[Editor’s note: Paula is a valued member of the VOYA Editorial Advisory Board and long time VOYA friend.]
I have two clear memories of visiting libraries and looking for books when I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager in the 1980s. My first is from the closing weeks of fourth grade. This was the first visit during which students in my class were permitted to independently browse and select whatever title we wanted. I recall my excitement turning to disappointment as I realized the school library offered a deeply underwhelming selection of titles. I desperately searched for anything published in the 20th century. Despite explaining to the librarian that I really hated mysteries, the best option we could find was an Agatha Christie book. The librarian assured me I would love it once I tried it. I never made it past the first page.
My second defining library moment occurred a few years later when I visited the public library by myself during the summer before sixth grade. While I was happy to find a larger selection of books than at my school library I had no idea where to look to find something I might like. There was no section marked “teen” or “young adult.” The children’s book were too young and the adult books too boring. No librarian approached me to offer assistance. I finally summoned the courage to ask someone shelving materials if there were any books for people in middle school. I was directed to a single A-frame with three shelves of hardback fiction. It was from this handful of books that that I discovered the title which started me down the path of being a life-long reading addict: John Christopher’s The White Mountains. I can still remember the awe I felt when I saw the cover of The White Mountains. A giant spider-like robot shooting laser beams toward a panicked pack of teenagers? I was hooked.
I wish I could say that eventually I located more books at my public library to feed my reading needs. But that didn’t happen. No one at the public library helped me locate the other books in Christopher’s Tripods trilogy. That might have been the end of my interest in reading had I not stumbled upon two young women at the paperback rack of my middle school library — Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. Elizabeth and Jessica are the individuals responsible for sealing the deal on my interest in reading. I read Double Love at least forty times – mostly because I couldn’t find any other paperback series like Sweet Valley High in any library I visited. But while the libraries didn’t seem to have what I wanted, the Kmart just up the street from my house did. Each month the newest SVH book was released. All I had to do was con my mom into giving me a few dollars so that I could walk up to Kmart and find out what was new with the Wakefield twins. I didn’t need to be bothered by the confusing, unfriendly atmosphere of the school or public library. The SVH series kept my love of reading and books alive during my teen years. And so, when a job as a student shelver opened up at a newly-built library branch near my high school, I decided to give public libraries one more try.
Returning to public libraries as a shelver after a four year hiatus, I was pleasantly surprised to find things had changed. Some of the larger libraries in the system in which I worked had teen collections. They now offered a handful of popular teen paperback series for checkout. Through my first library job I learned that libraries were about a lot more than books. I found there really were some nice librarians who were interested in helping people, including young people, find just the right book at the right time. I discovered the joy of serving young people as a library employee, particularly in my subsequent library positions during my college years at branch locations in urban neighborhoods.
When I finished my undergraduate degree and made the decision to pursue my MLS, there were limited options for specializing in “young adult services.” I focused instead on children’s services and registered for the handful of teen-literature classes that were offered. Fortunately the approach to serving teens was changing right around the time I completed my graduate degree. Though my early jobs were all as a Children’s Librarian, by the time I took a position with the Kansas City Public Library, there was interest in expanding service to teens. I had the opportunity to work as a youth services librarian and to develop programs and services for people ages 0 – 18. I started my first teen advisory board while at KCPL and from the first meeting, knew I had found the service focus for me.
Over the years I have worked with several outstanding teen advocates but it was at KCPL that I worked with Therese Bigelow. Therese was an administrator and fostered my interest in youth, particularly teen, services. She was supportive of my developing new and different ideas for serving teens and also of my being professionally involved on a state and national level. Thanks to Therese I became aware of the great community of librarians dedicated to serving teens through such avenues as Young Adult Library Services Associations committees and selection lists and, of course, VOYA! During these years I read all of the teen literature I could find. VOYA was an invaluable resource for supporting my growing knowledge of teen books and enhancing my ideas about young adult programming. It is impossible for me to cite all of the outstanding columns that provided tips and advice which I converted to real-life programs for my teens, but the many VOYA columns focused on anime, manga, and comic-related programming stand out for me. I took these ideas, built on the concepts discussed, and thanks to the VOYA community of experts, teens at the libraries where I work have experienced a variety of fun and successful CosPlays and anime clubs. I credit VOYA with motivating me to attend my first-ever Comic Con in Indianapolis – an experience I will always treasure.
Many of the most dedicated teen librarians and advocates I know offer stories about the teacher or librarian who first introduced them to the fantastic array of literature for young adults; they talk about how this relationship led to a career serving teenagers. My motivation is rooted in helping other teens avoid my experience as a teen reader — years of missed opportunities to enjoy teen books for lack of a caring librarian or access to literature of interest. I’m honored to be a part of the VOYA community and have the chance to contribute in any way I can to an organization that is certainly part of the thin line that keeps teen services moving forward rather than slipping back to the bad ol’ days of my middle school years. Every day teen advocates must do all that we can to keep libraries and librarians teen-friendly. I’m thrilled to stand with VOYA on the right side of that issue.
Paula Brehm-Heeger — March 2011