Jennifer Hubert Swan is the director of library services at Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in Manhattan. She served on the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award Committee and chaired the 2012 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults committee. She also teaches young adult literature and youth library programming in Pratt Institute’s School of Information and writes about books for teens on Reading Rants, her blog.
Katie Richert is the assistant head of youth services at the Bloomingdale Public Library in a Chicago suburb. She is a member of the 2017 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. When she isn’t reading books for committee work, she says, she is “storytiming” it up with preschoolers around town.
We introduced Swan and Richert electronically and asked them to exchange their opinions and “field notes” as they considered this question: What kinds of books do you wish you could find more of for your collection?
Swan: Hi Katie, nice to “e-meet” you! I’m pretty excited PW has asked us what types of books we wished we had in our respective libraries, because as a frequent classroom book talker, this is something I think about a lot. The first item on my wish list would be more psychological thrillers like titles by Lois Duncan and more straight-up genre horror like Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series.
My seventh and eighth graders can’t get enough of Lois Duncan’s books, and I replace them in paperback almost yearly. They also make for the best book-talks; each one has a hook that pulls middle schoolers right in, whether it’s a teacher’s accidental death or a spooky boarding school with only four students.
I also wish there were more genre horror for seventh to 10th grade, along the lines of Brenna Yovanoff, Rick Yancey, and Lauren Myracle’s Bliss. Middle schoolers are constantly looking for a “scary” book, and it would be wonderful for those who are not quite ready for Stephen King to have more choices.
Your turn—what would be first on your wish list?
Richert: For me, in a public library, I get asked a lot about books that deal with certain issues or events. Although this will skew young for you, I get asked a lot about books about routines or following routines, especially from the preschool parents. Or a teacher will come into the library in need of a book to explain [the concept of] personal space to her classroom. There are not picture books about those specific topics, even though parents and teachers need a way to explain them to their children. Simple books on things all children have to go through but don’t always understand would be very helpful for me in serving my patrons. I am positive that this is the same for older kids as well. School-age kids ask about cyber-
bullying books—which there is more fiction about now but not enough—or even books about getting cut from baseball tryouts, and I have to search to find something that might sort of work for them. Sometimes kids just want to read about others going through something that they are going through.
And since you mention Lois Duncan’s books, I sometimes think there is a desperate need to update covers. An old, dated cover of a great book is a big reason it sits on the shelf untouched. I would buy and replace a book that I can book-talk easily and know the kids would love if the copy on my shelf is looking dated. If a great or classic story isn’t circulating, I need to find a way to make it move or it faces weeding. Updating book covers is a way to push a book to a new generation of kids that might otherwise not find it.
And I also liked what you said about scary books. I think horror is making its rounds again as the “it” genre. A little bit of horror goes a long way for kids. And in middle school, knowing what is appropriate for your readers is important. I think that is something that publishers could expand upon. During the year my horror/scary books have good circulation, but during September and October I cannot keep them on the shelves! Now that dystopias and vampire novels are not coming out in droves, I think it would be a great thing to expand upon all year long.
Swan: Yes, I agree we need more thoughtfully produced, high-quality picture books about sensitive topics for young children. We have all kinds of families in my community, including lesbian and gay ones, adoptive and multiracial ones, so the need for more picture books depicting families of all shapes, sizes, genders, and configurations is always great. I mentioned recently at an author event at ALA what I would really like to see is a well-done picture book about IVF, sperm donors, and their place in the modern family. And for anyone shaking their head in disbelief right now, I promise I have had a patron ask for such a book!
In response to your comment about covers, I also agree and just wanted to point out that Little, Brown republished Lois Duncan’s entire body of work in 2011 with gorgeous new covers that really help me sell them during book-talks. When it comes to a middle school audience, covers certainly count and can make or break a book’s circulation stats.
In fiction, I could always use books featuring more characters of color in every genre: mystery, fantasy, and contemporary realism—not just historical. I’ve also been thrilled with the number of transgender/gender-fluid books that have come out for tweens and teens (George; Gracefully Grayson; Symptoms of Being Human) and hope to see even more. And when it comes to nonfiction, I’m always looking for primary-source unheard or nontraditional voices from history. My school’s humanities curriculum focuses on social justice, and we are always looking for firsthand accounts of folks who may not have made the textbook but who were still on the front lines of history.
Richert: I like what you said about picture books and having a patron asking for certain topical books that we do not have enough of on our shelves. The makeup of a family, or possibly how we make families, as well, has changed so much. Picture books that explain those topics are needed and asked for. The first step of a child figuring out who they are is finding out where they came from. That is hard to explain sometimes, and parents, as well as librarians, would love to be able to have material to give them. I also like how different types of families are now integrated into picture books without need for explanation. Children with two dads or children who come from a mixed-culture family are not the story itself, but just part of the background sometimes. I think that is progress, and the kids don’t even notice the difference.
And moving on to the middle grade audience, I’d like publishers to know that the kids love a series, but a great standalone can still have the same impact on a reader. Yes, Rick Riordan’s multiple series are still being checked out and have great circulation numbers. But I was surprised by the love that Roller Girl [by Victoria Jameson] has gotten. I cannot keep that on the shelf! That one book has lead to great discussions with both boys and girls, more interest in our graphic novels, and more interest in Roller Derby—yes, Roller Derby! I think there is always a push to leave a cliffhanger ending and for authors to continue the next part of the saga in the next book. However, that can take years to actually happen sometimes. A satisfying ending at the end of a singular book can be even more important to a reader.
I, too, have loved how books are now featuring diversity and different sexual orientations in all genres. I think that is showing how much these things affect kids and teens and need to be part of every story. I also have liked that there have been more books focusing on mental illness. It was something that might have been taboo before to talk about, but it affects a lot of people. I like how there are both books describing living with mental illness and also living with a family member facing this same issue. I think showcasing this in young adult or middle grade literature is bringing it out for discussion. That could mean a world of difference to a teen facing mental illness or dealing with mental illness at home.
Swan: While on the topic of diversity in general, it would be so nice to see some middle-grade and YA fiction that included characters grappling with issues of spirituality, especially Christianity. While we see titles where teens are exploring their Jewish (Never Mind the Goldbergs; Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) or Muslim (Does My Head Look Big in This?; I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister) culture or roots, very rarely is Christianity discussed in a mainstream, secular way in popular fiction (Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande being a notable exception). When we think about Christianity in YA fiction, the titles that come to mind tend to be about cults (Armageddon Summer; The Chosen One; The Patron Saint of Butterflies; etc.) or priests behaving inappropriately (Stained; This Gorgeous Game; The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean). Where is the nuanced Christian YA version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret? I’d like to see more characters struggling with their Christian belief of God in mainstream YA or middle school fiction, which is a realistic experience that many adolescents go through as they try to define themselves.
And on a lighter note, more smart, humorous books for the middle school set (A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Schwa Was Here are my go-to book-talk choices for middle schoolers and I could hand-sell a library-full of more titles like those) and more YA gross-out, laugh-out-loud books like Don Calame’s Swim the Fly series. Every year I win the respect of an eighth-grade boy when I recommend those books to him. There is no bodily function that Calame is afraid to write about, which makes for some hilariously horrifying situations that seem to be especially appreciated by eighth-grade boys.
Richert: As someone who went to Catholic school their entire life (through [getting my Masters of Library and Information Science]) I am shocked that when I think about books dealing with questioning Christianity, I can’t think of many titles. I think there are more books that deal with people of different faiths discovering romance than there are of someone just questioning religion or Christianity. I think picture books nowadays do a good job describing differences of religion to children. There are some lovely books describing Ramadan for those who don’t understand why their friends of different religious beliefs can’t eat during the day. And the picture books featuring and explaining Islam to children have become more readily available. If now the older set could get some more books like that!
Bodily function is something that can never get old. And it works for the preschooler, teenager, and the parent. I also see (and appreciate) all the underwear and poop books for preschoolers. I am doing an underwear story time in the summer and can’t wait to get all those giggles! Realistic fiction for the middle schooler/high schooler has also, like you mentioned, gotten funnier. Because life at that age can be ridiculous—or at least ridiculous when you look back at it. And those titles can easily be book-talked. It is easier to sell a book with a funny aspect to a child who doesn’t want to read a book at all. At least it will make them laugh. And that is an easy way to get them on to other books.
One last thing I’d like to mention is “browsability” (which apparently isn’t a word but I’m making it one). At the public library, as I am sure is probably the case in a school library, making a book relevant and seen is how you get it off the shelf. I want to be able to put a book I purchased in a monthly display, in a pulled-out section I’m featuring, and on as many bibliographies that I can. I want to get my money’s worth. I also want kids to be able to pick it off an endcap or when looking through the shelves. I think design, size, and what the consumers (both the librarians and the patrons) are actually looking for from a book are things that might sometimes get overlooked by publishers.
Look for other professional roundtables featuring more insights from the school and library world soon.