Like many people who read this column, I have a lot of books in my life. Two grandsons are reading now. The youngest will soon join them. Their books are all over our house and theirs. Library visits are frequent.
Librarian Lorette Weldon grew up the same way, but she turned her fascination with reading into a calling. For six years, she helped new community college students conquer their language arts deficiencies. Then, she took the remarkable step of demoting herself to the bottom of the academic pecking order — elementary school librarian. She wanted to know why her college students hadn’t learned to read well when they were my grandsons’ ages.
Her emails to me about this project read like a detective story. Even the best teachers need library help, and often don’t get it. “School boards do not vote for enough money . . . to develop the library collection,” she said. “I have experienced a school board voting on a book budget of $2 per student. Books are rarely that cheap, especially the ones to help improve reading comprehension.”
When Weldon, who is based in Maryland, first switched two years ago from developmental reading professor to library media specialist at a public elementary school, she encountered what she calls “bookless libraries.” She worked in three elementary schools with library resources that had been dwindling for years.
“All three collections were missing large numbers of books, while the teachers in each school expected me to magically make the books appear that they needed to supplement their lesson,” she said. “What was I to do?”
Her answer: She spent $10,000 of her own money buying and writing the books students needed. She found sponsors for some books and guest speakers. She showed teachers the best ways to work with their libraries.
She even organized a Monarch butterfly garden in one of the libraries so students could explore that flashy creature’s life cycle. She found organizations that would supply planting equipment for the garden. Park rangers offered advice on how to sustain interest from prekindergarten through sixth grade. She offered me this fun fact: You can get 32 milkweed plants, where Monarchs lay their eggs, through special grants that could run over $2,000.
Weldon endorsed what I had heard from reading specialist Elaine Guihan. Early readers often don’t have enough practice material. “Literature in our libraries jumps from one-word picture books to ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ ” Guihan said. “There is not much in between. Most early books in our libraries are really second-grade level, and some children who can’t access those books quickly get turned off of reading.” But we know that engaging literature can be written for them, she added.
Weldon is proof. When she didn’t have enough money to buy books to fill that gap, she wrote her own, decorated with photos and her own cartoons. “A Swan’s Life” was popular with her students. So was “Finding Perpetual Harmony,” a novelette she had previously used to prepare her college students for Rebecca Skloot’s 381-page “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Weldon added cartoons to the novella to help elementary students absorb the story.
You can find Weldon’s books on the Internet. There is one on the best ways to use a media specialist. She created animated avatars to introduce children to books online. She had local authors donate their graphic novels. She got more than 200 books free from the Library of Congress.
One resource Weldon never had enough of? Time. She met with each student only once a week. In larger schools, she said, some students might never see the library until the second half of the year, or not at all. From 2000 to 2016, the School Library Journal says, full-time equivalent U.S. public school library positions dropped 19 percent.
Could we at least extend the elementary school day an hour, so children could sit with a volunteer in the room and read whatever they liked? My grandsons would support that, but nobody is asking for their advice, or Weldon’s.