Ms. Olga Nesi is a dynamic middle school librarian who speaks of appeal terms and book hooks with a gleam in her eye. Not only is her library well-loved and her books constantly in demand, not only does she seem to know every child in her school by name, but she has found the Holy Grail of librarianship — she has devised an active way to put Readers’ Advisory principles into practice to help her kids find books they will love. Of course after I heard about her (and read her stellar article on the topic in School Library Journal) I just had to meet her!
So, this past Wednesday found me on a Brooklyn bus, very early in the morning, clutching my rapidly cooling coffee and on my way to Cavallaro Middle School. Upon arrival, Ms. Nesi woke me up in a way that coffee could not: we immediately got down to talking about how she conducts Readers’ Advisory in a busy school of 1400+ kids who often barely have 20 minutes to spend browsing for books.
Here’s what she does. When you first walk into the library, your attention is arrested by two huge posters on which she has blown up simple lists of appeal terms from Joyce Saricks‘ book, Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library. Listed under headings like Tone, Pacing, and Story-line are lists of adjectives that describe a myriad different types of tastes. Words and phrases such as “dark,” “bittersweet,” “humorous,” “action oriented,” “engrossing,” “magical,” and “lesiurely” catch the reader’s eye. When I remarked on the posters, Ms. Nesi explained that they serve several purposes. First, they are there to remind students of terms that they have already learned — from Ms. Nesi and in their English classes. They silently reinforce previously learned knowledge in a way that no long-winded lecture can. Secondly, when students come to Ms. Nesi for reading recommendations, she can stand with them in front of the posters and, with the appeal terms right there, can have a conversation about what they are in the mood to read. In fact, she also has printed them on bookmarks, so that kids can check off what about their reading material appeals to them, making explicit what is often a mute, internal proces. Simple, but genius.
Here’s another thing she does. She reads. Avidly. Widely. Incessantly. And for each book, she writes what she calls a “Book Hook,” which is a short, sweet, smart booktalk-style summary of the book designed to intrigue potential readers. Below each Book Hook description is an even shorter section which states, “Three words or phrases that best describe this book are… ” The three words chosen come from the list of appeal terms that Ms. Nesi or English teachers at the school have already taught the kids. A binder chock full of hundreds of these Book Hooks is ready and waiting to be leafed through, on the library counter. And leaf her students do, as I observed over the course of three hours I spent in the library. Ms. Nesi, in concert with other teachers, has also created an online database of these Book Hooks which is open to all teachers and students of her school.
And here’s yet another thing she does to foster a reader-friendly atmosphere. She creates attractive displays with as many face out books as possible. There are two tables near the front of the library with new books in boxes, creating the perfect rummaging for treasures experience. There there is the cozy couch “living room area” with copies of high-demand books like the Guinness Book of World Records. There are the wire racks of other in-demand books – like cartoon books, sports books, drawing books – all faced out and ready for the taking. And again, they do get taken.
When I talked to her of my struggle to master how to really use appeal terms to describe a book, whether for myself or in helping a patron, she gave me a different way to look at it. (The below is a combination of paraphrasing and quoting her words:)
Appeal terms are not really designed for avid readers, as we have already found strategies to figure out what we want to read next. Appeal terms are just a catalyst for making it (RA) happen for the reader who really doesn’t know what she or he likes. What I can do is give this vocabulary to kids who might not have the vocabulary to describe what it is that they like to read.
My goal is to create kids who can independently find books, to push kids in the direction of exploring across genres and tones. We often have this mistaken assumption that kids know what they like. But in reality they need time to figure out what they like, to discover interests they didn’t even know they had. Why is it that we don’t expect them to know who they are, and yet we expect them to be set in what in they like?
Another thing she said that will stay with me:
My biggest problem is that despite the fact that I am constantly reading, I haven’t read every single book in my collection… But the kids help me by talking to each other about books. Often two friends will come in together with a book, with one returning it and the other checking it out right then. In fact, the way that they casually talk about and recommend books to one another meets their needs in a way that adults can only facilitate but not imitate.
What struck me in spending time with Ms. Nesi is that not only are her ideas brilliant, but they are executed in a simple and yet comprehensive way. What impresses me about her techniques is that she takes ideas that we all learn about in library school and extracts as much juice from them as possible. Her genius may well lie in her ability to put into practice what was preached to us as best practices in graduate school. And in doing so, she provides inspiration for other librarians that yes, it can be done. Theory can be melded with practice.