Falling in Love with Picture Books by Monika Schröder
When the director of my school, the American Embassy School (AES) in New Delhi, offered me the position as elementary school librarian I didn’t want to take it. At first. It had been many years since I had added my librarian credentials to my teaching certificate and I had been teaching fourth grade for a while. I loved being a home room teacher. “But as librarian you would be doing what you love the most – connecting kids with books,” my husband said. And he was right. I took the job and already, after the first week in the library, I wondered why I had ever hesitated.
I was the elementary school librarian at AES from 2006 to 2011. The school offered an American curriculum in English, but in a truly multicultural environment. Among the 1400 students at the school, 56 languages were spoken. This multicultural environment was also reflected in my elementary school library collection. As fourth grade teacher I had been in love with middle grade fiction, but now I fell in love with picture books.
We had a large collection of folktales from around the world in picture book format and I immersed myself in those over the first few months on the job. It was a delight to read aloud and discuss traditional stories from a variety of countries with my international students. The stories showed us the human desires, follies, flaws, we all had in common. I also enjoyed talking about the morals of these tales. Whether set in ancient Asia or medieval Germany, my students always found ways to relate to them.
But books also helped us to discuss our cultural differences. One of my favorite read aloud was How my Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Freeman. Reading the book, narrated by a bright little girl who describes how her parents, an American sailor and a Japanese woman, met, generated great discussions how we all share worries not to fit in or to embarrass ourselves when confronted with new customs.
My library sessions were short. The schedule allowed only 30 minutes of library time for each of the 36 elementary school classes. I used half of that time for book talks and read-alouds and left the other half for kids to check out books. As all librarians know there is a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work for us, such as reading reviews, ordering books, weeding, helping teachers find material, supervising staff, and communicating with parents and school administrators. Fortunately, I had two assistants who helped with reading to kids and checking out books.
The school allowed me a generous budget for books. Three times a year I received an order from Follett and when the boxes were rolled into the library the kids saw me do a ‘happy dance.’ I had to pinch myself at times. Was I really being paid for selecting and buying books?
I never considered myself a talented story teller, I cannot imitate voices, nor accents. Yet, I believe that in spite of these limitations I could share my love for these stories successfully with my students.
With third grade I went on a Camping Spree with Mr. Magee, and together with first graders I chanted in unison, Don’t let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. With second graders I laughed at Scaredy Squirrel and talked about our own worries afterwards. I used Paul Zelinsky’s Swamp Angel as an example for a tall tale and while reading Dear Fish to third graders we looked for puns in the illustrations.
And how many times did I read-aloud “Move over, Rover!” to kindergartners, a lovely story with a rhymed refrain that encourages children to join in as the story progresses.
I also read picture books to older elementary students. Every year around Halloween I kicked off a month-long reading of Chris Van Allsburg books to fifth graders with The Witch’s Broom. We admired the stunning illustrations in Ed Young’s and Peter Sis’ books and became mesmerized by Laura Amy Schlitz’s retelling of Grimm’s The Bearskinner.
Even though I couldn’t read with a southern accent I enjoyed sharing the late Coleen Salley’ Epossumondas stories. The ‘noodlehead’ format transcended all cultural boundaries and appealed to everyone. As a result, the students and I became serious fans of the silly possum. From summer break I brought stuffed Epossumondas dolls and started to call the kids ‘sweet little patootie.’ I even once overheard a Korean third grader say to his Italian classmate, “You don’t have the sense you were born with.”
It was just like my husband had said, I was getting paid for doing what I liked the most, connecting kids with books.
We left India in 2011. Since then I focus full-time on writing books for children. I love being a writer and it was the right decision for us to leave. But I often think back fondly at my time in the elementary school library, knowing that it was the best job I’ll ever have.
Monika Schröder grew up in Germany and has worked in American International Schools in Egypt, Oman, Chile, and India. She now lives and writes in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Her books include My Brother’s Shadow (Farrar, 2011), set in Berlin 1918, and Saraswati’s Way (Farrar, 2010), a story of an Indian street child. Her new middle-grade novel, Be Light like a Bird, will be published September 2016.