Booksellers and parents know: It can be difficult to sift through the vast number of children’s books published each year to find those special gems. So Bas Bleu turned to an expert for help: Mike Rawls, a.k.a. The Book Wrangler! Our meeting was kismet: Two of our favorite wee bluestockings attend an Atlanta elementary school whose principal, Mr. White, is a major superstar among his students. When we found out Mr. White’s husband, Mike, is a beloved school librarian—recently named Library Media Specialist of the Year for the Atlanta Public Schools system—we asked for recommendations. The result is our amazing Curated Kids Collection…and this insightful interview in which Mike shares his tips for selecting the right children’s books, how reading can help kids talk about tough subjects, and why he’s known as “The Book Wrangler.”
Bas Bleu: For the past three years, you’ve been the library media specialist at an elementary school here in Atlanta, working with both print and digital media, including books. How did your educational and professional path lead you to this chapter of your life?
Mike Rawls: A little bit of experience, a little bit of luck, and a little bit of good timing. I’ve just finished my 21st year as an educator, the last three of which have been as the school librarian. I moved to my current school in 2017 as a fourth-grade teacher where I soon learned that the current librarian would be retiring at the end of that school year. I immediately went to my principal and inquired if I could be considered for the job if I went back to school for my masters in school library media. The answer was yes, so I enrolled at the University of West Georgia that January. In March, I interviewed for the job, and the next thing I knew I was a graduate student and a school librarian. The right time and place plus the labor that went into completing my coursework over two years led me right where I truly believe I was meant to be—the school library.
BB: When did you become “the Book Wrangler,” and do you have a lasso?
MR: Before I was @thebookwrangler on Instagram, I was @monsterwranglermike. The original name came about because I always likened teaching elementary students to wrangling monsters (a term of endearment, I assure you). When I became a school librarian, I wanted my account to transition from sharing classroom ideas and best practices, to focusing on engagement with books in elementary school classrooms and libraries, but still connect with my original name; thus, @thebookwrangler was born. And, I always have admired Wonder Woman’s golden lasso, so I think I need one of my own at this point.
BB: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job? What’s the greatest challenge you face in your work? And how has the pandemic affected your ability to encourage and support your students’ reading journeys?
MR: The most rewarding part of my job has been transitioning our school library into a welcoming space. My goal was to make sure that the library doors were open all day from the time students arrive, until the time students leave. Seeing the library packed first thing in the morning, with some students making it their first stop when arriving to school, fills my heart all the way up. One of my biggest challenges has been reorganizing the nonfiction section of our library from the traditional Dewey Decimal system we all grew up with, to a Dewey-light version. Kids ask for books by topics, so that’s what we are in the process of doing: organizing books by topics that make sense to kids. The problem with Dewey is you might want books about a topic but find some in the 300s, 600s, and 900s based on how they are categorized. With this Dewey light version, we put all books on transportation, for example, together and then organize them by Dewey number within that category. It’s a big task because we’ve had to make signs, label all the books, and then catalog them in subcategories so we know where to find them on the shelf. During the pandemic, I found myself wanting to keep kids engaged with books, so I utilized things like my YouTube channel to feature First Chapter Fridays, share stories, and lead students in directed drawings. I also created virtual spaces on our library website and in Google Classroom to invite kids to engage in games, contests, and web-based learning activities. We also were the first elementary school in our district to roll-out curbside checkout to make sure books were getting into the hands of our students.
BB: Something like 20,000 children’s books are published in the United States every year. How do you begin to sort through them and choose the titles you think will be the most valuable to your students? And what tips do you have for parents and grandparents selecting books for their youngsters?
MR: There are SO many books coming out all the time. One of the best sources to go to for what’s hot? Kids! They know what they like to read and want to read, and often times have a pulse on what’s new and fresh. I have opportunities for students throughout the school year to share book requests with me both online and in-person. Of course, I also read reviews in professional journals like The Horn Book and School Library Journal as well. Parents and grandparents who may think they have no use for social media accounts (like Instagram) can join simply to follow hashtags like #bookstagram, #picturebooksaremyjam, and #kidlit, as well as popular book lover accounts like @hereweeread, @thetututeacher, and @happilyever.ever.elephants. Another resource I like to share with parents is Common Sense Media. They review titles and recommend books by age and provide detailed insight about a book’s content in areas such as violence, sex, language, and educational value which may help guide parents on finding books that are a best match for their family.
BB: Have you noticed any recent changes or new trends in children’s books over the past few years?
MR: Publishers are starting to be more intentional about offering books from a variety of perspectives and providing more inclusive titles that let everyone be seen. They still have a long way to go, but I think kid lit has definitely rounded a corner, and we will only continue to hear from more authors and illustrators who are people of color, people of the LGBTQ+ community, and people living with disabilities. Their stories are important not only so kids can see themselves, but for kids to see others whose experience is different from their own. Reading these stories helps kids look for what they have in common and learn to celebrate differences rather than fear them.
BB: For decades, parents and educators have debated what is and is not “appropriate” for young readers. In your experience, can reading about tough or sensitive subjects and situations benefit children? In what way?
MR: So, I touched on this a bit in the previous question, but I think it goes back to what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop says about windows and mirrors; books can be windows that allow kids to see into others’ lives, and books can be mirrors that let them see the value of their own experiences reflected back from the pages. Many times, kids are ready and able to talk about tough topics, and I think it’s more dangerous when a caregiver chooses to ignore conversations about race and racism, gender and sex, and politics and war. Books can be the perfect tool to engage kids and adults in discussions that may seem daunting, but will ultimately prepare kids to enter a world armed with knowledge and power, rather than go into situations blind and unprepared for reality.
BB: You recommended eight terrific storybooks for our new Summer 2021 edition. (We tested them out on several wee bluestockings we know!) What factors did you consider when choosing them?
MR: I look for the perfect combination of quality text and quality illustrations that makes for a flawless picture book. I look for stories that have universal themes that just about anyone from anywhere at any age can connect with in a way that makes them think and feel and be in touch with their humanity.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
MR: Three of my favorite books from my childhood bookshelf are all by Shel Silverstein—Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. You could turn to any page in any of those books and find something silly, tender, or thought-provoking, and I think I’m a little bit of all of those. His books of poems are just magic, and I hope to bring magic to all of the kids who come in our library.
BB: We’ve talked a lot about children’s books here. Do you have much opportunity to read “grown-up” books? What adult titles are you quick to recommend to other readers?
MR: I am usually found reading children’s books, but I do love a good memoir. A few favorites are Here for It by R. Eric Thomas, Educated by Tara Westover, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, and My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS by Abraham Verghese. I’m currently reading And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts.
BB: Thank you, Mike Rawls, for sharing your insight and expertise with Bas Bleu. And thank you for all you do to encourage your students’ love of reading!
Don’t want to miss another post from The Bluestocking Salon? Sign up to receive our posts via email! Just scroll down past the comments section and you’ll see a space where you can enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts.