Confession: ever since we set foot in the young adult department at the Cambridge Public Library and casually asked librarian Maya Escobar for book recommendations, we’ve been secretly plotting how to get her to do a Q&A with us.
When we finally got around to asking her about the state of YA–including common misconceptions about YA books and readers–and what it’s like to be a YA librarian, she graciously agreed.
1. How did you become the CPL YA librarian?
I first worked at Cambridge Public Library part time, mostly in the evenings, when I first got out of college. I worked at the checkout desk and met and observed all kinds of interesting folks — not just library visitors, also my co-workers! Then I went off for a bit and worked in graphic design and publications, ending up at a nonprofit called YouthBuild USA. I really liked being back in a nonprofit setting, which was also geared towards improving the lives of young people. But I missed having more face-to-face interactions with those people; I was mostly sitting in front of a computer, working on layout and editing.
Around that time I ran into CPL’s director, Susan Flannery, on the T, and she said if I ever wanted to come back to the library she was sure there would be something for me. So I went in for an informational interview with the current head children’s librarian at the time, and learned more about what was involved in becoming a children’s librarian. I decided that I wanted to go for it, and applied to the GSLIS program at Simmons and an entry level position at CPL at the same time. And those both worked out! So here I am🙂
2. Best job perk?
I work with really wonderful, smart, creative people! And the children’s staff at Main has always been made up of a fun group of people who are really passionate about this work and have wonderful senses of humor. I also like not having a formal dress code. After working in the financial district, I can tell you: khaki pants NEVER AGAIN.
3. Most memorable interaction with an author/student or class of students or teen reader?
A couple of years after the new building opened, Francesca Lia Block made a visit. It was her first time touring the east coast in something like 10, 15 years? I went to the supermarket beforehand to get her some comestibles, and nothing was fitting. It was like, “Where are your fine honeyed wines and fairy cakes, please, and also the dew of the morn and tiger lily pollen?!? Okay, I will get this bottle of green tea instead, dang it.”
Then she arrived and she was exactly as beautiful and kind and magical-creature but also punk rock as one could wish. I had to introduce her, which was special in that I was talking to a room full of people as thunderstruck as I was, and I got a little weepy.
Working with teens is — gah! — so okay, there are plenty of times (I remember especially when I was transitioning into full-time teen work) when I think “WHAT AM I DOING?” You read to a bunch of four-year-olds, everyone wants to get in your lap and be your best friend. You tell a kindergartner they can get a library card and they lose their sh*t. With a teenager, first you hope for maybe eye contact? Then six months later, if they are still coming to the library, and talking to me in whole sentences(!), that means something is working for them. We still might not make eye contact though, because cell phones.
I have been at CPL long enough that I have teen regulars who I first met when they were coming to toddler programs. It is nuts to me that they just remember me. Then, I have had young people come back to say hello, or I run into someone around the city who remembers when I visited their class in 7th grade. (Please forgive me, young person, if I can’t always remember you, because you are a good five to eight inches taller and maybe got some tattoos. It’s cool.)
Of course I am always thrilled to pieces when someone comes back and says, “This book you told me about, I loved it so much, please tell me about more books!”
4. You probably read a lot of YA for work. But what do you read for fun?
I love comics, so I’ve always got one or two in the mix, across all age ranges. I’ve been into horror and the macabre since I was a kid, so that cycles thru quite a bit. In the past few years I’ve become a fan of Scandinavian mysteries; there is something so straightforward and desolate about them which is weirdly comforting. I reread also; Jane Eyre; The Princess Bride; Kelly Link’s short stories; Chynna Clugston’s Blue Monday series…
I am finding that the drawback of reading a lot is that encountering something wholly fresh and different doesn’t happen as often. I try to counter that by moving out of my usual genres. Lately I have been pushing myself to read more nonfiction, because that old adage is true!
5. What are you reading now?
I got some ARCs! I am reading The May Queen Murders by Sarah Jude, Grunt by Mary Roach, Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, and Don’t Point that Thing at Me by Kiril Bonfiglioli. Waiting in the wings I’ve got Kaptara by Chip Kidd, Crush : writers reflect on love, longing, and the lasting power of their first celebrity crush, edited by Cathy Alter & Dave Singleton, and Approval Junkie by Faith Salie. And a bunch of picture books!
6. Is CPL doing anything specific to advance #WeNeedDiverseBooks?
Cambridge is a VERY diverse city — racially, ethnically — plus all the places people come from, being chockablock with colleges and universities.
When I started working for CPL, inclusion and representation in collection development wasn’t even a question. It was very challenging though. Our older summer reading lists were divided by genre, and we worked really hard to include books with POC protagonists at every reading level. Multiple titles when we could find them, but for some reading levels these barely existed. As part of the list we also included titles in the most commonly spoken languages in Cambridge; finding books in Haitian Creole (that we could purchase) was very difficult.
My fellow librarians and I are all very happy that more and more people’s lives and origins are represented in print. And I am glad this is getting more attention and bringing in more voices. The word “diversity” is starting to sound a little neat though… a catchall for all the Others. Because we all relate to one another on different levels all the time. There is a lot to say about this, holy smokes A LOT. More than I can smoosh in here, to say nothing of my personal feelings and experiences around this.
I don’t think — I hope! — Cambridge folks aren’t sitting back and thinking, well we’re pretty progressive, first out of the gate with same-sex marriage and all that, so we’re good. I don’t think it’s just, pick a side and be done with it. The discussions around A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins & Sophie Blackall and A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram & Vanessa Brantley Newton are a good example of how things get uncomfortable and that’s when it’s most important to keep talking about them. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always so great at this.
Lightning round/quick answers
1. Coffee or tea?
Coffee, unless I am under the weather.
2. Three favorite YA authors?
ONLY THREE??? Drat. Libba Bray, Daniel Kraus and Andrew Smith. But also Ruta Sepetys, Matthew Quick, and A.S. King. And Matt de la Pena, Isabel Quintero, and Karen Finneyfrock. Okay, I’ll cut it out now.
3. Three favorite non-YA authors?
Kelly Link, Joe Hill, and Brian K. Vaughan. I unintentionally stalked Kelly Link for a while.
4. Recent trends you’ve noticed in YA?
Contemporary fiction without a love triangle THANK GOD.
5. Is there a really popular/well-reviewed YA book that everyone else adored but you just couldn’t get into?
Ehn…pretty much everything by John Green? And Divergent. I’m sorry😦
6. Top misconception about YA librarians you’d like to correct for the record?
We don’t all like John Green and Divergent. But we respect the authors and readers as people!
7. Top misconception about YA books you’d like to correct for the record?
That they are facile. A lot of English language learners, or English language instructors, come into the Teen Room looking for low-level, beginning reads. Now we have some hi-lo books, but I resent the whole room being classed that way. Especially when I tell the book seekers that most of the books feature American teenagers in American high schools, and am told, “I’m not interested in reading about that.”
Then there are parents who come in with an agenda for their kid’s reading prowess. This is usually when the phrase “real books” is used. As in, “My child has read the whole of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Maze Runner, Hunger Games, (insert several other titles here) but I’d like them to be reading real books.” Blarg. I get it, there are a lot of wonderful books with complicated text and themes that are important to read — and not For School important, For Life important — but this always feels belittling to me. These folks are coming in pretty sure that there isn’t anything here that is worthy of them, and why do I want to talk to someone like that?
Listen. Try and remember what it was like to be a teenager. It may make you cringe, it make bring up feeling you never want to experience again, you may have acted like a big old jerk sometimes, but was it EASY? Did it make perfect sense in a way that can be summed up using itty bitty vocab words?
8. Top misconception about YA readers you’d like to correct for the record?
I think it mostly ties in to what I said earlier. I do wish they all had more time to read, for themselves, not for school.
The more time they have to read, the better the chances they can read the books that make themselves AND their parents happy
Life is better if one is a reader, and being a reader makes one a better person. I see nothing wrong with a book that can help make that happen.