loved them. Disclaimer: this is by no means an exhaustive list, and admittedly doesn’t reflect much diversity or many strong male protagonists. But what can I say? My pre-teen self liked what she liked.
I adored all of Roald Dahl’s books, but this one was my definitive favorite (with a close tie between Matilda and The BFG for second place). There was a magic, there was mystery, there was danger. Some might say that there are misogynistic undertones, but honestly, I didn’t pick up on them when I was a kid and instead of hating the witches, I wanted to be one of them. The power they had, my God, the POWER.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
Harriet was kind of a role model for me for a while. She was cool, she was secretive, she was a writer, and at the tender age of 11, she was a damn spy. But she wasn’t infallible, as illustrated by the friendships she damaged with her spying notebook, and she learned some hard lessons. Ultimately, though, Harriet discovered that she could use her writing skills for good instead of evil, and this revelation had a positive impact on my own perceptions of writing and the power that it has.
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger (1986)
I devoured Paula Danziger’s books when I was a kid. The dialogue was realistic, the issues were relatable, and there was a lot of humor and emotion in the writing. This book was special because it showed the struggles of a girl who was trying to find her unique identity when she didn’t have much control over the circumstances of her life…not to mention the fact that it TOOK PLACE IN OUTER SPACE.
I loved the “Anastasia” books because I could relate to 10-year-old Anastasia in a lot of ways when I was that age: I was smart, but sort of awkward. I liked to write poetry. I had crushes on boys who didn’t know I was alive. Lowry’s depiction of preadolescence through Anastasia’s eyes is honest, funny, and was comforting to me when I was young. Seeing the quirky Anastasia eventually learn to accept and even like herself gave me the confidence to start to do the same.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
Sci-fi, alternate universes, government conspiracy, feminism, family, tesseracts, telepathy, evil, alien creatures, love. ‘Nuff said.
Okay, perhaps the act of recommending some of my favorite books from when I was a kid doesn’t make me a terrible librarian. After all, these books helped shape who I am today as a reader, as a librarian, and as a person. Plus, I believe they have held up over the years and present themes and situations that are still relevant to today’s youth. (At the very least, they are well-written, thought-provoking, and entertaining.) So please, feel free to wax nostalgic with me. What are some of your favorite books from when you were young – whenever that may have been – that you think kids might enjoy today?