As I always do when it’s time for a new unit in science or history, I went to the library to swap out the books we’ve finished for books about new topics. This week, for history that meant books about Clovis and Charles the Hammer and Charlemagne. Both of the libraries within walking distance are under renovation right now and the temporary library set up in a store front is a little pitiful, so I haven’t been going there. Besides, we often need more books than our branch library can provide. I’ve taken to going to two different libraries: the central library and a large branch library northwest of us.
Our central library has a pretty decent children’s book section in a big room with lots of windows. It’s not the best facility ever, but it could be much worse. The branch I’ve been going to is smaller, but it has something that none of the other libraries in our system have: old books. Everything in our entire library system for children seems to have been published after about 1990. Even older books are much more likely to be reissues from the 80’s and 90’s than original or older editions. On the one hand, this is nice. The collection, while not perfect, is relatively current.
On the other hand, look at this beautiful specimen of book I discovered while looking for stuff about Charlemagne. It’s A Picture History of France by Clarke Hutton, in an edition from 1958.
Look at those illustrations! The text is also very appropriate to elementary school. It’s not a long, wordy book. However, it’s not the brisk overview of an encyclopedia either. There’s some meat there.
I went and told the librarian on duty how thrilled I was that their branch had old books. She looked pleased that someone had noticed and was appreciative. From what she said, I had the feeling that the library may have to defend its collection sometimes. I’m not sure how often a book like this circulates. I know that the books that get the most use are the ones the library wants to invest their money in. However, if the kids want a Judy Moody book or a Magic Treehouse book and the library doesn’t have it, I can just pop over to the bookstore and buy it. If we need an older book or a reference book for school, sometimes it’s impossible to buy it. Books like this one are a resource for the library. Yes, they take up shelf space, but it makes me so sad that libraries often toss these books out when they renovate or get new books in.
Mo Willems has a new book out called City Dog, Country Frog. He’s the author, but not the illustrator. That honor went to Jon Muth, of Zen Shorts fame. The collaboration works well. It’s much less laugh out loud funny than other Mo Willems books, but I liked the message about friendship and the general sweetness that Jon Muth brought to this book. Muth’s works often tell children’s stories that make kids and adults think deeply. In this book, he seems to have accomplished that using Mo Willems’s simple, less wordy style. One of the big topics in this book, along with friendship, is death, though it’s dealt with very subtly. The frog seems to be at the end of his life then isn’t around when the dog returns the following spring. However, the dog is able to make a new friend and share the same sort of friendship again. I think from a kid’s perspective, it’s as much about transitions and change as anything else. It struck me as a good book to read when a child has a friend who is moving away.
I read the book in a bookstore, but I had initially thought to see if they had it at the library. A couple of library trips ago, as I talked to a children’s librarian at our central library about their reorganization and summer reading, I remembered to ask if they had in this new Mo Willems’s book. She immediately turned to the computer and asked me to spell his name. What? Excuse me, but WHAT? Okay, I didn’t gape at her like I wanted, though I probably furrowed my brow a little. She obviously had no idea who he was. I’m left with a funny feeling from this, even now, weeks later. Is someone working in a field really qualified if she doesn’t know who one of the biggest names in that field is? Later, in a conversation about this on a certain social networking site, I compared it to being a pop music DJ and not knowing who Lady Gaga is.
I’m sure she knew how to use the catalog and all kinds of things about information technologies that I don’t know a thing about. Maybe she files books like a wiz. Plus, she certainly was a friendly presence at the desk. But I’m still left wondering at that interaction. I also don’t expect librarians to know about every author. That’s too much to ask, even if they work in a specialized department. I do feel that there’s a need for librarians to stay current and open to new works and new authors. I’ve gotten some great book advice from librarians, but I’ve also had the experience on several occasions of librarians who seemed confused that I might ask for their opinion about a good book on a certain topic. Or even more depressing, librarians who don’t seem to know if there are books on a topic I’m asking about, even topics where I know there are many books, I’m just asking for a good recommendation. It’s nice that there’s so much information available now so we can all pick our own books and do research online. However, there’s still no substitute for someone telling you in person that a book is good or exactly what you need. I hope I’m not crazy to expect that from librarians. If that’s still a service librarians perform, then I would hope children’s librarians know who’s putting out books these days and that would include Mo Willems, the biggest rock star there is in picture books and early readers.