Imagine a time when no children’s literature existed and kids were barred from entering a library. In her article, “The Lion and the Mouse,” Jill Lepore recounts how Anne Carroll Moore invented the children’s library in 1896.
At that time, children were not allowed in libraries for fear they would read a trashy novel — like The Scarlet Letter. It was believed that young children did not benefit from books. In a bold experiment, Moore was given the job of creating a children’s room for the New York Public Library.
Many of her innovations have become standard: child-sized furniture, story hours and shelves stocked with thousands of titles. Moore wielded absolute power over this new genre and effectively dictated what books were published.
Unfortunately, she morphed from revolutionary to reactionary. She fought the battle of her career when she tried to ban Stuart Little from the shelves. She feared kids would be confused by its blend of reality and fantasy. Despite her efforts, the book sold in the millions. Children’s books have been crossing the line between reality and fantasy ever since.
Developing the collection of children’s books at the Forest Park Public Library is one of the many responsibilities of Youth Services Manager Susan Farnum. Susan grew up in St. Louis, where she encountered a kindergarten librarian named Rita Mendelsohn, who was very encouraging to students and helped them discover their own interests. Mendelsohn became her friend and mentor and shaped Susan’s philosophy of how to best serve children.
These children range in age from newborn to 18, so Susan and staff have to find a way to reach all age groups. For example, wordless picture books are useful for building vocabulary to help early readers. Graphic novels are also a way to connect with younger readers. Susan’s specialty is youth fiction and non-fiction. She’s seeing more books that focus on strong female characters and books that feature more diverse characters.
Motivating children to read is a collaborative effort at the library. The staff is fortunate to have their own floor devoted to Youth Services, where children can engage in creative play and role-playing. Susan and staff try to trigger their curiosity and never know what direction the child will choose. She mentioned a little boy who is obsessed with carnivorous plants. His enthusiasm got Susan interested in this strange subject.
Encouraging reading, of course, is not confined to the lower level of the library. The staff takes storytime to schools and daycare centers throughout the area. This “books without borders” philosophy reaches residents where they live and play. Susan mentioned they’re starting story hour at the Junction Diner on Thursdays at noon.
The library partners with other local businesses like Defiant Comics, Old School and Centuries & Sleuths. They join the park district for events. Susan sees her adopted community as a great place for collaboration. She also finds the library an exciting place to work: the ground floor of discovery.
Libraries have come a long way since they opened the doors to kids in 1896.
I especially like the fact that they’ve stopped shushing patrons.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.