by Angela Perna
There are many different people who help students become lifelong readers. A child’s parents, teachers, and peers all contribute to that child’s life of reading through bedtime stories, the first book read independently, conversations about favorite books, and other milestones on the journey to shaping a life-long love of literature. But one very important step in the life of a young reader happens right here in the C. V. Starr Library at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s.
My role as the librarian at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s is not to teach the mechanics of early literacy skills, but rather to instill the joyful spirit of literacy. Yes, the library is special because it is a repository of books, but perhaps even more important is its status as a place where people gather with the common purpose of sharing their joy for reading. It’s a place where students can build relationships based on the foundation of this communal experience.
The physical layout of the library is an important element in inspiring children to read for pleasure. Instead of the traditional row after row of bookstacks, the architects at Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick framed the library’s walls with bookshelves. This way, from any standpoint in the library, the books are the main visual cue. It feels as if a child who enters the library is being swaddled by the comfort that reading books can bring. The aesthetic appeal of the space invites children to browse for books, which is an important part of the process for spontaneous literary discovery and learning.
In the library, teaching children the value and joy of reading begins with the read-aloud. In Early Childhood, we also sing songs that teach vocabulary and rhyme, and we encourage play that makes stories come alive. With older children, the task is much more direct in that I am literally putting books in their hands. The process can vary from simply walking a child over to the bookshelves and pointing them to the Harry Potter books or special-ordering titles I know individual students will want to read and then setting them aside to be borrowed during their next library visit. In addition to purchasing books that appeal to children's interests, I use the golden standard trifecta of book review journals—The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal—to determine if a book should be added to our collection.
The stories and books I share with my students are chosen with the goal of nurturing a child’s curiosity about our world and themselves. Part of my strategy for helping children pick out books is to encourage their independence, to teach them to trust their own judgment about what they want to read, and, in the end, to nurture their confidence to choose their own books. I want my students to know that the library is a special place for them—a place where they are free to explore, to ask questions and find answers, to see themselves in stories, and to learn about others.
At the onset of the pandemic, when I had to switch my storytime to remote delivery, I was worried about its success. How could I possibly reproduce the authenticity that comes from sharing stories in person? It turned out not to be the disconnected experience I had fretted about, but the very opposite. The students and I picked up right where we left off; I know that my online library program worked because of the relationships I had built with my students over so many years. I enjoy getting to know the children, their interests, and their personalities, and, because of that connection, it was clear I could still build meaning for them in the material read, whether that interaction was in-person or online.
At St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, we aim to educate the whole child—and that includes teaching children to be life-long readers. Our wonderful library is an important stop to that destination.
Angela Perna has been the Librarian of the C.V. Starr Library at St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's since 2002.
Learn more about the library, find resources, and explore monthly DEI reading lists on the C.V. Starr Library page.