An interview with elementary school librarian Chris Fluetsch

To a middle grade author, an elementary school librarian is a treasure chest of amazing information. I’m always thrilled when one is willing to talk and share insights. Thank you Chris Fluetsch for taking the time to answer these questions!

How long have you been an elementary school librarian?

This is my third year as a teacher librarian. It’s my 13th year as a teacher.

How did you choose this career path?

I began my teaching career in Alternative Education, working with high schoolers who had not been successful in school up to that point. I enjoyed the work very much, but I resigned when my eldest daughter was born and became a stay-at-home father. Once my children started school, I began volunteering and found myself drawn to the library. When the school librarian retired, she suggested I apply for her position. To my surprise, I was hired, and here I am. I am still working on my Teacher Librarian credential and my Masters of Library and Information Science.

I guess the fundamental answer to the question is, I didn’t choose it. It chose me. Like so many other moments in my life, success comes as much from recognizing and seizing an unexpected opportunity as it does from careful planning and forethought.

What topics/subjects are trending in middle grade fiction today? What genres are most popular with your kids – fantasy, mystery, sports, etc?

Fantasy is by far the most popular genre in my library right now, which mirrors popular culture more generally. New series, like Wings of Fire and The Unwanteds are in high demand, in addition to some of the established series, like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Oddly, some of the more traditional series in the genre, like The Chronicles of Prydain and The Lord of the Rings, don’t seem to be able to get much traction.

Graphic novels and hybrid books are also very popular. This includes everything from comic book compilations to true graphic novels to hybrid books that use a combination of text and illustration to tell a story. Hybrids like Dork Diaries and Big Nate are terrific ways to encourage resistant readers to explore literature. The combination of illustrations and text working together to tell the story really helps draw students in.

Do you see a difference in what boys and girls are interested in reading at this age?

With fantasy being so popular, there is a lot of overlap there. As a general rule, girls seem more willing to read books with male protagonists than boys are to read books with female protagonists. Our sports literature, Mike Lupine or Matt Christopher, is more popular with boys, while series like Babysitter’s Club or Judy Moody are more popular with girls. However, I see much more overlap than self-segregation in our gender-based reading patterns.

How do you encourage reluctant readers in this age range? Do you have ‘go to’ books for kids who are less than enthusiastic?

I am a firm believer in the idea that there is a book for every reader, even the reluctant ones. One of the things I tell my students is “Read the first ten percent.” If a book doesn’t grab them in the first ten percent, bring it back and find another. In some cases, this leads to students just churning books without ever finishing one, but even in those cases they are are reading, and hopefully are a little more focused on reading for content and meaning, since they are trying to tell if this book is one they will want to finish!

Graphic novels and hybrid books, as I mentioned before, are great for struggling readers. The hybrids in particular tend to draw students in with the pictures, and then they find themselves reading, even if it is a struggle.

I have always found that students are willing to struggle to read a book that interests them, even though it may be difficult.

Who are your favorite authors writing today?

Lois McMaster Bujold writes fantasy and science fiction. Her Vorkosigan Saga books remain some of my favorite pleasure and comfort reads. She creates characters who are wonderful, flawed individuals with whom you want to spend time. She is one of the few authors whose works I purchase in hardback the first day they are available!

I love James McPherson’s books about the Civil War. It can sometimes be difficult to find an author who can write factually accurate histories that are still narratively interesting. McPherson is one of the best.

Have you noticed a change in the topics/subjects being covered by middle grade books over the course of your career?

My career is just getting started, but one thing I have noticed is that publishers are putting out more books that deal with LGBT issues. Even more importantly, LGBT characters are slowly becoming more common in young adult literature, not as plot points or lessons but just as characters who happen to be LGBT.

One trend that I’m glad to see waning is the “prophesied special person” category of book. When Harry Potter become popular, a lot of authors copied that aspect of the series, and I was really annoyed by the number of series that seemed to be saying that heroes are born, not made through an act of personal choice. I dislike that message. I want heroes who choose their paths, because I want my students to choose to be the protagonists of their personal stories.

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

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels. All the various years of Guinness Books of World Records. Geronimo Stilton. Wings of Fire. Any and all graphic novels. Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

What’s your favorite story about turning a non-reader into a reader?

I wish I had some tremendously inspirational story for you. I don’t think I’ve ever turned a non-reader into a reader. What I have done is helped someone who wasn’t reading find something interesting to read.

My second favorite part of my job is when students come to me completely excited about a book they read and wanted to tell me all about it.

My favorite part is when a student comes to me and says, “I didn’t really like this book. What should I try instead?” That is a student who has internalized a love of reading, even when it isn’t all going perfectly at the moment.