How Being An Assistant School Librarian Has Changed My Writing

A guest blog by Sue Wallman

I’ve been an assistant librarian in a state secondary school for fifteen months. My previous background was in magazine journalism. When I started the job in the library, my first young adult book, Lying About Last Summer, was already published, and my second, See How They Lie, was about to be. I wrote – and re-wrote – my third, Your Turn to Die, before and after work at the library, and in the school holidays.

It’s been interesting to write around a day job that involves teenagers and books. I have teenagers of my own at home, and very clear memories of being one myself, but witnessing the full spectrum of reading ability and engagement has made me think about what I’m writing in a different way. In a Year 7 class, there may be students with reading ages between seven and sixteen years, some who have no idea how a library works, and others who come every lunch time to read and do book quizzes.

I’ve lost count of the times students have told me they hate reading and find it boring. I’ve discovered though that when you ask about the books they read (or had read to them) in primary school they can always tell you one that stood out for them, and recount the plot or describe memorable characters. When I read with students one to one, and discuss what’s happening in a book, they always have something interesting to say. With the right book, an unruly class will be quiet when you read to them. We are wired for story.

The super-popular books in my school library are by Robert Muchamore, Liz Pichon, Jeff Kinney and Robin Stevens. A brand new Tom Gates book by Pichon was stolen the day it was put out on display. Passion for books is an exhilarating thing to witness. I’ve seen huge disappointment when we don’t have any more books by an author a student has loved, and excitement when a student comes to pick up a book they’ve reserved. My favourite scenario is when two friends come to the library together, so that one can take out the other’s book after it’s been returned. You can’t beat a word-of-mouth recommendation.

It’s made me more determined to create plots readers find so compelling that they have to read on, forgetting about Snapchat and that argument with their mum, because they’re so immersed in the world I’ve created. I want to surprise them with twists and turns, and create characters who feel real, and linger in their heads. I want to touch on the concerns that they talk about, and the ones they don’t but which are there nonetheless, such as friendship or home difficulties. I try to make what I write clear, but I no longer worry that a reader will understand a particular word, as long as it’s authentic for my character. I’ve seen that students will read on even if they don’t know the meaning of a word, but they’ll stop if the scene is over-complicated.

When I hold my finished books, they seem pretty skinny compared to other people’s (though that doesn’t mean they took less effort!) I’m often told they’re “quick reads”. That’s not, I now realise, a flaw. Students looking for guidance about what to read sometimes say, “I don’t want a long book because I’m a slow reader.” Others want books that they can gulp down in one or two sittings.

Having access to so many good books is a perk of the job. I buy a fair amount of books but usually only the ones I think I’ll enjoy. My local library has a very small young adult section and is only open three days a week. Through work, I can sample all sorts of books, and I never feel guilty if I don’t finish them.

Being around my target audience and having the chance to read so widely has certainly been educational.

Your Turn to Die by Sue Wallman is published by Scholastic UK on 3rd May 2018. This was a guest post by Sue Wallman and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. 

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