Interview with elementary school librarian Stacy Contreras


School librarians are out there everyday at the intersection of kids and books. I’m so excited to share an interview with Stacy Contreras who has been doing this for a long time. She offers some fascinating insights into what kids are reading, enjoying and why!  Thanks, Stacy, for taking the time to talk…

How long have you been an elementary school librarian?

18 years. I took off 5 to stay home with my son and went back when he started Kindergarten.

How did you choose this career path?

There were no classrooms available when I finished my Elementary Education Certification – Student Teaching Practicum and my principal wanted to hire me. The Media Specialist position was open and I was able to obtain emergency certification from the state to enable me to take the job. After a year, I realized that the school library was a better fit for me and I went back to graduate school to get my Masters in Educational Media to get official certification. The rest is history.

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

All kids love a dystopian future apparently. Science Fiction is very popular especially in the upper grades. The Hunger Games paved the way for Divergent, which is extremely popular. Cinder of The Lunar Chronicles transports us to a futuristic world inhabited by cyborgs and humans. Cinder believes she is lowly cyborg of unknown parentage, but events emerge that indicate she is something much more. Each book in the series allegorically represents a well-known fairy tale set in this futuristic world. Very compelling. The Uglies Series depicts a world where all people become gorgeous bubble-headed beings at the age of sixteen through extensive plastic surgery. Until Tally Youngblood begins to think that becoming a “pretty” might not be worth the sacrifices involved.

After the success of The Lightening Thief there has been a raised interest in Greek Mythology. His spinoffs, e.g. The Kane Chronicles are trending along with Greek myths in general.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid spawned funny school stories interspersed with graphic elements. Dork Diaries, Big Nate and Stick Dog always move in my library.

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

Yes. There is always a generalized difference between boys and girls reading tastes.

Certain books cross gender lines – some examples would be The Hunger Games, Wonder, Harry Potter, Wimpy Kid, The One and Only Ivan and books by Andrew Clements and Dan Gutman. Books I read and booktalk are also accepted across genders.

Boys love action. Jack Higgins’ First Strike series is a hit. For the younger ones Jack Stalwart is well received. They also like the Cherub series by Robert Muchamore – another kid spy in England with a little more grit and maturity than Alex Rider (a series I absolutely love). Mike Lupica and Tim Green write fabulous sports related stories.

Girls love school stories and realistic fiction. They gravitate towards Wonder and want to move on with similar humanistic struggles. I steer them toward Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. It is about a girl with Cerebral Palsy who eventually gains the ability to speak with a computer. Rules by Cynthia Lord touches on autism and the difficulties associated with that. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a new favorite – about a scrappy and talented girl who is entering sixth grade in a new school with a secret – she can’t read. How Ally overcomes her obstacles and the adults who finally recognize and begin to solve the problem makes for a terrific read.

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

Well… what I attempt to do is find out something they read and liked and then I try to approximate it in a different title or series. Reluctant readers are often struggling readers so it is imperative to find a book that targets their reading level precisely.

I think Graphic Novels are an excellent place to steer reluctant readers. Reina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters are wonderful and very popular. Sunny Side Up by Jennifer and Matthew Holm is a new on that seems to be flying off the shelves. Their series Babymouse is a notable favorite of girls. Jeff Smith’s Bone series is also very good. Boys and girls are very keen on Judd Winick’s new HiLoThe Boy who Crashed to Earth and Victoria Jamieson Roller Girl. The Manga versions of James Patterson’s Witch and Wizard and Maximum Ride series are good precursors to steer them towards the novels.

Some other choices for reluctant readers are Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza books, which are edgy and describe the humorous struggles of a kid with ADHD. Henry Winkler’s Hank Zipzer are an easier version of the same theme. Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine touches on similar issues and seems to be popular with girls.

Who are your favorite authors writing today?

I think it should be noted that virtually all the author’s and series mentioned thus far are favorites of mine. They have real merit.

I love Kate DiCamillo. The One and Only Ivan was excellent. I didn’t like Crenshaw, about a family that becomes homeless, quite as much. It ended well, but was a bit harrowing for my taste. It is popular though.

I appreciate those authors that make kids read. Jeff Kinney is a blessing for me because Diary of a Wimpy Kid is such a crowd pleaser. The same goes for Dav Pilkey. J.K. Rowling is of course without parallel. Jerry Spinelli is fantastic for readaloud – as is Dan Gutman.

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

I do see more a sensitivity towards LGBT issues. Since I’m in an elementary school I tend to sort of soft-pedal those themes because I tend to steer away from romance in general. My patrons are mostly little kids. Reina Telgemeier’s graphic novel Drama is available to kids if they have their parents shoot me a note. It explores LGBT themes in a middle school setting. It’s brilliant and completely appropriate at the middle school level.

George by Alex Gino is a story of a transgendered fourth grade girl who dreams of being Charlotte in the play Charlotte’s Web. It was a starred review in SLJ and recommended to be on the shelf in any middle grade library.

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

Wonder (and its spin-offs) James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series (both the novels and the Manga). Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs is extremely popular and a great mystery with a lot of action and madcap nonsense. After they read Belly Up I steer them towards Carl Hiaasen who has a similar vibe. The Last Dragon Chronicles by Chris D’Lacey and the Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland are very popular fantasy right now.

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

I guess I should have a specific anecdote but I don’t. Maybe it’s because it’s 3:13 on Friday. LOL. My favorite part of being a librarian is when a child crosses that chasm and comes to trust me as a reader. Once they suspend their disbelief, reluctance and open their mind – that is when the magic happens. Again and again.