Literacy Leader Interview: Maria Salvadore
by Mary Brigid Barrett
“I think all kids have the same basic needs; that is to be respected, loved, and to have opportunities to flourish. And I firmly believe that books and libraries are a key to providing these opportunities to children and families. Children and families need to see themselves in the books they read and in the images they view.” – Maria Salvadore
Maria Salvadore is the perfect person to blow apart the tired stereotypical image of librarians — of mousy little women with furrowed brows, gray hair and glasses, tiptoeing around oppressive tomb-like library rooms, admonishing people to keep quiet. Salvadore is an attractive blonde with a warm voice and a contagious laugh who combines the energy of a toddler with the wisdom of a scribe. And what’s more, she knows and understands children, and she knows and understands that great books change children’s lives. Maria has opinions. And she’s not shy about sharing her opinions, especially when they relate to the importance of literacy and making sure that kids have access to the books that will turn them into lifelong readers.
Until 2000, Maria Salvadore was the Coordinator of Children’s Service for the Washington, DC Public Library where she was responsible for the overall administration of service to children, including collection development, program development, staff development and budget development. Before that, she served as Coordinator of Children’s Services for the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts. During that time, she taught at Simmons College School of Library Science and worked with the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.
Since leaving the DC Public Library, Salvadore has worked as a specialist and consultant in children’s literature and family literacy and has done work for numerous local and national organizations, including: Kennedy Center Education Department, Reading Is Fundamental, PPS Ready To Learn Service, WETA-TV Reading Rockets, Turning The Page, In2Books, DC Early Childhood Education Collaborative, the Phillips Collection, and the Catholic Charities Parenting Program. She also teaches a graduate course in children’s literature at the University of Maryland College Park.
Maria Salvadore has contributed to several books about children’s literature, such as Anita Silvey’s Children’s Books and Their Creators, and is the co-author with Susan Hepler of Books Your Kids Will Talk About. She has juried numerous children’s book awards including the Caldecott Committee, the Washington Post/Children’s Book Guild Award for Nonfiction, and has served on the American Library Association’s Notable Children’s Book Committee. She has reviewed for School Library Journal, The Horn Book Magazine, Horn Book Guide, Children’s Literature and Appraisal. She holds Master’s degrees in Education and Library Science and is a member of two honor societies.
All of Salvadore’s professional experience has been put to use as the mother of a now eleven-year-old son. She says, “He keeps me honest and in touch with the real importance of children’s books – the pleasure and importance of sharing them.”
Recently, NCBLA President Mary Brigid Barrett had the opportunity to interview Maria Salvadore concerning literacy, libraries, and children.
Maria, why are children’s librarians essential to American children on their journey to adulthood?
As people who organize information and ideas, all librarians are important – but I think children’s librarians are especially critical. They provide material and services for children of all ages — as well as the adults in children’s lives — equitably, without restriction as to age, income, or educational background. Children’s librarians contribute to the development of children’s language skills as they open worlds for them. They create shared experiences between adults and children, and they help launch kids onto the information superhighway.
What makes a great book for kids?
A great book is one that moves the reader; that touches an emotional chord that becomes part of the reader’s being. A great book for kids is one that respects the reader, doesn’t try to “sell” a message but contains truth on some level; it provides readers with rich images in either pictures or words – or a combination of both words and images. A great book is one that is as fresh and meaningful to tomorrow’s readers as it is for today’s children.
You have been on a number of national award committees for children’s books? What qualities make a book not just a good book, but an outstanding book for children?
That is just what the awards committees that I’ve either chaired or served on have tried to identify. We’ve tried to identify tomorrow’s classics today. Working with the Caldecott Committee, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award committee and the Washington Post/Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award committee — just to name a few — I’ve had the opportunity to work with other professionals who make it their life’s work to identify the best books for whom children are the primary audience.
And the role of honoring the best books available for young readers is even more important when you consider that between 4500 to 5000 new children’s books are published annually. Who other than children’s librarians — who see a broad spectrum of books and then use those that are most likely to appeal to children — should make those difficult choices? While children’s librarians don’t always get it right, we certainly have a good track record!
How do you choose which books belong in the children’s department of a public library? Would you make different choices if you were making selections for a public school library?
Public libraries serve much broader audiences than a school library, so necessarily, the collections differ. That being said, school and public library collections for children also have a lot in common. Librarians select books for children in both types of libraries to meet both the expressed and perceived needs of children. School libraries may be more focused on curricular support, and public libraries often do much the same thing, though public libraries are more likely to interpret curricular needs broadly. School libraries will purchase material for use by faculty. Public libraries will certainly add some books for teacher use, but will also stock books for parents and child care providers; even students of children’s literature!
Can parents and teachers assume that children’s librarians are allies in helping their children become lifelong readers? And, if so, how can they make the best use of that relationship?
Reading is a crucial skill that empowers the learner in so many ways. And yes, the children’s librarian is a strong ally to parents, teachers, and childcare providers to create lifelong learners. How can parents and other adults build that relationship? Well, some of it sounds really silly, it’s so simple, but see how many you’re already doing:
- Get to know your children’s librarian.
- Do you have a children’s specialist at your local public library? If you don’t, find out why, and what needs to be done to assure that a children’s specialist represents your children’s needs at your library. Then get to know that children’s specialist!
- Is there a professional librarian working with the staff and children at your children’s school? Studies show that literacy skills increase when a professional children’s librarian is a member of a school’s faculty.
- Talk with your school and/or public librarians about your children and their informational and recreational reading needs to learn how you can work together to help your children.
- Ask your librarian for recommendations of books to share aloud with your children — regardless of age. It’s just as much fun to read aloud with older children. And they are often eager to return the favor and read to you!Get to know your children’s librarian.
- Consider starting a parent/child book club with your children’s librarian.
And if NCBLA readers have more ideas, I’d love to hear them!
The genre titles in children’s literature can sometimes be confusing for parents and teachers. Can you help us make some sense as to what these categories mean?
I think it’s human nature to be more comfortable when we can think of things in neat compartments, but the beauty and bane of children’s books is that there are all kinds of books for all kinds of readers. There are picture books that really are for older readers and novels that look like they’re for older kids but are really most appreciated by younger readers or listeners.
A favorite picture book that immediately comes to mind is Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey. This gorgeous Caldecott-winning book is a sophisticated interpretation of one family’s journey between two cultures revealed in deceptively simple language and exquisitely crafted watercolors. And I think of David Macaulay’s masterful book, Mosque — in introducing this fictional mosque in Istanbul, readers gain a sense of the architecture but also gain insight into Muslim beliefs. Both of these books are heavily illustrated. Are they picture books? Nonfiction? Who’s the audience for these books? Most likely older readers — I suggest age eight up to and including adults — who have the experience to be moved and motivated by these handsome and exceptionally well-crafted books. And what about Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books? They’re novels that are most appreciated by younger children, as young as kindergarten – though they appeal to older kids as well.
My advice to parents and other adults in terms of the various genres of children’s books is to talk to your children’s librarian and to recognize that you know your children and his/her interests better than almost anyone. Together you can probably make sense of the arbitrary divisions created to help market books as well as to make lifelong readers of the children with whom you live and work.
Should children’s books be censored in any way? What if your child wants to read a book you think would be an inappropriate choice for them?
I personally don’t believe that books should be censored though that doesn’t mean that books shouldn’t be carefully selected. I think that it’s probably safer for children to experience difficult themes and issues in the context of a book than in real life or through the visual media. It provides them with a storehouse of experiences that they can draw on when they need it. I always think of E.B. White’s classic novel, Charlotte’s Web. In this gentle fantasy, the cyclical nature of life is introduced — including death. My son and I read it together when he was about six years old. When his great uncle passed away several years later, he told me that his Uncle was still alive through all of us, his family, kind of like Charlotte living on through the baby spiders. Charlotte’s Web gave us an opportunity to talk about a tough topic and provided a focal point to continue that discussion years later.
I know many parents who are concerned that the books their children read may present ideas that they, as parents, don’t embrace. Everything from the portrayal of religion, to ethnic or racial stereotypes, to violence, to the way children speak to adults, to young protagonist’s behavior, and more, have bothered adult readers of books for children and young adults. There have been numerous attempts to rid library shelves of those books that offend adults. But again, I think books present an opportunity to discuss many issues and ideas, for example, why the adult thinks a particular book is wrong or what they disagree with in the book. Meaningful conversations can start over books –– and again, talk to librarians who may be able to help put books into a broader perspective.
Should parents be concerned about their kids’ reading selections being either too entertaining or too educational? If you have a child who reads all fiction and reads no nonfiction, should you be concerned? or vice-versa? What if a kid does not read books, but reads all manner of things electronically on the Internet, should a parent be concerned?
Children often read one genre or series for seemingly endless periods. My own son went through a period where he’d read only series – Goosebumps, Animorphs, even Trixie Belden. And he had to read them in order. When I was sick and tired of hearing about the latest morph or monster or mystery, I’d find a book that I liked that I thought he’d be interested in and read it aloud. That’s how he came to read The Anybodies by N.E. Bode and the Book Without Words by Avi (Hyperion). Sometimes it just takes a concerned adult to check in and to get kids on a different track. Other times, kids will take recommendations from other children. And if a parent, teacher, or child needs a book recommendation, what better place to get those recommendations than from the library? School and public librarians are in touch with many children and their reading interests and can often recommend books that may lead kids in new directions.
What kind of kid dreams of being a children’s librarian when she grows up? As a child were you a bookworm? Does the work you do reflect the image you had of the profession when you went to library school? What books from your childhood would you recommend for kids today?
There were always books around when I was growing up. As kids, we often got books as special gifts. But, I have to admit I was the kid who was sometimes kicked out of my local library — libraries were much quieter places then — and I loved to share what I was reading out loud! I’ve spent most of my adult career trying to create an environment that recognizes that there are different kinds of noise –– and the kind I think is appropriate in a library is an excited, sharing buzz.
In your career you have spent a great deal of time working with minority children and children challenged by poverty, as well as working with children growing up with parents who have low literacy skills. What are their special needs?
I think all kids have the same basic needs; that is to be respected, loved, and to have opportunities to flourish. And I firmly believe that books and libraries are a key to providing these opportunities to children and families. Children and families need to see themselves in the books they read and in the images they view. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor of children’s literature, once said that books are either mirrors or windows. Children either see themselves reflected in books, or they look through a window on to the dominant culture.
Long ago, I worked in an area of the city that had a high percentage of “at risk” kids, kids who didn’t have a lot in their community, kids who had few books in their homes. Anyway, I met two children, six-year-old Calvin and his slightly older sister, Jasmine, both with special needs, who were in the custody of their grandmother. The grandmother started coming to the library with the children to participate in a program in which new children’s books were given to families after they participated in a series of programs. One of the books Calvin and his family received was Molly Bang’s Ten Nine Eight in which a child of color and her father countdown to sleep. Calvin, Jasmine, and their grandmother came in to tell me how much they liked the book, how often they’d read it. Calvin pointed to the child in the book and exclaimed, “That’s me!” His grandmother told me that it was the first book to which Calvin had responded — I think because the book was a mirror for Calvin.
You have done a great deal of consultant work helping many different kinds of literacy programs and projects. Can you describe the work you do and share with our readers some of the things you have learned through your work? You have helped so many children and their families; do you have a particular memory or experience that still moves you?
I know books change lives. I’ve seen it time and again. Some of the most memorable experiences I recall come from the work I’ve done with incarcerated parents — mothers and fathers — in family literacy programs that used trade children’s books to introduce issues in child development and parenting. Of course, we were creating shared experiences between parents and children who lived apart, and frankly, didn’t know each other very well. And I saw books change people, open their eyes, make connections.
One of the dads I worked with for a time was named Bardino. Bardino was a big guy, kind of shaped like an inverted torpedo. He and his small group read Kevin Henke’s Owen — they were asked to report back to the others about the book, their evaluation of the book, its theme, appropriateness for children, etc. etc.
Owen, a Caldecott Honor book, is about a boy/mouse that must leave Fuzzy, his security blanket, behind when he starts school. Bardino stood before his group and said, starting gruffly, “All parents should be required to read this book.” He continued more softly, “Because it reminds you what it feels like to lose something.” Owen, a 32-page book, touched Bardino in a totally unanticipated way. He, an adult, was truly moved by it. And Bardino shared Owen with his five-year-old son when the child came for a “contact” visit.
This is only one example of what I saw and experienced with parents. What I’ve learned is that parents can’t share what they haven’t themselves experienced. And if we don’t make quality children’s books readily available to them, they will never be able to share experiences with their children.
I know the term “quality” is off-putting to some people. It sounds pejorative. But when I say quality children’s books, I mean books that hold up to multiple readings, the books that children and the adults in their lives can read time and time again and still find satisfaction or something new in them. There are books that I consider simply functional –– they serve a purpose for a time. While those have a place, they are not the books that last.
When my nephew was in seventh or eighth grade, he called me on the telephone to let me know about this fabulous new poet he’d just discovered. Who? I asked, thrilled to hear him so excited about poetry. “Langston Hughes,” he said. He was amazed that I knew Hughes’ work and even more amazed when he looked at the copyright date. But Langston Hughes was as fresh and meaningful to this middle school boy in the mid-1990s as when his poetry was first published.
Do you have a business address, phone number, email, or website should someone want to contact you for consultation purposes?
They can contact me by email: email@example.com
We can’t let you go without finding what you think of this year’s Caldecott and Newbery Award books. And, what recently published books are “must haves”?
I think this year’s Caldecott winner is a practically perfect picture book! Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes uses line and limited color — black, white, and shades of gray — in carefully arranged pages to develop the tension of kitten’s nighttime adventure in search of a bowl of milk. This year’s Newbery winner, Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata is a touching family story set in the 1950s and is sure to start conversations.
I also recommend taking a look at the list of Notable Children’s Books developed by a committee of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association. It’s available online at ala.org/alsc. There are lots of books that are highly recommended and organized by general age groups. Take a look!
Also if you want more information on reading –– and the books to go along with it –– then I highly recommend ReadingRockets.org. A sister site that also provides wonderful information in both Spanish and English is ColorinColorado.org.
Does the Salvadore household have a favorite bedtime story? Do mother and son always agree on the story choice?
We have more favorites than there’s room to list! And no, we don’t always agree –– and that’s really a terrific opportunity to talk about why we disagree!
Thank you, Maria.
* Literacy Leader interviews sponsored by Verizon Information Services
© 2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance