At the end of the summer in 2012, I worked my last afternoon in the public library’s teen room. It had been a busy summer — as any public librarian who works with children and teens will tell you, they all are — and I was on the cusp of burnout. I’d recently enrolled in Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults and I was discovering that a full-time public service job didn’t leave me with much emotional energy to put into my writing. My then-fiance and I looked at our finances and, though things would be tight, we realized we could swing it: me, trying my hand at writing full-time.
Fast-forward nearly eight years. Today my third middle grade novel, Things You Can’t Say, hits bookstores and libraries. I’ve got another in the pipeline for next spring, Where We Used to Roam, recently sent book #5 off to my agent, and I’ve got a new notebook where I’m starting to imagine book #6. While I haven’t returned to work in a library in the interim, the enduring impact those library jobs I worked from 2006 to 2012 had on me is unmistakeable.
Things You Can’t Say opens with twelve-year-old Drew assisting the children’s librarian, Mrs. Eisenberg, with her story hour. Seeing how good he is with the little kids, she’s let him run a puppet show segment in her story hour, which has become Drew’s pride and joy. In my time as a librarian, I learned there are two kinds of kids who frequent the library. The kind who come in with their parents for fifteen minutes or so to browse and pick up some books or attend programs. And the kids who spend all afternoon there, sometimes all day. The kind for whom the library is a second home.
People who don’t spend much time in public libraries often don’t understand what purpose they serve today. “Can’t you just get books on Amazon?” they’ll say. Or, “I have an e-reader, I’m all set.” But the public library is ever so much more than a repository for books. For so many, from all walks of life, the library is a sanctuary. A place where they are treated with kindness, dignity, and respect. Librarians are part-social worker, part-teacher, part-parent, part-cat herder. Admittedly, as a teen librarian, I leaned real hard into the “cool aunt” vibe.
In the hours after school, or all day in the summer, it was hard not to notice the complex social dynamics of middle school and high school unfold right before my eyes. Even the breakup of the teen room couple! The library was a hiding place for some, and for others, a place to see and be seen.
Though the children’s librarian Mrs. Eisenberg is not a central figure in Things You Can’t Say, in small moments with Drew, I hope what comes through is that she sees him. That she recognizes his talents and helps nurture them, and that she’s cheering him along. What I loved about being a teen librarian (as opposed to a teacher) was that chance to be an adult in their life who wasn’t grading or evaluating them. But simple accepting them as they were, wanting the best for them, and helping however I could.
In crafting Drew and in writing his story, my years in the public library seeped into the text. How could they not? Even if subconsciously. In many ways, Drew is an amalgam of the kids I knew back then. “My library teens,” if you will. They left an indelible mark on me. When it came time to decide to whom I would dedicate this book, it was no question. This one was for them.
My relationship with libraries is different now. I’m not there five days out of the week anymore, but you can usually find me there at least two. I’m on a first-name basis with all the librarians at my local branch of the Cincinnati Library and it’s not uncommon to find my holds stacked on a shelf all by themselves.
Once a librarian, always a librarian, right?