Interview with Kayleen Reusser: on reading, libraries and writing

Kayleen Reusser wears a stack of “literacy” hats: middle school librarian, published writer (eight children’s books and two cook books), writer of articles and blogs for multiple publications including a weekly newspaper column, and co-director of a writing group. We sat down on a cold winter day recently to talk about reading, libraries, and writing … 

What are some of your early memories about reading as a child?  I grew up on a farm in rural Indiana, so we did not necessarily have access to a lot of books back then. I look back on that and am not sure I missed them though because my mother was a teacher (second and third grades) and she would bring home her knowledge as a teacher – and books as well. Every Saturday she went to get her hair done at a salon in town− the library was a couple of houses away. So I would go to the library − walking into the library was like heaven to me. And every week I’d pick out five books from the library to bring home − picture books when I was young and chapter books as I got older. I don’t think I actually owned a book until fourth grade! The first book I remember owning was given to me at Christmas by my fourth grade teacher. That was so special − I had never gotten a present from a teacher before.  She gave every student in the class a book. She gave me Strawberry Girl, a Newberry award winner. I didn’t really love the book at the time (I was more into adventure stories) but that was such an important thing, that she had given me my own book.

What kind of books did you like to read?  Well, I liked adventure stories and my favorite person to read about was Tarzan. I liked to climb trees around our house and liked to think about living in a tree too. I even had a special tree just to read in− it was one of my favorite spots.

Did you watch television when you were little?  We didn’t do TV a lot. Living on a farm I was very active outside. That world was license to make up so many stories −using the things I could − like climbing on farm machinery and coming up with names of animals.

How did you go from this type of life to writer and school librarian?  I always wanted to be an author – at 13 years old I remember thinking, how hard can it be? When I went to college there were no majors leading to being a writer except being an English teacher − and I didn’t want to do that. So I was a psychology major because I wanted to know why people did certain things – that’s what really interested me. Then I got married, had three kids, and began a writing career focusing on writing for adults. I had been writing for adults for about 20 years when I took a class on writing children’s books and the professor encouraged me to try writing for kids. So that’s how I started to write children’s books. My first publisher was Mitchell Lane. At the time, our local school had an opening for a children’s librarian. Although I didn’t have a degree in being a librarian, I was hired because I had written a children’s book. It’s been a real education working in a school library now for five years – I have learned so much more about children’s books.

What does a librarian do in a middle school? There’s one elementary school, one middle school and one high school in our small school district in rural Indiana. We have grades 5-8 at the middle school. There’s a huge difference in reading levels among these particular grades – that’s the biggest challenge. Just because a child is in the fifth grade, for example, does not mean the child is at the grade five reading level. An important part of my job is checking out books to the kids. One day a week each grade comes in to check out books during home room. So I get books appropriate for their age level interests and reading levels ready for them. I also repair books, order books for the library, help find books that kids are looking for, and try to teach kids some library skills. What’s most important at these ages in my view is to encourage kids to enjoy books –to talk to them about the books they like. Sometimes to encourage their interest in reading, I’ll let them know they are the very first one to read a particular book and I’ll ask them to read it and tell me if they like it. The librarian can really play an important role in talking with children about reading.

What does a librarian think about when you’re ordering books and other reading materials for the kids in your school?  I think about the diversity of readers we have. I look for books that will especially pertain to weaker readers – and try to find books that will interest both boys and girls and have the appropriate reading levels to accommodate their different reading challenges. Some publishers like Orca Books (a Canadian publisher) are known for serving well the high interest, low reading level reader. These books tend to be smaller, not intimidating in vocabulary−with great cover art. These books tend to focus on current situations which help kids−even weaker readers−to relate.

You clearly have many opportunities to interact with children around reading as both an author and school librarian. What advice do you give kids about reading?  As a librarian, I talk with kids about the importance of reading. When I visit schools as an author, I especially like to advise kids to find a place that’s their own for reading, like in a special corner in a room. This is especially important for children who may not be allowed to take books home from school – to find a comfortable, special place for their reading time. I remember my special tree when I was growing up, where I so liked to read –and I hope they will find a special place as well. I also let them know how much publishers try to think of them – that they spend a lot of time and money working on things like the cover so that kids will pick this book up because they are that important to them. Kids are interested to hear that the publishers are truly interested in getting their attention.

Do you have a sense that kids are doing more of their own writing?  When I do school visits as an author, I’m very excited that many times the teacher has already helped the kids put books together themselves (e.g., they have created a shared journal or a community cook book). I’m seeing more of this now than ten years ago –this is so much more possible with computer tools.

To what extent are computers and other technology part of the school library? Are you seeing technology impacting kids’ reading?  We do have a separate computer lab at our school but there are 30 computers in our library as well. So when kids are doing state-level testing (e.g., reading tests),  the library has to be closed while the kids are using the computers to ensure that the testing environment is quiet. This then throws off some of our regular reading activities. Also, last year every child in grades 1-12 was issued an iPad in our school district. One of the early impacts was a huge decrease in check-outs of library books at our school last year. This year we’re seeing an increase in book check-outs again, so things are beginning to settle out some.

How do you keep kids interested in reading in middle school? It’s more of a challenge since we’re competing with kids’ interest in e-devices (games). Most kids would rather play a game than read a book. So we try to attract their interest through displays in the library and around the school. For example,  I recently made poster-size book covers, laminated them and put them around the school.  I also created a book trailer on my iPad which kids can see during pass periods, have bookmark contests that have themes based on being in the library, and reward the top 10 reading kids (checking out books). We also have a book sale every December − collect donated books from teachers and others, and then sell the books to our kids cheaply (e.g., for 25 cents). All the money raised goes to Riley Hospital for Children, a cause our kids can really rally around. A lot of our kids may not have books at home but by our selling them for 25 cents or giving them away they have an opportunity to bring books home.

Do you think the kids at your school are less interested in reading than kids might have been several years ago? I think kids are as interested in reading as they mostly always were. There are actually some real pulls for them to read more. A very high percentage, for example, have read the Hunger Games trilogy and Harry Potter books. There is also a push now from teachers through the K-12 “Common Core”  to increase kids’ reading in non-fiction. And we are seeing a lot more non-fiction books being checked out of our library related to classroom assignments. We’re spending more in purchasing more non-fiction books as well. I’m not sure which subjects I should be buying for –so far I’ve been keeping the collection up to date and targeting areas like science, biographical books, and books focused on other nations (perspectives outside the U.S.). Teachers are assigning research projects and requiring kids to find a book on their topic – not just going to Wikipedia for information − so this is impacting kids’ library search skills and reading as well.

Do the librarians in your school district meet to talk about ways to support reading throughout the grade levels in the schools?  We have an elementary and middle school library aide (which is my position at the middle school), and a fulltime high school librarian. We meet together regularly and the high school librarian gives us lots of ideas about ways to support reading.  I’m in my fifth year at the middle school and feel pretty seasoned for what I do – though there’s always a need to be on the cutting edge.

Let’s talk a bit about your work as an author. You’ve written books on characters from Greek mythology, books about young celebrities like Taylor Swift, and cookbooks from Indonesia and Cuba. How do you come up with such diverse topics? Each of the types of books has had a different path. The Greek mythology books were essentially commissioned through the same publisher, Mitchell Lane. I was asked to take on those writing projects and found them very interesting – I didn’t know that much about Greek mythology before I started to do the research. Through Mitchell Lane I’ve also been commissioned to take on writing projects focused on young celebrities like Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Leona Lewis (British pop star). It’s important to me as both an author and mother that I not write about something I would not want my own kids to read about. The celebrities I write about are all good role models, I think. There’s a fourth book in this vein. In Celebrities Giving Back I wrote about people who give back, such as Tony Hawk (the skateboarder) who established skateboard parks around the U.S. through his foundation to get kids off the street. The Recipe and Craft Guide to Indonesia (cookbook) came through a third path. Mitchell Lane was looking for cookbooks from different countries and I offered to write a book on recipes from Indonesia because my daughter was working as a teacher in Indonesia and had been talking with me about different recipes she was trying while she lived there. So, we actually wrote this cook book together. I have a new publisher I’m working with now (Purple Toad) on two books: Now You’re Cooking: Healthy Recipes from Latin America — Cuba, and Big Time Rush.

How long does it take you to write a book from the time you begin the research?  It took me about three months to write the Taylor Swift book. I start on a new book as soon as I have the assignment. Basically, I don’t want to ever miss a deadline. Actually, if I have a month to get a chapter done, I try to get it done sooner to allow me extra time.

What questions do kids ask you as an author?  When I talk with kids wearing my author hat, they tend to have common questions: How long does it take to write a book? Did you get to meet Taylor Swift? Where did I get the pictures of Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez? What am I working on next? I use some of these questions to explain more about writing. For example, when they ask if I have met the celebrities I write about, I explain that Taylor Swift and most other young celebrities are pretty well protected which means not everyone can come up and talk to them. I tell them I’m glad for that for them, that they are young and have people to watch out for them. I explain how I gather information for the books by doing research, looking at blogs and other writing these celebrities put out there in their own words. I also explain that the editors who work with the book publishers get the pictures for the books and send them to me as the author – this gives me ideas for the book and I come up with captions to go with the pictures. When kids who are interested in writing careers for themselves ask me for advice, I know they are not always going to like the advice. But my best advice is to tell them to read ─ if you read, you are going to develop so many good habits. Know the grammar, internalize what makes a good beginning of a story, what makes a beginning and end. And then write yourself. Keep a journal. Though I never kept a journal because I was afraid someone would find it, I do write things down and find it so helpful later on to go back to pull ideas out for various writing projects.

What type of writing projects do you have coming up? Do you think about leaving the school librarian job and writing fulltime?  I wish I had more time to write and get information out about reading through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, my website), and visits to schools, libraries and civic groups. In addition to the books I write, I also write for 5-6 publications including a weekly newspaper column. I’m interviewing nurses now, doing feature profiles for newspapers, and interviewing folks in the military – to collect their stories. As important as this is, I would not leave my library position. There’s so much gratification from talking with kids about reading and writing. This is often the high point of my day ─talking to kids, seeing them get excited about books, and listening to them tell me what they like about a book.

Your final thoughts about reading and writing? I really enjoy trying to help kids read and write. If I wasn’t working in a school, I would not be able to talk with kids daily. I get to touch 400 lives every year−to have kids start dreaming. How wonderful is this! In the end, my goal is to get out there to acquaint kids with books and authors.

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