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Walter Mayes, School Librarian - Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Walter Mayes, School Librarian - Part 2

Walter Mayes has had a lot of book jobs ---  he’s worked in a bookstore, at a publishing company and as “Walter the Giant Storyteller” (he’s 6’ 7 1/2’’ tall). For the past 13 years, though, he’s been a school librarian at the Girls' Middle School in Palo Alto, California.

Below you can find the second (and final) part of his REAL TALK Publishing interview, where he talks about popular books in his library right now, a memorable intereaction with a student and advice for aspiring teen librarians. If you missed it, read Part 1, here!


TRC: What books are the most popular in your library right now?

WM: George O'Connor's Olympians series of graphic novels (he was here in February and made quite a splash); Veronica Roth's Divergent series (of course); Tim Federle's two books about Nate [BETTER NATE THAN EVER and FIVE, SIX, SEVEN NATE] (Tim was here in January and the girls adored him!); the Runaways series of graphic novels by Brian K. Vaughn; SMILE by Raina Telgemeier; WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead; and PEANUT by Ayun Halliday

TRC: What books have you recently read and loved?

WM: E. Lockhart's WE WERE LIARS, a superbly crafted novel about dysfunction among super-wealthy, white Yankees (they live on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts) with a reveal at the end you don't see coming; and Andrew Smith's GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, a rollicking story of male adolescence, sexual confusion and six-foot insects!

TRC: What were your favorite books to read as a teen and 20-something?

WM: I read voraciously and nearly indiscriminately. By my teens I was fortunate enough to stay in one school for all four years of high school (after having attended 10 other schools between Kindergarten and 8th grade), so I got to to know my high school librarian really well, and she knew me. She gave me Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, and Allen Ginsberg to read at the impressionable age of 16 and I am forever grateful. By the time I was in my early 20s, I had worked in bookstores for a long time and was starting my career as a publisher's sales representative, so I read a lot. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, a lot of Stephen King, and a somewhat obscure SF writer named Thomas Disch were among my favorites.

TRC: There is a lot of talk these days about teens not reading as much as they once did. Can you comment on this topic?

WM: My experience doesn't support that claim. I think that teens have a lot more choice over what they read and many of them have more access to reading materials in a variety of print and digital formats, so the way adults perceive and quantify their reading hasn't yet caught up with that. As long as there is access, teens read plenty! But they read blogs, and fan fiction, and magazines and graphic novels, and they turn up their noses at THE SCARLET LETTER as much as any of us ever did, in addition to reading books for school and pleasure.

TRC: The lack of diversity in literature is a hot topic these days. Do you hear this from your students?

WM: Not at all --- they do not seem to be aware of the disparity in what is being published. For a school that prides itself on diversity (20% of our students speak Spanish at home), you would think our population would be more aware of and sensitive to this issue, but the kids read the same books. I mean, although every display, every booklist, every Independent Reading List is carefully composed by me to include a diverse range of authors, cultures, genres and voices and the girls read what interests them, the books that circulate on their own are the ones that get all the attention in the media and follow our current cultural default of white privilege. I continue to work on this on a girl-by-girl basis.

One of my brightest girls came into the library at the start of 8th grade, bemoaning the fact that she was tired of reading "about rich white bitches." I asked her if she was now ready to read about her black heritage --- I had suggested books with brown girls on the cover when she arrived as a 6th grader, but she had refused them in favor of what her friends were reading. It so happened that we had started an immigration unit in Humanities and each girl was researching her family tree. This was the first time that slavery became real to her, and she devoured a dozen or so books on the topic in her quest to understand what her ancestors had gone through, and she was still having a hard time grasping the horrible nature of the cruelty of slavery. She asked me if I could recommend a movie she could watch, but instead I offered her Tom Feelings' THE MIDDLE PASSAGE with a warning that the pictures would linger in her mind for a long time. She took it eagerly, brought it home, and had a powerful discussion with her family that only the illustrations in that masterwork could have prompted. Then she brought it back and asked for something "that is as powerful as this but about today." Librarian colleagues know that these moments are important and that the next thing you put into that child's hands can be of major importance. I reached into my desk drawer, where I keep books I can't put into the collection, and pulled out PUSH by Sapphire. It was time. And she devoured it. From there she would read any book I gave her with African American protagonists and she went on quite a Jacqueline Woodson binge, and I marveled at the unusual trajectory of THE MIDDLE PASSAGE to PUSH to I HADN'T MEANT TO TELL YOU THIS and knew that I had earned my pay that day.



TRC: Do you have children?

WM: One son, 25.

TRC: What is he reading right now? Does he ever give you ideas about what to stock in your library?

WM: Anthony grew up with a bookseller mother and a Giant Storyteller, author/librarian father, and two households full of children's books. He had a lot of opinions when he was younger and would read Advanced Reading Copies of books and let me know his opinion. He was the one who handed me the ARC for HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE at 8 years of age, saying "You need to read this, Dad!"

TRC: There’s another job that involves working with kids, schools and books --- being an English teacher. What do you think would make someone more suited to be a librarian than a teacher, and vice versa?

WM: Being a classroom teacher requires a skill set I admire but do not fully possess. Patience, for sure. And the ability to read nascent writing and nurture the talent behind it. 

TRC: You’re the next President of the ALAN conference. Can you tell our readers a bit about the conference, and what you hope to accomplish as president?

WM: We have a terrific line up coming to the ALAN 2014 Workshop! Libba Bray will be our Keynote Speaker, and there will be about 50 author speakers over the two days, including Andrew Smith, G Neri, Jenny Han, Chris Lynch, Scott Westerfeld, Paulo Bacigalupi, M T Anderson, Sy Montgomery, Christopher Paul Curtis, Pam Munoz Ryan, Raina Telgemeier, Tanuja Desai Hidier and Coe Booth. My goal for the Workshop is to have authors I care about speaking to us and to each other about things that matter! The Workshop theme is:

Is the Sky the Limit? Using Teen Literature to Forge Connections in a World Increasingly Without Boundaries. As our online media world gives us total access to everything all the time, what can we as teachers, writers, librarians, publishers and students do to remain connected, make new connections and use literature as a bridge between our respective worlds?

TRC: You wrote the book WALTER THE GIANT STORYTELLER’S GIANT BOOK OF GIANT STORIES. What made you decide to write a book, and has that made you think about books differently, as a school librarian?

WM: A publisher pursued me for many years before I finally agreed to write the book. It remains one of the hardest things I've ever done and has given me enormous respect for those who have the discipline, the patience and the talent to write well.

TRC: You used to run Walter the Giant Storyteller & Co., a children's advocacy program dedicated to showing kids how important books and stories are. So tell us…why do you think it’s so important for kids to read?

WM: Oh, I still make several dozen appearances a year as Walter the Giant Storyteller, either as a conference keynoter or at individual schools and libraries. Reading and access to story is an essential privilege of childhood --- all children need to have books in their lives for comfort, for entertainment, for enlightenment and to not feel alone.

TRC: You’re also heavily involved in the theater community. Can you tell us about your theater work, and do you think it makes you a better librarian? Has your love of books made you a better actor?

WM: I did theater nonstop from age 13 to 30, and then my son was born and the demands of work and fatherhood meant that theater had to go. When my son and I were on a road trip looking at colleges, he leaned across the table at dinner and asked me "Next year, when I move away, are you going to be one of those loser parents who sits at home at night doing nothing?" He was truly concerned that I wouldn't have enough to do. I thought about it and realized it was time to get back into theater and I haven't looked back. I do four or five shows a year --- acting, producing and directing --- and it has provided me with a community and more than enough to keep me busy! 

I was already pretty good at reading a text aloud and interpreting it from years of being Walter the Giant Storyteller. My theatrics are put to use every day with my students, sometimes in a more formal setting (reading Paul Fleischman's SEEDFOLKS aloud every year) and sometimes just by being my larger-than-life self. It's all part of my authentic self, and it can be seen daily at GMS and nightly on stages across the Silicon Valley. 

TRC: Do you have any advice for aspiring school librarians?

WM: Read everything you can get your hands on and do not ever lie to a child about a book --- if you didn't like it, tell them. They will learn to form their own opinions about books by the way you model yours.