Interview with librarian Miranda Doyle
by Aline Pereira*
Miranda Doyle is a library media teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School, a public school in San Francisco. Previously, she worked as a librarian for San Francisco Public Library for seven years. She has also been a librarian at a private high school, a teen librarian for Los Angeles Public Library and has spent a year as a children's librarian in a rural area of the Philippines. A book reviewer for School Library Journal for the past 12 years, she recently published her first professional book, 101+ Great Ideas for Teen Library Web Sites (Neal-Schuman, 2007).
You seem to have a privileged perspective as a librarian, having worked both at public libraries and in school settings... Could you tell us a little bit about your diverse experiences, including your year as a children's librarian in a rural area of the Philippines?
Yes, I have been lucky to work at both school and public libraries. After getting my master's in library science, I was a teen librarian for Los Angeles Public Library, then a school librarian at Notre Dame High School in Belmont, CA. I switched back to public libraries, working as a teen, adult reference, and children's librarian at several branches of San Francisco Public Library over 7 years. A few years ago, I went back to school for my teaching credential, then switched again to working at a public middle school here in San Francisco. So I have had really diverse experiences as a librarian – everything from working in a Catholic high school for girls to being a teen librarian in an urban, mostly African-American neighborhood. I am enjoying my latest job as a middle school library media teacher. I feel like I can really get to know my students and their reading interests, and I get to talk about books to entire classes, so I think I reach more teens now. I also like teaching my students about using the library, doing research, and using technology.
As for my experience in the Philippines as a children's librarian... I was in Palo, Leyte for a year, sponsored by NEIGHBORS ABROAD of Palo Alto, California, a volunteer community organization that directs the activities of Palo Alto's Sister Cities program. The programs' pupose is to promote international and intercultural understanding. The children I worked with were so happy to have access to books – any books! When shipments arrived from the U.S. and we opened the boxes, it was like a party! I loved seeing the kids' faces light up when they found a book they wanted to read. One very hard thing, though, was seeing such poverty. I discovered that one of my favorite kids, a young boy, was stealing books to sell. That was sad, and disappointing... It was definitely a challenge to run a library without computers, with unreliable electricity, lots of mosquitoes, and occasional typhoons. The City of Palo Alto's sister city group continues to sponsor the library, which is a terrific project.
In your opinion, are we living the golden age of young adult (YA) literature in the United States? Is the "fantasy' market, which has been in full-bloom since the Harry Potter books, giving way to a "graphic novel/manga" market?
I do think this is a wonderful time for young adult literature. It does seem to be getting more attention, though there are still attacks on the quality and subject matter, usually by people who are not teen librarians or don't work with teens. Since 2000 we have the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, for instance, which I think is helping YA books gain recognition. Fantasy titles abound but we are definitely seeing an incredible explosion of manga – Japanese comics – and graphic novels, as well (this year's Printz Award, as you know, went to a graphic novel, American Born Chinese). Teens have always read comic books, but I think this explosion is something new and exciting. If you go into almost any bookstore (in the Bay Area, at least), you'll find teens hunkered down around the manga section, reading. Most libraries are now creating special shelving areas for manga and graphic novels. But if one is not into fantasy or manga, there are many other options – from serious literature to teen "chick lit" to romance, horror, science fiction, series fiction, etc. Pretty much every genre has something for teens these days.
What are some of the controversial, mature themes explored in YA novels these days? Can these themes be considered a trend or are they just the expression of a natural reality, since teens do face lots of tough circumstances?
YA authors seem to be exploring every controversial area they can think of "sex, death, religion, violence " and I think it's great. What's even better is that many of these books are not the stereotypical "problem novel", the after-school special kind of books that are very didactic and formulaic. The writing is better, and they are not necessarily cautionary tales about kids having sex and then dying of AIDS or getting pregnant and ruining their lives. They recognize that the world is more complex than that.
When there is a book that is built around an issue rather than the characters and story, it may get some attention – there was a book a few years ago called Rainbow Party, about teens having oral sex parties, that stirred up a lot of fuss – but they don't last, and don't necessarily get read by teens once the furor dies down. There are many YA books out there that deal with issues in a more intelligent way, so it is sad to me that those good books don't get more of the attention.
One trend I am glad to see is that there are many more novels about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teens. In many of them, the teens' sexual orientation is not viewed as a problem – it's just part of who the characters are; and they're dealing with romantic issues or family issues but their sexuality is not the only focus of the story. I think that is a sign of progress.
There is also a lot more raw language in young adult novels. Characters talk more like real teens, or at least the teens I work with. I think that's a good thing, too, though it can make things tough for school librarians!
Teens do face a lot of difficult circumstances, of course, and some do want to read about characters facing those same issues. Most of the time, though, I think teens, like adults, just want a good story with some drama in it. If there's no problem, there's no story.
As you have indicated in a previous answer, some defend the idea that YA lit caters to everything that is dismal in American culture. What is your opinion on this, as a reader and a librarian?
Some of the teens at my school like to read about abused kids, pregnant teens, true crime, gang shootings, drug dealing. Others want to read fantasy or light romance novels. It's just a matter of taste.
I personally am not a big fan of books about child abuse and the like, but that's just my preference. I think it's my job to present my teens with a wide variety of reading material so that they can figure out what they do like.
There really is something for everyone these days when it comes to YA literature. There are sensitive coming-of-age stories, stories about all different countries and cultures, fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction, spy novels - if a teen is not interested in "depressing" books, he or she has many other choices.
Do you think the distinction between YA and adult fiction is easier to draw than the one between junior fiction and young adult fiction?
Yes, I think it's easier to distinguish between YA and adult fiction. If the main characters are over 18, it's almost always adult fiction. If it's a close call - a coming-of-age story with a teen character, for example - it usually seems to come down to a marketing decision by the publisher. The length of the book and the design of the cover are usually pretty good tipoffs.
I think deciding whether a book is aimed at that 9-12 age group, or whether it's more suitable for teens, can be difficult. The 9 to 12-year-olds are a huge market – traditionally, they read and buy more books than teens – so it seems like that can often be a marketing decision, too. It's especially hard for me as a middle school librarian, because my students are all over the map as far as maturity and whether they're reading children's, young adult or adult books are concerned.
Based on your experience, how do you think young adults transition to adult books? Is it even a matter of transitioning from/to or of expanding one's reading to include books for "older readers"?
Some teens seem to jump straight from children's books to adult books, and skip the YA lit entirely. I was someone who did that, and only later rediscovered teen books. By 13 or 14 I was reading Stephen King and adult fantasy/science fiction pretty much exclusively. Other teens have certain interests and will read any book on that topic, whether it is adult or teen. For example, lovers of vampire novels may read the Anne Rice books (adult), Laurell K. Hamilton (very adult), Stephenie Meyer (teen), and Annette Curtis Klause (teen).
For those teens who do read YA books, I think that they, like most of us, are probably looking for characters they identify with and who are having experiences similar to theirs – or slightly ahead of theirs, since most teens like to read about characters who are a couple of years older. I think that is a way to preview the life experiences that are coming up. So I think the transition to adult books is a fairly natural one, as they start looking for books that deal with the "next steps" in life.
For some, who may be still developing their reading abilities, YA books tend to be shorter and simpler than adult books, so they may act as a bridge to longer, more complex adult books.
Still, I don't think the goal of introducing teens to YA lit is to "move them along" to adult books. Teen books should be enjoyed in and of themselves, rather than simply being a tool for developing reading skills. Hopefully teens will become readers who can enjoy books at all levels, from classics and adult literary fiction to YA novels to picture books.
Are "crossover books" (adult fiction that appeals to young adults) a fairly recent phenomenon, or is it just getting more attention as of late? Does the term "crossover" even work for you, or does it imply an age- appropriateness that does not reflect readers' reality? Do you have "adult books" in the YA section of your school library?
The Young Adult Library Services Association has been giving out the Alex Award – for adult books that have a special appeal to young adults – since 1998, so I don't think it's a completely new phenomenon. Many of the journals that review teen books include sections for adult books for teens.
There are more authors who previously wrote for adults writing YA novels (Carl Hiaasen, Joyce Carol Oates, Julia Alvarez, Alice Hoffman, and so on), and more adults reading books written for or marketed to teens, which means crossover books cross both ways.
The goal is to help readers find the books that they will enjoy most, regardless of what the publisher's marketing materials might say in terms of age groups.
I do have a line I draw as far as what's appropriate for my students, though. Some of the teens I work with are reading adult urban fiction or "street lit." These books have very graphic sex, violence, and language. I don't buy them for the school library, though I can see the argument for public and high school libraries getting them for teens. On one hand, I'm thrilled that students are reading, and spending their own money on books. On the other hand, because of the content, it would be very difficult to defend adding them to a middle school library like the one I work at.
As for other adult books, I have to say it depends on the book, of course. Content is one concern, but the bigger one is probably accessibility: do younger teens have the skills to read and understand the book? Are they going to find it interesting? My school library has many classics that are considered "adult books", plus many adult books with appeal to teens (science fiction and fantasy, for example).
Do you know of many adults that enjoy reading young adult books? Do you think sometimes the labeling of a book as adult or YA is a toss-up that comes down to a marketing decision?
I do know a lot of adults who love YA literature. I used to belong to a book group that met once a month to talk about children's and teen books – some of us were librarians and teachers, but not all. I think the Harry Potter series opened a door for adults to read more books for younger audiences. Teen books like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants appeal to adult women, and more literary YA fiction like King Dork, Looking for Alaska, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Book Thief also have an adult audience.
It seems like a lot of librarians serving teens today are having to be more creative to deliver their services (starting blogs, creating advisory boards that give youth a say in the library buys and programs, etc). As funding decreases and population and technologies change, what are some of the biggest challenges you face as a youth services librarian?
There is definitely a big movement toward using technology more. Libraries are trying to go where the teens are – online as well as in "real life." Many libraries now have MySpace or Facebook profiles. Teen librarians are also working on involving teens in library programs and book-buying decisions – teen participation is a huge trend. Teen librarians are talking about "Library 2.0" like"Web 2.0;" libraries want to give patrons more opportunities for input, interaction, and being part of the decision-making process.
I've been a librarian for 12 years now, and I see a very positive trend toward public libraries doing more for teens. More and more libraries are hiring teen librarians, and creating spaces in new or remodeled buildings just for young adults. I think there is actually more awareness, and in some cases more funding, than there used to be.
On the other hand, school libraries in California are really suffering from a lack of funding and staffing. According to the California Department of Education, "The average national ratio of library media teachers to students in the fall of 2002 was 1:889, California ranks 51st in the nation with a ratio of 1:5,965." We desperately need more credential library media teachers and more funding for books and materials. Many students don't know how to look up a book in the catalog and find it on the shelves, much less how to evaluate information on a website or access a database. My goal is to turn my students into lifelong readers and library users, but that's difficult when resources are so scarce and school librarians aren't valued as highly as they should be.
How do you involve teens in your current school library and what can they find in a good public library these days?
My students tell me what they are reading, what they want to read, and whether or not they liked the book they're returning. I love it when they tell me about a new book that I've missed, and then I can go read it and talk to them about it. I try to get their feedback as much as possible, through surveys and talking to classes and individuals. They also help me run the library, by stamping and sorting books and doing other tasks. I had a student aide last year and several volunteer after-school helpers, and they are absolutely wonderful. I have a book club that meets twice a month, and a program where students can use the library during the lunch period.
Public libraries have all kinds of programs for teens, from book groups to knitting clubs to movie nights and teen advisory groups. Most also do a teen summer reading program, with prizes and parties. I like to tell teens that they can get books from the library, of course, but they can also find magazines, DVDs, music, free Internet access, and much more. Teens don't even have to go to the library physically – many have free databases, electronic books, downloadable audiobooks (and sometimes movies), free online tutoring, and librarians who answer reference questions by phone, online chat, and/or instant messaging.
As a librarian, do you feel a lot of pressure to counteract the effects of media-saturation on youth?
As a librarian, I know that reading and books have to compete with TV, the Internet, movies and video games for time and attention. My attitude is, "If you can't fight 'em, join 'em." Instead of trying to sell reading as something teens "should" do, like taking their vitamins, I'm going to do whatever I can to make them want to read. If that means subscribing to teenybopper fan magazines, that's what I'll do. If students are really interested in Japanese anime, I'll get anime drawing books. If a movie comes out and it's based on a teen book, I'll push that book because I know the movie is a hook to get them interested.
That said, I do try to talk to my students about advertising and the media, to make them more aware of how companies try to market to them. For instance, I'll ask them why they think a certain Web site provides content for free. A surprising number don't even realize that they are looking at advertising, or that the site exists because the company hopes to sell them something.
How is the teen library scene in real life? Is it loud and controversial like teens themselves?
Yes, sometimes! In the public library, I occasionally had complaints about teens or groups of teens. I always tried to judge teens by the same criteria I would apply to adults. For instance, if a group of teens is gathered around a computer to look at MySpace, and talking quietly, and nearby an adult is yelling into her cell phone, why is the patron complaining only about the teens? Often there is a double standard, and people are suspicious of teenagers or judge them on their age and appearance, not their actual behavior. On the other hand, if the teens are really being disruptive, then they need to be reminded about appropriate behavior.
Busy public libraries, at least in urban settings, aren't the silent places they perhaps used to be. I don't think most librarians expect absolute quiet, and we aren't going around shushing all the time. Public libraries are full of kids and teens and families, some there to read, others to socialize, attend programs, use the computer, get homework help, and so on.
What does keeping up with your professional literature mean to you? Does it involve reading blogs? If so, could you suggest a few that particularly stand out?
I do read blogs, but library listservs are probably my main resource. I also try to read the two main print journals for teen librarians: School Library Journal (which deals with service to both children and teens) and VOYA, Voice of Youth Advocates (which is for teen librarians). My listservs include YALSA-BK (teen book discussion), LM-NET (for library media teachers), and CALIBK12(for school librarians in California).
My list of favorite blogs include:
The Shifted Librarian
Librarian in Black
Tame the Web: Libraries and Technology
Young Adult Library Services Association blog
Alternative Teen Services
Pop Goes the Library
Young Adult ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies)
Please describe a "dream, well-prepared-to-serve-youth library," so we all know what to fight for in our communities.
For me, the dream library for teens has a dedicated YA space, a great collection of books, graphic novels, magazines, music, movies, etc., and tons of up-to-date computers. It would have comfy furniture, quiet areas for studying, and less quiet areas for socializing. Teens would be allowed to work together on projects or use the computers collaboratively. They might even be allowed to play music.
The teen area would be staffed by friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable YA librarians. However, all library staff would be able and willing to help teens, and would be aware of their special needs and interests. The library would have a teen advisory council, which would help with selecting materials and with library programs. Teens would be able to choose from a wide variety of activities and groups, or would be able to simply use the library for its collection.
In terms of technology, this library would offer the very latest. Librarians would be in tune with its teens and what they want, using instant messaging, or cell phone texting, or MySpace, or whatever mode teens preferred for communication. The library would have a useful, interactive Web site where teens could talk to each other and to library staff. The library would also offer video games for checkout, gaming nights, and other activities to capitalize on the huge teen interest in gaming. Overall, this is a library that asks teens what they want and responds by offering it to them!
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor
Posted July 2007
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