“The library is the center of our school,” says Zavala Elementary School librarian Lisa M. Lopez, passionate storyteller, bilingual literacy advocate, 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, and the unofficial Little Free Library ambassador to El Paso, TX.
Through Lopez’s efforts, Zavala became the first location in Texas to install a Little Free Library (LFL) book exchange box—two, in fact, both inside and outside the school, just one way that she has helped students become invested in their own literacy. In addition, Zavala devotes the entire month of April to storytelling events in honor of Día de los niños/Día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) celebrations, inspiring students to go out into the community and become storytellers themselves.
“Something that I try to incorporate here at the library a lot is allow that hands-on, for them to be creative, and not just read what is available, but also be creators,” Lopez tells School Library Journal.
In this eighth of a dozen planned interviews with the youth services librarians named as Movers & Shakers this year, Lopez tells us more about her inspirations and goals for the profession, her favorite engaging K–5 books and authors, and some of the challenges facing school libraries today.
How did you know library science was the right fit for you?
My first teaching position was that of enrichment, so I did lots of fine art. That’s when I got into storytelling. I started creating my own puppets using paper bags, recyclables—and I had students do the same thing after I performed. I really enjoy fairy tales and folktales, so I would do a long thematic unit on those, and then allow students to do fractured fairy tales, allow them to be creative. I’ve always been very fortunate to work with all grade levels, which is why a school library was the perfect fit for me. You really do get to have an impact, not just on your classroom but on the entire student population.
And also during the summers when I was an enrichment teacher, I would drive around to yard sales and I would start purchasing children’s books. I started noticing that my collection was growing by the thousands, and it was really hard organizing them. So then I started researching the ways to categorize them, and that’s when I realized that a profession in library science would be great for me! One of my biggest passions is picture books; just managing my huge personal collection opened my eyes to the importance of collection development and exposing students to the variety of authors out there.
We’re always looking for recommendations for multicultural books and bilingual books. Where do you source these kinds of books for students?
Children’s Book Press is a great place to go to look for bilingual and multicultural books; that’s one place that I like to browse to see what’s out there and what’s got star reviews and the REFORMA newsletter as well. And Pat Mora has written close to 40 or 50 children’s books, which have a lot of bilingual words, and she talks about her childhood in El Paso, and [my] kids can really relate to that. But it’s certainly tough. They are limited. We also have here Cinco Puntos Press, the local publishing company. So that’s another great go-to place that I like to browse.
What are your favorite books for children? What’s most popular at your school?
For early readers, I really like Mo Willems. All of the “Piggie and Elephant” books are just phenomenal at making students realize the power of reading, because they’re just so funny and his illustrations are simple, but they convey so much expression. Students really adore Mo Willems, so he is one of the first authors I always try to introduce with them to try to develop that pleasure of reading.
And then of course, after they start getting older, graphic novels are it. They’re really just revolutionary, the way students read [them]. So some examples would be Lunch Lady, those are very popular at our school library, and Baby Mouse. And of course the “Amelia Rules” books.
I’ve noticed that boys are quick to pick out the Marvel books and all the action heroes [but] I noticed that girls needed something more towards themselves, female protagonists. “Amelia Rules” really has excited our female population here, and they’ve started reading graphic novels as well. So it’s definitely a very popular genre here at Zavala, and it’s everywhere, not just here. And The Boxcar Children graphic novels. We have plenty of the old chapter books but they weren’t really being circulated; ever since the graphic novels came out, an explosion of excitement! So I really do recommend them.
That’s primarily how I’ve been spending my library budget these last two to three years—purchasing graphic novels that are appropriate for them.
What are you most proud of at your school?
Something that is huge here for us is Día de los niños/Día de los libros. Pat Mora, the children’s author and poet, is from El Paso and is actually a dear friend of mine. She comes once a year and she’s been very encouraging of the continuum, the storytelling events that I host for the entire month of April. So I do the folktales and fairytales—to me, they are essential, because they teach morals—and I do a play with my marionette sets and little houses. I put up a performance for every grade level. Then I have third, fourth, and fifth graders do their own plays for the lower grades, which is phenomenal. This is where I encourage their creativity. They’re not to spend any money. I provide them with a box where I receive my Scholastic books or Follett books, and they gather the construction paper, string, and start drawing their marionettes with paper. Everything is paper based.
It’s really exciting for little ones to observe older students’ public speaking and presentation skills! It’s truly been a blessing focusing on that side of storytelling where students are creators and presenters.
Can you tell us more about how you collaborate with classroom teachers?
When they came in to see my [first storytelling] performance, they saw how attentive students were and how excited they were. Storytelling is just one of those things that…I don’t want to say it’s a lost art, but it doesn’t happen anymore, especially the types of marionettes that I use and I also do it bilingually. But it has captivated teachers and they get excited, too. So I think that has really helped for them to help their students, give them class time to work on their little theaters and their marionettes.
Can you tell us more about Día de los niños/Día de los libros in your community?
The last Saturday of April I invite a large group of students to perform at our local [celebration], which is organized by the El Paso Public Library. It’s a huge event here in El Paso, where the community gets free books and there’s all literacy-based activities.We go to the storytelling booth and my students get to present! It’s been wonderful—the audience, and the support that we’ve gotten is quite tremendous.
Storytelling is huge for me. Huge for me. And filming the performances, and showing those in future years. That’s really powerful. It reminds [students] of the power of creativity. Anything captured on video is really neat, and then showing it again to the lower grades—it’s quite a powerful learning tool.
What’s it like to hear back from your students?
The first year that I did the storytelling as a librarian here at Zavala, I had a set of twins who were in fifth grade, and they put on a beautiful Hansel and Gretel play that they wrote. Right now they are finishing middle school, and every year in April they send me a message that they want to help out and do storytelling for Día de los niños/Día de los libros. So it had a huge impact on them.
Who do you collaborate the most with day to day? Does that come naturally to you?
It has to be our faculty, the teachers. Well, throughout my MLIS courses, collaboration was a huge topic. Without it, the library becomes isolated, it becomes an island. So you really do have to go out there and do some outreach yourself with the actual school community, because otherwise students will just come in to get books and they’ll be in and out.
And that’s not the purpose of a library. To me, the public library [is] a community center where people get to enjoy themselves and read whatever—a magazine, a book, a reference material. It’s making them feel welcome. It’s a place for them to relax and have fun.
How do you feel about being a Mover & Shaker? Do you view yourself as a marketer?
More than a marketer, I feel like a promoter. If you collaborate—and you don’t do everything by yourself, if you collaborate—and you have other people develop an interest, it’s just going to flourish a lot quicker. There’s just no way that I could have done everything that I’ve done by myself, for instance, the LFL movement and Día de los niños/Día de los libros, two wonderful literacy initiatives.
The students have been the most supportive. They can’t believe that we’re close now to 50 Little Free Libraries across our borderlands. They love knowing that we were the pioneers, the first ones in the state of Texas and in El Paso to start this simple yet powerful concept of a free book exchange. So I try to keep them updated on the progress of the libraries and show them the Google map on the LFL website so that they can see. When I started this, there weren’t really that many. Now, we’re talking about thousands.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for school librarians right now?
Budgetary cuts, that’s a huge one, especially here for our school. Ultimately that’s been the main [issue] that’s impacted our school community. Our students were used to receiving free books from Scholastic every year, from Reading is Fundamental, which had been funded since the 1960s by the federal government, and it just got slashed. And this is the first year that they’re not getting any new books at all [through that program]. We would get three free books per student a year and the kids were just excited to come in and choose their own reading materials. It’s a huge sense of ownership.
We are surrounded by extremely low socioeconomic communities, so it really just took away a big part of my job and also what a library stands for. I got lucky: I applied for a grant to the El Paso Community Foundation and they [gave] me $1000 to purchase some more books. .
What is your biggest focus going forward?
For one thing, meeting the diversity of our patrons. A lot of kids now want the technology, they want the gaming, while others [want] the hands-on puppetry, storytelling, the old traditions to enjoy literacy. So it’s meeting those different needs. [And] here for our school, the standardized testing is a major challenge that we all get stressed out about, because it takes away from our authentic teaching and learning. So that is a huge issue that we’re all facing…we’re hoping it will be more of a memory in the years to come. Because it’s really taking away a lot from our students.
When/why did you start your website? Has it accomplished what you wanted?
A lot of our teachers don’t have a blog or personal website that showcases their work, and I tell them that it’s essential. It’s your professional portfolio. You’re letting others know—and not just your local community but other people that are interested in what you’re doing—and they can check it out. And so I created that as a personal library website and I like to add videos of what we’re up to.
What has been the best professional development experience you’ve ever had?
Being an active member of professional library associations has really been the biggest blessing in my career. I started in 2008 with REFORMA; they came to El Paso [for] their conference. I was lucky enough to attend and volunteer and I met the president at the time, and I got to network with some big names in the profession. It was such an eye opener to the essential nature being involved in these professional library associations and attending conferences. So I saw it as a huge step and a great networking tool. [At] ALA Chicago in 2009, I was just amazed. I came back so refreshed and empowered with what I had gathered out there, and the new tools, too, to continue improving myself.
What would you love to do in your career that you haven’t done yet?
I have a lot of people encouraging me to get a Ph.d, but at this time I’m actually expecting my first child, so it’s kind of a change for me! I’m excited, but I understand it’s a completely different journey than the professional. Because I love ALA conferences, professional development and stuff like that. So for now I’m going to start focusing a little bit on family, but I will do this!
I’ve actually considered for a long time moving on to the public sector and starting off as a children’s librarian, and doing the outreach programming. I love that! I really do. After that, I would love to be a branch manager. So those two are on my wish list, and hopefully at some point in my life I will definitely get to experience the public sector.