March 06


Labels That Stick by Sandy Deyoe

I’ve gone by a lot of different titles in my adult life: teacher, outreach worker, mom, support services manager, that kid’s worker, volunteer, book lady.  Most of my labels didn’t come close to describing my actual work.  I had whole days in one job where I could have been called “the driver” or “meeting mediator,” and in another where Fridays regularly meant that callers would start sobbing just after I answered the phone in the morning, finishing just minutes before the weekly company conference call.


Like many of you, “book lover” is one of my chosen labels.  After leaving social services work during the economic downturn and trying some different things which turned out NOT to be my dream jobs, I’ve ended up working part-time at a public library and volunteering in an elementary school.  I mostly do adult services at the library, but at school, I get to be “the book lady.”  Every week, I bring a bag of books and bookmarks to talk to a fifth grade class.  Through surveys, I find out which genres, books and authors they’re interested in and tailor the lists to what they love, sneaking in books they might not know but might come to love, and talking about authors, too.   I share what’s in their school library, as well as books they can find at the public library nearby.  They share their favorites and their thoughts on my choices, often making connections and comments that bring a whole new light to a topic or a character.  They advocate for books  which I’ve left off and are vocal about what they don’t like, and by the end of the year, when I’ve supposedly run out of new lists – is that really possible for a true book lover?– they make their own lists to share, giving us even more to talk about and much for me to praise.


After my 15 minutes of “book lady” are up, I go on to reading with students and working on writing.  In that one-on-one time, I have the chance to get to know the kids and imagine even more books that will capture their imaginations.  Sometimes if I find out they haven’t read something I think they’ll like, I’ll bring a copy to class the next week.  At other times during the week, I work with third graders on personal narratives, make last-minute copies, or help out in the school library.


Several years ago, when my son was still in elementary school and we were mentoring a boy about his age, I wrote and self-published a book, a mystery involving them and the school’s ghost.  I gave a copy of it to my son’s teacher, since she figured prominently in the book, and I thought she’d get a kick out of it.  Before long, other teachers had heard about it, the principal “needed” his own copy, and the school library wanted it for their shelves.  Over time, I finished five books for the school.  They get very popular with second graders about this time of year, mostly, I think, because they recognize so much about themselves in the stories.  They know the teachers, they know the building, and they’ve seen the stairwell with the secret entrance to the “ghost council.”


So, I am fortunate to occasionally also take on the “writer” label.  In my case, I use any opportunity to talk about the school ghost stories as a way to remind kids that if I can do it, they can.  I am just somebody’s mom who decided to create a story for two of her favorite kids.  They could do the same for their friends, their parents, their teacher or the whole world.


Sometimes labels can be gifts.  When I was unemployed and discouraged about what was next in my professional life, teachers in that school saw potential in me I didn’t see in myself and asked me to help out.  Over time, those experiences and relationships evolved into labels that really stick to me, labels I love.  I use my “book lover” and “writer” and “book lady” skills for many things in my life outside the school now – even at work! — and they all enrich my life.  And I know there are people out there like me, waiting to be “the book lady” or some other great label for the person brave enough to just ask them.  Find them!  Ask them!  Send them on the path to a new label!


Sandy Deyoe is a library worker, school volunteer, writer and label lover who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and occasionally blogs at