Welcome to the 49th Teachers COVID–19 Teacher Diary, a blog series that takes a look at how teachers and librarians are coping with the pandemic.
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Written by Linda Ludke, Collections Management Librarian, London Public Library
It has now been over eight weeks since my public library closed its physical doors—but our virtual doors are always open. I’ve found some of the connection that I was pining for in my last post by working on our online book and reader matchmaker service called Personal Picks. Families write in asking for book suggestions, and I’ve been having a ball sending email letter replies and chatting about books.
I’ve always loved writing letters, from formal thank you cards, to notes scribbled on ripped-out binder paper passed around in class, to fan mail (Timothy Findley and Carol Shields wrote me back!). I gleefully collected pen pals the way other kids collected puffy stickers. When I think about it, writing a letter is like telling a story—you play around with ways to hold a reader’s attention, and figure out form and tone of voice. My pen pals and I exchanged questions and answers, and I had wide-ranging conversations with people I would never meet in person. And it is always fun to get a pleasant surprise addressed just to you.
The online Personal Picks form is specifically designed so kids can let us know their age, grade, some favourite books they’ve read, or what topics they are really into. We wanted to avoid using library jargon, because offering to do “reader’s advisory” usually garners blank stares—let’s just say “we can help you find a good book to read.” Genres can mean different things to different readers too, so instead of using vocabulary that might be confusing, we offer a checklist that kids can tick off to indicate all of the kinds of books they like to read, from stories with lots of action and suspense, to stories about different worlds and universes. All reading levels and interests are welcomed.
The letter that kids get in return isn’t an anonymous, canned reply generated by an algorithm. I’m a reader and fan of children’s literature myself, so I can relate to the excitement of discovering a new author or series. I do my research, including using the wealth of resources on 49th Kids, and comb through my mental catalogue of books read. I reply via my own work email address and include four or five suggestions, along with a conversational, blurby description of each book. Sometimes I toss in a knock knock joke as a P.S. if they say they like funny books. Nothing beats talking about books, and I extend a genuine invitation to let me know if the suggestions do or do not pique their interest at this time. Kids can send me suggestions of books to purchase for the library too.
I hope the readers who write in know that they have my focused attention and I am listening to them. There’s a real, live person on the other side of the web form, and also a fellow reader who is cheering loudly for them, waving a bookmark in the air. I really believe that if a child says they aren’t interested in reading, it means they haven’t found the right book yet.
There’s a leap of faith involved in the process for everyone too. Some kids say, almost apologetically, that they haven’t read anything for awhile, and I want to reassure them that’s okay and no one is judging or keeping a tally. I fret that my enthusiasm might be too much for some (I must limit the number of exclamation marks I use!). But there’s an exciting spirit of possibility whenever I hear another “ding” in my inbox.
Here are some recent successful book and reader matches:
A fantasy reader is absorbed in The Magpie’s Library by Kate Blair. This middle grade novel thoughtfully explores losing yourself (perhaps literally) in a book. I love this sentence: “Everyone had a story; everyone had a world within them, a struggle hidden from the eyes of others.”
A young fan of spooky stories is excited to get goosebumps (but not nightmares) from Jeff Szpirglas’s Tales from the Fringes of Fear. Spines are also tingling reading about the restless spirits on Briar Patch Farm in Joel Sutherland’s Haunted: The House Next Door.
A grandmother wrote in for some suggestions to read over the phone to her 10-year-old-mystery-loving granddaughter who lives several provinces away. They are now enjoying the red herrings (and cute dogs) in Sylvia McNicoll’s The Best Mistake Mystery, and chapter by chapter, are solving a case along with Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen in Marthe Jocelyn’s The Body Under the Piano.
October Schwartz, the goth Nancy Drew in Evan Munday’s Dead Kid Detective Agency, is a new favourite character for a 12-year-old who is now already on the third book in the series and commented, “It has all my favourite things: history, mystery and darkness!"
A parent was looking for some birthday book ideas for a graphic novel-loving reader who needed a diversion. I sang the praises of the stunning Operatic written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Bryon Eggenschwiler; and the swash-buckling Tower of Treasure by Scott Chantler, the first in his Joe Shuster award-winning Three Thieves series.
A teen looking for a suspenseful read is immersed in the difficult life of constant surveillance in 1980s East Germany depicted in The House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker, and in the tautly written, deliciously twisty psychological thriller, Beware That Girl by Teresa Toten.
And another teen, looking for realistic fiction that can make your heart ache, is finding the original and authentic voices of Lucky Robinson, a 15-year-old who is bounced around the foster care system in Melanie Florence’s Just Lucky, and of T---, a 13-year-old who has affecting reasons for leaving his full name out of the narrative in Emil Sher’s Young Man with Camera, to be thought-provokingly memorable.
I’ll close with a little note:
Dear library community,
I can’t wait until we can also continue our conversations about books in person once again.
Linda Ludke is a Collections Management Librarian at London Public Library. In her 29 years at LPL, her focus has been on Children's Services. She reviews children’s books for Quill & Quire, CM: Canadian Review of Materials, and the National Reading Campaign.