Literary Lifeguards by James Ponti
Like so many of the great lessons in my life, this one starts on a beach. Waimea Beach to be exact, on Oahu’s north shore. I was there for a television shoot (I know, rough life) and interviewed a lifeguard. When I asked him about saving lives he gave me an answer that caught me completely by surprise.
“Most of our rescues are on land.”
He explained that he and his fellow guards keep a constant eye out for the inexperienced and unprepared: the tourist with a sparkly new surfboard; the novice swimmer steeling up with courage to dive into the surf; kids daring each other to jump off the rocks. When they encounter these people, they engage them and talk about the dangers and their skill level. When appropriate they recommend nearby beaches that are better suited for them and encourage safe practices. The reason is simple:
“It’s easier to save someone on the sand than it is in the water.”
Librarians know this too, because it’s what they do every day.
They rescue kids who might otherwise get pulled under by unseen currents. They provide a map to help the marginalized and misunderstood navigate the dangerous waters of adolescence. They stop kids before they get in over their heads. Why?
Because it’s easier to save a kid in the sanctuary of books than it is anywhere else.
Librarians are our literary lifeguards, they save lives every day. But they don’t just save readers; they also save writers.
If you are at all familiar with me or my books it is only because the librarians of Texas and Florida plucked Dead City out of obscurity and placed it on the Bluebonnet and Sunshine State award lists. By virtue of their good graces, I suddenly had a readership in two of the largest states in the country. But perhaps more importantly, suddenly I had allies in every school and public library from El Paso to Key West.
I’ve long lost track of how many librarians have written me to talk about how they used one of my books to engage a reluctant reader. It’s unbelievably invigorating and inspiring and it didn’t take long for me to realize that the most important relationship in middle grade fiction is between author and librarian.
A book is like a butterfly in that it goes through a well-defined life cycle on its way to a shelf. I mark mine not by the stage of development (concept, outline, manuscript, rewrite, etc…) as I do by the people who are instrumental along that path. For me this pattern is wife, agent, editor, and publisher. They’re amazing. Each one is funny, smart, charming, and totally devoted to producing the best book possible. (In my case, they’re also all women.) But in the butterfly analogy, that only gets us to the cocoon. The final stage is carried out by someone I’ve almost certainly never met, the librarian.
This is something I’ve been trying to change and something I encourage all of you who are either librarians or authors to try to change as well. The more we can coordinate and communicate the better things can be. Below are just some of what’s happened as a result of one of us reaching out to the other and hopefully they can offer you ideas of what you can do together.
Probably the most common interaction between librarians and authors are school visits. There is much to write on subject. (Perhaps that can be a full blog post in the future.) Most begin with a librarian reaching out to an author’s website, publisher, or agent. Whenever I do a visit, I try to fully engage with the librarian ahead of time in order to tailor the presentation and the day’s events. Sometimes we’ll plan a morning book club or a lunch with readers. A few times we’ve even put together evening literacy meetings that involve parents as well.
This year, I decided to try something more. My wife is a schoolteacher and together we identified four or five Title 1 schools in our area and I reached out to them. I told them that I wanted to come to their schools, most of which had never had an author visit. I then reached out to my employer (I still have a real job to make this all work) and convinced them to contribute books and some of the school principals worked on grants to get more. As a result, last week I went to one of the schools. Not only did I get to speak with all of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students, but each also got a free autographed copy of one of my books.
Twice librarians have called me out of the blue with big ideas. One was a school in Humble Texas that wanted to do a 1 School 1 Book event and the other was the Library Media Supervisor for the Osceola County School District who wanted to do a community summer read. Both ideas were contingent on what we could come up with and together we spun out some great ideas. For example we had reading night at a minor league baseball game before which I threw out the first pitch. It was fun and we reached students we might normally have missed.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT DAYS
This year I volunteered to participate in the professional development days for the media specialists of my local school district and for the employees of the public library system. It gave me a great chance to interact and get to know many who I’d never met. For the public librarians I was able to lead a mystery game that I wrote featuring the characters in my book, which they can play at their branches.
The list goes on and includes book festivals run by librarians, conventions such as TLA, ALA, and FAME, and something as simple as social media interaction. Through my regional Scholastic Book Fair representatives I’m making appearances at family nights and next week I’m even meeting with the staff of the Young Reader’s Center at the Library of Congress.
Librarians have also helped me as sensitivity readers and given me feedback on early drafts of manuscripts.
None of these were difficult to arrange and all were beneficial to me and hopefully to the librarians with whom I’ve worked. At each stop along the way I’ve been blown away by the extra distance they’re willing to go for the kids they serve.
The third book in my Framed! series comes out next year and for lack of a better descriptor it’s my love letter to librarians. The mystery takes place in the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the DC Public Library and all of the suspects are named after actual librarians I’ve encountered along the way. Books are at the heart of all of it and if there’s any doubt about how I feel, hopefully it’s addressed in the dedication.
For Librarians Everywhere
Who make all of this possible and without whom the world would be so much smaller.
(I’m still tinkering with the wording, but you get the idea.)
James Ponti is the author of the Dead City trilogy and the Framed! mystery series, which features twelve-year old Florian Bates and his best friend Margaret who consult for the FBI using TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things. The first book in the series Framed! was nominated for a 2017 Edgar as best juvenile mystery and the second, Vanished! will be published by Aladdin on August 22, 2017. You can find James online at http://www.jamesponti.com or on Twitter as @JamesPonti.