School Librarians of Aotearoa: Mikaela Ellwood

Mikaela Ellwood is the School Librarian at Henderson North School in Tāmaki Makaurau.

The school library I am privileged to work in is tucked in a corner of Henderson, on the edge of Auckland. I was welcomed to this role in the middle of 2020, working alongside the outgoing librarian for a few months before taking full control at the beginning of 2021. It is a job that has become more and more precious to me over the course of the last two years. Though I have always loved books—and my fondest childhood memories are of reading or being read to by parents and teachers—I never seriously considered a career as a librarian.

From here the step to a school library is a simple one: where else can reading be so magical?

Through studying English at university, my love of literature was cemented and I found that sharing that passion with others was my calling. I aim to share the worlds that books open to us: the ones that make us laugh and the ones that make us cry, the world not only of literature, but of science and philosophy, thoughts and ideas through the whole history of the world. I strongly believe that literacy and an enjoyment of reading enriches people’s lives in ways we cannot quantify, if merely giving them the power to direct their own destinies were not enough. From here the step to a school library is a simple one: where else can reading be so magical?

There is so much fantastic childrens’ literature on the market, not just from overseas, but also homegrown gems from New Zealand. Choosing books to buy in any given year may seem like one of the most basic roles of a librarian, but it can impact the reading culture of a school for many years. I have found this to be the case in my own library; the previous librarian, along with the Teacher with Library Responsibility and the Principal, have prioritised building a wonderful, varied and deep collection for decades. It is evident on the shelves. It is so important to offer students a wide variety of knowledge and interest so that they can explore for themselves. Our aim is to give them the tools they need to become their own adventurers. We are often directed in our purchases by the requests of the students themselves, for books they have heard about, or discovered in the Auckland Libraries through programs like Waka to Schools. I have also enjoyed guiltily hunting out my old favourites in the hope that they will have as much effect on the lives of these students as they did on my own. These include classics like The Wind in the Willows, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as well as more modern books like Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider. Beyond these, there is a whole raft of new children’s literature that I am discovering: Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, Raina Telgemeier’s Guts and Sisters, John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, and so many more.

Some of Mikaela’s favourite books

My favourite aspect of my role is talking about books and reading aloud to classes. There is nothing more exciting than stumbling across a brilliant picture book or collection of short stories and then watching the faces of those listening as their imaginations carry them away. I recently read My Magnificent Jelly Bean Tree by Maura Finn to a couple of classes and the students loved coming up with their own imaginary types of trees. Other aspects of my day include processing books and journals to make sure they last for many years, organising events such as Book Week, and creating displays to pull our rich store of books off the shelves and into the open. One recent example is the timeline that I have refreshed and updated to support the upcoming New Zealand history curriculum.

The book club that began in Term 1 last year has been a key part of targeting students who want a little more challenge in their reading, but may be unsure of how to go about it. It has provided me with a platform to work alongside them and encourage them. Sometimes it is simply a matter of pointing out books they may not have noticed, and sometimes showing them that they can read books that they may not have had the confidence to pick up. This strategy works well for both strong readers and those who struggle a little more, because each book club member is working at their own level and improving at their own pace.

Throughout my journey so far, the professional librarian organisations I have been involved with have been invaluable. The National Library network meetings each term have been a great opportunity to meet other passionate librarians who face similar challenges to me, and get support from beyond my individual school. I have enjoyed meeting librarians from all over the country in the National Library’s Zoom course for new librarians as well. As soon as librarians get together, hundreds of new ideas fly about the room—which can be quite overwhelming—but there is always one or two that I can tackle, and there are people to contact for help. For instance, the National Library has been instrumental in the set up of a dedicated graphic novels section at our school. I have also been working closely with the librarians at Auckland Libraries through the Waka to Schools programme to build connections with our immediate community.

As soon as librarians get together, hundreds of new ideas fly about the room

As I am only at the beginning of my librarian journey there is so much more I want to learn about how libraries work and publishing in New Zealand. In my opinion, there is a need for quality non-fiction in a wide variety of topics that are accessible and engaging for young readers. The more we can involve young New Zealanders in the wide, wonderful world they are a part of, the faster and further they will grow. The possibilities for the future are endless.

Mikaela Ellwood

Mikaela is a passionate school librarian who came to libraries through a deep seated love of books and a major in English Literature at the University of Auckland. She believes books are a key element in education because of how they open up the physical and imaginative worlds and unlock creativity. Her favourite books as a child included the Narnia series, Famous Five, and of course, Harry Potter.