“This is probably the best job in the world,” says Chris Gustafson, the school librarian at Whitman Middle School. “It’s so much fun, and what makes it so much fun is its biggest challenge.” Elementary school classes, she explains, are scheduled for librarian visits, while “no one has to come to the library in a middle school — it’s my job to make that happen,” to entice the students into visiting the library.
Gustafson’s secret weapon? “The first thing I did on my job was I baked a very large batch of cookies and got a list of the teachers,” she says. “I talked to each teacher. I went to them, I gave them a cookie, I asked them what they were doing in class and how it was going.” After listening to the teachers discuss their problems, she was able to offer library resources as solutions. Every year since, Gustafson has broken out the cookies and talked with her teachers. The baked goods seem to be working; she’s been at Whitman for 16 years.
When asked if the age group of the kids presents any particular problems, Gustafson seems genuinely puzzled at the thought. “Middle school kids are the absolute best. They have a great sense of humor, and when you treat them with respect, they respond with the same.”
Gustafson spearheads a number of programs to keep the kids interested in reading. The yearly Wildcats Read promotion is a list of 50 recently published books. The goal is that every student and staffer at Whitman, by the end of the year, will have read at least one book from the list. Several people manage to complete the entire list in one school year.
Gustafson also hosts book clubs with student groups. She’ll bring several books based around a theme into a classroom and tell the students about them. The students will choose the book that most appeals to them and sort themselves into smaller groups to read and discuss the books.
As Gustafson talks on the phone with me, she collects books for an upcoming book club based around the theme of stereotypes. Among the titles she chooses are:
This Side of Home by Renée Watson, about a pair of twins who are living in a rapidly gentrifying community.
Mexican Whiteboy by Matthew Peña, a novel “based on his own personal experience of being mixed-race and not feeling Mexican enough.”
And Out of Nowhere, by Maria Padian, a novel about a Maine town that adjusts to a sudden influx of refugees.
“My job as a librarian is always to be finding books that are both windows and mirrors for my students,” Gustafson says. The trick is carrying both kinds of books. Sometimes she’ll recommend a book for a student thinking that they’ll personally identify with the protagonist, but they’ll go instead for a book about a completely different kind of experience. “I don’t want to make any assumptions about what kind of books that they need, so I need to have a variety.”
Finally, does Gustafson have any advice for parents who want to help their kids become better readers? “Read to your kids,” she says. “Keep reading to them, even though they’re in middle school and they say they don’t want you to read to them. Keep reading to them.”