Today’s Simply 7 is a book homage to a very special librarian, but I might argue that it’s also an homage to every bibliophile out there!
If you haven’t met Karen Henry Clark yet, then I’m thrilled to introduce you to her. She is an amazing writer and a true friend. We bonded almost instantly over a shared love of reading, writing and teaching. Though she is quick to tell you that she’s not really a writer, her words will tell you something completely different (as will any of her past students and those who know her already). As a toddler, Karen wrote a story with a crayon on the living room wall. Recognizing her passion, her father supplied paper, and her mother took her to the public library every week. Her writing ambition was sealed. Her writing for adults continues on her blog, Margin Notes, where she examines ordinary moments that reveal simple truth and stunning magic. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Facebook.
LIBRARY GIRL is a wonderful story of an awkward girl who didn’t fit in anywhere, but loved to read. She especially loved to read in the library. I instantly fell in love with Nancy Pearl as I saw myself in that character! But how many of us book lovers can’t see ourselves in this shy girl who blossoms because of books? Books changed Nancy Pearl’s life and they continue to do so for America’s most celebrated librarian. She has been a host of TV’s Book Lust, a contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, and the founder of “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.” She has also inspired librarian action figures. She may be retired now, but Nancy Pearl’s impact on the reading world will still be felt for years to come.
Me: When did you first learn about Nancy Pearl? What gave you the idea to write a story about her?
Karen: Nancy and I worked together in 1986 at a Tulsa bookstore and became dear friends. Through conversations I learned about her childhood struggles. When she became a sensation at the Seattle Public Library, I saw the value of her story for kids who doubt themselves.
Me: Picture book biographies can be incredibly challenging at times to write. What made you decide to choose a “slice of life” story, rather than an entire lifetime story?
Karen: We knew few kids would want to become librarians, and the day-in-day-out life of a librarian would likely be, well, dry reading. But we had no doubt that kids everywhere would identify with a story about feeling different.
Me: Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story?
Karen: I had to find the story first. It didn’t fall into my lap from Point A to Point B. Through almost ten years of interviews, I noticed Nancy happily mentioned two things: her bike Charger that she pretended was a horse and the librarians who saved her from drowning in unhappiness.
Because Detroit’s Francis Parkman Branch Library is the setting for much of the story, I contacted the archivist who generously emailed interior and exterior photographs of the building’s appearance during Nancy’s visits in the 1950s. Wow! Characters emerged in the enchanting architecture. After I forwarded these to Nancy, more memories surfaced.
Me: I empathized with Nancy reading so much that others made fun of her. That was me when I was much younger! Why do you want young readers to know about her? Why is telling her story important to you?
Karen: I was that kid, too! I loved rainy days because we skipped outdoor recess to read at our desks. Quiet kids like us need to be seen.
Kids should understand you don’t have to be recognizably famous to be important. My Author Note lists Nancy’s extensive achievements in book, library, and publishing circles. Still, kids don’t need to know any of that to be inspired by little girl Nancy’s experience of being teased and lonely and how she triumphed. They should believe the things making them different are not limitations to success.
Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood taught us to find the helpers in difficult situations. Library Girl echoes his advice.
Me: Sheryl Murray’s illustrations in this book are perfect! There is such a beautiful use of color, light, and texture here. Were there any illustration surprises for you? What was your favorite illustration?
Karen: When I saw how Sheryl transformed that bicycle into a horse, I got chills. Words could never convey the magic we see instantly in her blue, starry representation. For me, every page is irresistible–the beauty of this 1930s library, the captivating face of happy/sad Nancy, the imagined scenes from her favorite books, the adoring librarians who believed in her. That final double-page spread is the perfect unexpected but expected ending for her lifelong ambition.
Me: Nancy had to face her fears in order to move forward into her destiny. What fears have you had to face in your own journey in order to reach the publication of this book?
Karen: Oh, Jena, I gave up so many times. I turned this project upside down and inside out and could not make it work. On reflection I see my own writing journey parallels the message in Library Girl.
My husband Cliff knew Nancy first and insisted she and I could be friends. Critique partners found something charming in my ragged, early drafts. Legendary author Jane Yolen overheard me explain this manuscript disaster at her Picture Book Boot Camp in 2015 and interrupted, leveled me with her eagle-sharp eyes, and said, “Karen, that story will sell.” Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books explained the magic of page turns for me. My daughter Margaret read every draft and for this version announced, “Mom, you write well about people you love.” Nancy finally demanded I stop clinging to it because she had someone in publishing in mind. Sasquatch/Little Bigfoot loved the story and found Sheryl Murray who drew my simple melody into a riveting symphony. Generous bloggers, like you, present Library Girl to their followers, knowing it takes a village to circulate a book. And long ago, my parents repeatedly read me The Little Engine That Could for a reason I now understand.
Helpers, no matter how randomly disconnected they are, appear. Even if it takes years.
Me: Aww! I love that. Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Karen: Join SCBWI and volunteer at events (instead of hiding in the corner like I do) and ask about critique group openings. You simply cannot read too many picture books; make it a daily practice. Ask your local librarian for a list of newer favorites and ask yourself Why after reading each one. Visit their story times and pay attention to the kids’ responses. If you’re near a bookstore with author events, attend. You’ll learn about the publishing industry and the public responsibilities of authors. Interview the store’s staff for popular titles. But be careful. It’s easy to spend time doing all of this and not writing. Let yourself have to write.
That is excellent advice Karen. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog today.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! Karen is giving away a copy of this book AND an action figure of Nancy Pearl to one lucky winner. You can enter the rafflecopter here! May the odds be in your favor.