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Faculty Spotlight: Maeve Knoth, Librarian

Phillips Brooks School

*image taken during the 2019-2020 school year

When thinking of librarians, we may entertain idyllic images of a privileged person tucked away in a quiet place with favorite authors, books and the characters that inspired our childhoods. But carefully selecting the knowledge and ideas that children access during their formative years is a weighty business.

At PBS, we are fortunate to have a top-notch librarian who embraces the power librarians have to influence student learning far beyond that of a simple docent in the wonderful world of children’s literature. As an established book reviewer and leader in the children’s librarians’ division of the American Library Association (ALA), Maeve Knoth actually helps shape the direction of the publishing industry and the content available for young readers.

Maeve has a masters degree in children’s literature, but she was first a teacher at the Burkes School in San Francisco and “loved it!” It was a bit of fortune that Maeve ended up in a children’s library. When she applied to graduate school, she narrowed her options to programs in Victorian literature and children’s literature. The Victorian professor she had wanted was not taking new students, so she enrolled in the only children’s literature program at the time at Simmons University in Boston.

While in graduate school, Maeve managed a children’s bookstore for a couple of years and started writing reviews for The Horn Book, where she continues to contribute to this day (search for Maeve Knoth on The Horn Book site to find some of her recent reviews). She says that, when she first started reviewing, she was by 20 years the youngest reviewer and honed her craft with an incredible pool of women.

During the same time, she also filled a maternity leave at the Cambridge Public Library and loved working there! Maeve was inspired by all the different people that patronized the library. She recalls that it was “so democratic; everyone gets an answer no matter what their question.” She learned she could make a huge difference by saying “here is a resource you didn't know existed.”

Maeve has been actively involved at the highest levels in her field through the American Library Association, including serving on the prestigious Caldecott Award Selection Committee and the Newbery Award Selection Committee.

Additionally, Maeve has participated on the ALA Children’s Notable Books Committee for seven years, two as the chair. This committee holds panel-type conversations about books in a public forum during the ALA annual conference. The Committee members talk openly about specific books and offer guidance, recommendations and critique. For example, if the book is intended to be an African folktale, the committee will ask questions and check details to ensure this is documented. For example: “Do the illustrations represent authentic depictions of people, clothing, vegetation, etc.?” or “Could the story truly emerge from that culture?” Authors and publishers take the Committee’s feedback seriously, and these conversations lead to changes in the industry. Maeve shared, for example, if the Committee observes, “we finally have a little boy who plays dress-up in pink, sparkly clothes instead of a pirate costume”, the next year the world may well see more gender non-conforming characters because the Committee noted it in their discussions.

Through this work, Maeve has had the opportunity to share her value for diversity, equity and inclusion in children’s literature, a value forged, in part, from the books she read as a child. Maeve recalls books, “that taught me stuff about the world that I would not have known otherwise.” She remembers being inspired by All-of-a-Kind Family, written by Syndey Taylor in 1951. Reading it as a child, Maeve found some personal connections but also learned about the Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur so, when classmates missed school for the holiday, she understood its importance. Maeve believes it “is important to know about kids in Syria and Japan” and children who are undocumented. When asked about the life experiences of others portrayed in children’s books, Maeve says the “only way you can try to understand it is by feeling it; you care because you connect.” She goes on, “to me, story is everything”. She works hard to give students windows into other lives and mirrors into their own “where they say, huh, that is so much like me.”

Maeve says that good books show what the author knows about people that age, what questions they are asking and what “feeds their souls”. Some of the questions Maeve asks when reviewing a book are:

  • How does it work for the child audience? Are the characters truly engaging and fleshed out?

  • Is there an emotional hook?

  • Does the style of illustration really support the story? For example, does it make sense that this is in watercolor versus photographic? Or, how does the looseness of watercolor connect to the looseness of the story?

Maeve adds that she wants the whole book to be physically an exceptional piece and that there to be tremendous attention to book making.

Finally, Maeve insists that the author show respect for the audience. So, for example, the theme should not be in the title. “There is no time for the dumb stuff when reading to children.”

So what is Maeve’s guidance for parents as they choose books? Here are some of her thoughts:

  • Use published lists of recommended books and get “stuff that you don’t even know why it is on the list”. Parents probably don’t know which books are good, that is why there are really good lists. One of her favorite blogs is: Reading While White

  • She says she wants parents to look at their kids' shelves and see books that are about children who are different from their own.

  • Finally, Maeve recommends, “Take a chance!”

In the end, Maeve reflected, “all I can give the kids is the whole world. All the lessons we want to teach children are in books.”

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