Vanessa Hatley-Owen is a librarian at Botany Downs Primary School, Auckland. Here, she tells us about the best aspects of her job, what challenges she’s come up against, and about her own book!
Tell us about where you work and why you want to be in that role.
I work at a lovely primary school in Howick. Around four years ago, I felt it was time for a career change, and—as a lifelong bookworm—I had been wondering how to get into library work (my previous role was communications at a high school, where I could often be found hanging out ‘helping’ in their library!). I saw the role at Botany Downs advertised and one of the requirements was ‘must be enthusiastic about books’—ka-CHING! I think I landed the best role ever; we have a great reading culture within the school, the children love coming to the library, I am fully supported by the SLT (senior leadership team), and the best thing is that I get to talk about, and be around, books all day!
I think I landed the best role ever; we have a great reading culture within the school…and the best thing is that I get to talk about, and be around, books all day!
Books have always been a big part of my life and reading has so many positive benefits; I love being able to play a part in helping children develop their love of reading. I’ve worked hard to make the space more engaging and child-centric (lots of posters, as many face-out shelves or displays as I can). I’ve also increased our graphic novel collection and re-organised the library to make it easier to find what they are looking for.
How do you choose the books/resources in your collection?
Our amazing PTA generously funds a Scholastic Standing Order which is very much appreciated. There are always great books selected (it’s like Christmas when they arrive—you get to open the box to see what’s inside!) and it saves me time trying to source books. I also keep an eye on what the children are keen on, or areas in the collection that need updating. I am unashamedly pro-NZ authors/illustrators and try to put NZ books in as many hands as I can; it is so important for our children to see themselves reflected in the stories they read, and we have amazing authors and illustrators here! I keep track of the NZ book awards to find these and try to buy as many as I can.
What’s a typical day for you?
Like all librarians, my days are busy and varied—another reason I love this job! I can be processing books one minute, helping a wee one find a kitten book the next, or assisting a teacher find a set of magnets required for a science lesson. Oh, and tidying the shelves… always tidying the shelves! My favourite thing to do—that I don’t always have time for—is read books to the classes coming in. I stick to picture books—even for the senior classes—as they are entertaining, layered with great use of language, and there are lots to discover in the illustrations.
What challenges do you face as a librarian?
The roll has grown a lot in the last few years so the biggest challenge has been the library occasionally needing to be used as a classroom (something that happens in many other schools). It involves a lot of moving, re-shuffling, and sharing of the library space (resulting in noise and restricted access to items, etc). It’s not easy for the teachers either. I try to help by keeping the library as accessible as I can whether it’s setting up things like reading challenges, a book ordering menu, or even a ‘pop-up library’ (aka me with a box full of books!).
What are the most popular books that kids take out?
The circulation review shows the usual suspects: Dog Man, Captain Underpants, David Walliams, Geronimo Stilton, Minecraft, and Pokémon. Funny books are always popular, and the graphic novel shelf is usually depleted.
Reading for pleasure is very important, with many social, mental, and emotional benefits in addition to building a solid foundation for literacy and other learning
What is your philosophy around children’s literature?
Reading for pleasure is very important, with many social, mental, and emotional benefits in addition to building a solid foundation for literacy and other learning. I believe that anything children are reading and enjoying is great, and we shouldn’t get too hung up on whether it is ‘good.’ If they are reading anything at all, that is a win; once they are ‘hooked’ by what they are enjoying, then we can suggest longer/deeper/more nuanced titles. I tell the children that they are allowed to stop reading a book if it isn’t grabbing them BUT then they must always try another book.
What do you think is missing from children’s books in Aotearoa?
One thing I have noticed, particularly when I set up displays for Pasifika language weeks is that there is a definite gap in contemporary fiction featuring Māori/Pasifika children as the protagonists. I am very happy however, to see this is starting to change with lots of great titles coming through from the likes of Huia Publishers, Oratia Books, and authors Gavin Bishop, Lani Wendt Young, Steph Matuku, Tania Roxborogh, and Dalia Malaeulu (to name but a few). It means we can better reflect our communities.
You’re a writer too—how does your job/the books that kids read affect your writing (if it does)?
It’s always interesting to see how kids react to books, and it’s not always in the way you think they will. Sometimes picture books that have won awards don’t seem to spark with the kids. I try to keep in mind their perspectives, what they enjoy, and especially what makes them laugh. (For the record, I definitely don’t use any of our students as characters!)
Tell us about your new book coming out.
My second picture book is called, Farewell, Anahera. It follows the spirit of Anahera as she journeys from her marae to Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) and back to Hawaiki, and I am thrilled that it was translated into te reo Māori by Kanapu Rangitauira. Scott Irvine did the amazing illustrations (it can’t have been easy to visually represent a spirit!), and Duck Creek Press made it all come together and look stunning. Between all of us, I think we created a beautiful thing.
Libraries aren’t just a place to store books—we do so much more than that: we are a place to learn, and feel welcomed and safe
Do you have a message you want to give to kids/parents/educators?
Parents: please, please read to your children, and show them that reading is not only important but wonderful and fun. Believe us when we say that a school library is absolutely vital to literacy (yes, even in this digital world!). If your child’s school doesn’t have a library that is fully resourced and available every day, demand to know why not! Hound your school board (heck, hound your MP and the government!) to provide this opportunity for your children to grow their literacy skills and develop a love of reading—it is key to their future success! Libraries aren’t just a place to store books—we do so much more than that: we are a place to learn, and feel welcomed and safe, we help teach research skills and engage children with the world through books filled with stories and information, and we support teachers to reinforce the learning that happens in class.
By Vanessa Hatley-Owen
Translated by Kanapu Rangitauira
Illustrated by Scott Irvine
Published by Duck Creek Press
Vanessa was a daydreaming child whose nose was permanently stuck in a book. After trying various jobs she has found her true happy place - as a librarian in a primary school, which means she gets to talk about books all day! She is passionate about literacy and the role libraries play in setting children up for success. In 2021 she completed a library qualification through Open PolyTech. She is also a children's author with published picture books and educational readers, and has been shortlisted for both the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon and Storylines Joy Cowley awards. As well as reading lots of books in her spare time, she also reviews books for Kids Books NZ, and is a member of the management committee of the Storylines Children's Literature Charitable Trust Te Whare Waituhi Tamariki o Aotearoa.