Youth services has its colorful moments

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - 20:00

“Blue!” he exclaimed, as he made the fifth attempt to force the crayon between my lips. This is where my master’s degree has taken me. The 13-hour days, crippling student loans and late nights spent writing 50-page essays on primitive post-modernism in 16th century conquistador narratives have all lead to this: my hand covered in drool as I attempt to illustrate proper crayon techniques to a 9-month-old child. If he stops attempting to choke me with paraffin, I’ll talk to his mother about the early childhood literacy program planned for next month. This might sound stressful. I couldn’t be happier.

I work at the Anchorage Public Library as a Youth Services Librarian. Like most professional positions in my field, this work requires a Master’s degree. My studies covered everything from business management, global education trends and computer programming to literary theory. I use all of it in my work, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done. But this 9-month-old couldn’t care less about my accomplishments or accolades. He’d rather I just eat the crayon.

As you can imagine, I spend of lot of time at my job promoting the importance of literacy for ages 0 to 18. One minute, my owl hand puppet and I lead a group of toddlers in a stirring rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot.” Another minute, I’m helping a fourth grader sign up for Facebook. The next, I’m debating the merits of vampire vs. wendigo with a teenager looking for the scariest possible book she can find.

The idea of literacy isn’t as cut-and-dry as it seems. The vocabulary sheets and book reports only do so much. Literacy is not only about words, grammar and syntax; it’s also about comfort and familiarity. My job is not just to know a lot about books, but to ensure that your child has a positive association with the library so that they feel comfortable engaging with literature in a way that is significant to them. That’s why our Summer Reading Celebration programs feature circus performers, magicians and lizards. That’s why we hold prize drawings, give high-fives and get excited about reading The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog for the thirty-eighth time. I need to make sure that your child is having more fun in the library than they ever thought possible. My enemies aren’t loud noises, poor manners and bad grammar, but feelings of discomfort, boredom and obligation.

As fall begins, students from kindergarten to high school are already in the midst of doing the big work. Although things may be a bit less manic at the library, my peers and I keep at the task of making the library a welcoming place for young people of all stripes. That could mean guiding a high schooler towards our online Live Homework Help service, talking up a picture book to a beleaguered parent or making sure that our public computers can support Minecraft.

It’s not a difficult job, but it isn’t for everybody. You have to be able to wear your passion and enthusiasm on your sleeve, even as you are picking up loose Cheerios or coaxing an answer out of a shy tween.

Next time you are in the Chugiak-Eagle River Neighborhood Library, look for Wendy Sparkman. She shouldn’t be hard to find. A youth librarian for 14 years, she is very playful, and uses crafts and games to connect with children and engage their imaginations. Very knowledgeable about the YS collection, she engages youth through what they’re reading. She’s the one ensuring that your family has the resources to develop the type of literacy that endures beyond individual books, prizes and magic shows.

Children who are given the opportunity to engage with libraries often develop the type of connection with reading and education that still amazes me. That’s why I’m glad to show up to work every day - even if the cost is a mouth full of crayons.


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