My Own Invention
the how-I-done-it-REALLY-good column
Mary Nix, editor

Rural Reading

Susanne Wilhere

Susanne Wilhere is a children's librarian, a teacher and a lifelong lover of children's literature.

I am an elementary school librarian in a small rural village (population of about 1,200) in upstate New York, without easy access to a public library. The closest one of any size is about fifteen miles away. This was quite a culture shock after growing up in Pittsburgh, where there was a Carnegie Library branch in every neighbourhood. How could these children have not spent their lives in libraries as I had, devouring books with abandon? Since the school library provides many of these children with their only exposure to children's literature, it is imperative that schools supply the necessary books and programs.

School libraries play a critical role in the promotion and use of quality children's literature. The school library is the first place many children see a book. Some have parents who read to them from babyhood on. A few are even lucky enough to get taken to public libraries, where they can broaden their experiences a little more. But an unfortunate number have little or no exposure to children's literature until they walk into their school library. And then it's up to us, the "pushers" (or librarians, in lay terms), to get them addicted to books. "Come on, kid, you're going to like it. This first picture book is free." We start them off on soft stuff, a little Dav Pilkey here or a little Eric Carle there, and then on to hard-core authors like Avi or Katherine Paterson. Once they are hooked on the stuff, our job is just to keep up the supply.

In addition to the tried and true methods of bringing great literature to children, I have used some innovative library and reading programs (original, borrowed, or stolen) to help create an atmosphere where reading and books are important. One such creation is a community outreach program in our library one evening a week. Parents and grandparents can come in with their children and curl up in a chair and read together, do a jigsaw puzzle or play a game of checkers. There is a warm, family atmosphere to the library at these times, completely different from the busy schoolroom that it is during the day. Response from the community has been very positive: parents enjoy the experience of being involved in their child's school life. Parents get a chance to play on the computers and children get a chance to show off how much more they know than their parents. (The adults are still looking for the old wooden card catalogue while their eight-year-old is doing Boolean searches on the OPAC.)

The Internet is another excellent connection to the world of children's literature and is available in most school libraries. My students enjoy finding an address dedicated to their favourite author, where they can read the biographical sketches, frequently asked questions (FAQs), and find out about new releases. Then of course they run and tell me that the library doesn't have the books they've found out about yet. So, I keep a wish list where students can add titles they think we should have. Favourite author sites are bookmarked by myself and the children and referred to often. Many sites offer fun activities, such as Jan Brett's colouring pages , or announcements of free offers for teachers, such as the Strega Nona finger puppets we sent for from the Tomie dePaola site. Some other favourite sites are: Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, A.A.Milne, and Matt Christopher. Some authors provide their e-mail addresses, allowing the children to make a personal connection.

Reading programs may offer incentives to explore books, but it is great literature that is the key to making children into lifelong readers. One such program is an extracurricular activity I have developed called Library Club. Students read to everyone, from four-year-olds in Headstart (the government-sponsored preschool program to aid in early intervention), to senior citizens in a health care facility. The club members also read to kindergarten students and encourage first graders to read to them. Then there is our Reading Train: the whole school, which includes about seven hundred children and adults (custodial staff to faculty) sit in the halls side by side. At the sound of a train's whistle, they all start to read. Strangers walking in at that time must think that they have come upon a very poor school that can't afford classrooms ... of course, the children love the exhibition of it all. We do this once a week for fifteen-minute stretches.

Our school library is not unique in its dedication to children's literature and the love of reading. This is a goal that those of us who work with children have in common: we just want to give children the opportunity to get their hands on great books. Innovative and exciting library programs merely facilitate our purpose, giving children additional exposure to books that they need to succeed.


Susan Wilhere

[Editorial Note: in loading this article into a new format in 2013, several of the original web-links were no longer current.]

Volume 3, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, 2nd April 1999

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"Rural Reading" © Monika Robbins, 1999
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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