By Sara Ryan
When I was invited to contribute a post about what it’s like to be an author and a librarian, I remembered I’d talked about it when I was interviewed at Cynsations about my book The Rules for Hearts (Penguin, 2007), quite some time back.
A few years after that, I wrote a short piece on a related topic: “Nobody’s A Full-Time Anything.” And a while after that, I began teaching writing, too – first in one-off sessions, then in longer workshops, and for the last few years as a faculty member in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m still working forty hours a week as a librarian.
So what does all that even look like, teaching and author-ing and librarian-ing, two-plus years into a pandemic, with a world and country in tumult on multiple fronts, with book challenges, particularly challenges targeting LGBTQ+ books, dramatically increasing? (And yes, I do have a title on the infamous Texas Republican lawmaker’s list.)
Well, first I want to tell you that it’s extremely important to track what’s happening with book challenges and soft censorship around the country – and don’t assume that it couldn’t be happening where you live. Book Riot regularly reports on censorship, as does School Library Journal. If you’re an author reading this, you may have already been affected by soft censorship.
Learn about your school boards. Consider running for school board. Learn about the materials reconsideration policies in your school and public libraries. Karen Jensen of SLJ’s Teen Librarian Toolbox writes about ways to support school and public libraries in a wave of book banning. Alex Brown discusses what to do and what not to do in “Book Bans Affect Everybody – Here’s How You Can Help” at Tor.com. The American Library Association has resources to support libraries dealing with challenges, and a way to confidentially report challenges.
I also want to tell you that “working as a librarian” can mean a whole lot of different things, and it may not remotely resemble what you might be picturing. I’ve spent the majority of my librarian life working with teens, coaching and training other library staff about how to work with teens more effectively, and advocating on behalf of teens.
For the past few years, I’ve been very fortunate that my librarian job has included a focus on work with LGBTQ+ teens. I’ve gone to Gender & Sexuality Alliance summits with overjoyed teens wearing Pride flags as capes. I’ve read poems aloud, presented about local queer history, and checked out books & zines to teens at the LGBTQ+ youth resource center.
When I do those things, I don’t talk about my own writing. The system I work for has strict guidelines about conflict of interest, and how staff must not benefit personally from their work as public employees. I understand why those guidelines exist even as I sometimes wish I could slide one of my books over to someone who might connect with it.
My librarian job has also included makerspace work. I’ve helped teens with 3-D printing, laser cutting, and sewing. I’ve listened to them talk about the projects they’re working on, shows they’re watching, drama they’re worrying about. I’ve gotten out of their way as they helped each other troubleshoot, then admired the results of their efforts.
Sometimes I work with teens who are themselves working on policy issues, trying to create change. For more than a year in the pandemic, I worked with a group of teens whose focus was on how the pandemic was impacting youth. They advised decision makers about how schools and other institutions should respond. They planned and led forums (on Zoom, of course) so other youth could be heard as well. Again, my role was to listen to them, support them, and get out of their way. Listening – and yes, occasionally eavesdropping – is an invaluable reality check, especially when you’re with teens from a variety of backgrounds, who all have different senses of style, speech patterns, interests, concerns.
Which leads me to what you might be wondering – how does the writing fit in?
The time I spend with teens in my librarian role absolutely helps and influences my writing, even as it limits the hours I have available to do it. And because I know I’ll go long stretches between longer-form writing projects, I find opportunities to do shorter work. I’ve written several pieces for Hilobrow; among their topics: Bojack Horseman, Swift Wind, Betsy, Tacy & Tib, and The Sword in the Stone. I recently collaborated with Val Wise, artist of the excellent graphic novel Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms, on a short comic, “Shift.”
I write like (some) teens, too: I wrote most of a book that’s currently on submission in brief intervals on my phone in a Google doc. But I’m also a fan of longhand, both for journaling and for first drafts. I accumulate a lot of notebooks.
As for the teaching? I take vacation time from my librarian job to do it. During the pandemic, it’s all been online. While I very much miss seeing colleagues and students in person, teaching from home does mean I can pet the cat.
And of course, it’s all connected. I read with multiple lenses: as a writer, I observe and admire craft, as a teacher, I consider what aspects of a text I might highlight with students, and as a librarian, I think about the readers with whom a title will resonate.
When I’m not librarianing or writing or teaching, I enjoy baking. I’ve liked to bake for a long time.
Sara Ryan is the author of the graphic novel Bad Houses (Penguin, 2013) with art by Carla Speed McNeil, young adult novels The Rules for Hearts (Penguin, 2007) and Empress of the World (Viking, 2001) and various comics, short stories, and essays. She is a faculty member in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.