April 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Creating Community: Up Close with Youth Librarian Kirby McCurtis

“I just feel really called to work with people who don’t really have anything, who really need and get something out of our services,” says Library Journal Mover & Shaker Kirby McCurtis, the new youth librarian and storytime standout at Multnomah County Library (MCL) in Portland, OR. Since joining MCL in January of 2012, McCurtis has been making a big splash in her new role—from toddlers to teens.

McCurtis came to MCL from San Diego Public Library, where, among other innovative outreach programs, she created Cuddle Up & Read, a storytime program for pregnant and parenting teens. Now at MCL, her new programs include the music-infused Black Storytime (which is open to all) and an expansion of the library’s intergenerational storytime for grandparents to include teen involvement.

In this second of a dozen planned interviews with the youth services librarians named as Mover & Shakers this year, McCurtis shares with School Library Journal  her top book picks (for storytime and beyond), her inspirations and passions, her strategies for meeting the needs of her entire diverse community, and her views on the future of youth services.

When/how did you know library science was the right choice for you?
After earning my Bachelors, I took a year off and served with AmeriCorps in St. Louis, MO, in an elementary school as a literacy specialist. I provided intensive one-on-one tutoring for students who were not reading at grade level. Within my first month as an AmeriCorps member I begin to really understand the root cause of continuing poverty—illiteracy. When my mom suggested librarianship, it just kind of clicked. During grad school at UCLA I was on both the archiving and public library tracks, but when I landed my first full time job as a youth librarian I knew I had found my calling.

What books are on your all-time top lists for storytime, black storytime, and grandparents storytime?
Peek-a-boo Morning by Rachel Isadora (one year-olds)
Hug by Jez Alborough (one year-olds)
Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo by Kevin Lewis (toddlers)
Tiny Little Fly by Michael Rosen (toddlers)
Can You Make a Scary Face? By Jan Thomas (preschool)
Wolf’s Chicken Stew by Keiko Kasza (preschool)

Black Storytime
Shades of Black by Sandra L. Pinkney
My People by Langston Hughes, photographs by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Head Body, Legs: a Story from Liberia by Margaret H. Lippert
Whose Knees are These? by Jabari Asim
Lola Reads to Leo by Anna McQuinn
Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams

Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler
Grandma Lena’s Big Ol’ Turnip by Denia Lewis Hester
My Nana and Me/My Pop Pop and Me by Irene Smalls
The Grandpa Book/The Grandma Book by Todd Parr
Grandmother and I/Grandfather and I by Helen E. Buckley

What are your favorite new books for kids?
10 Hungry Rabbits by Anita Lobel
Oh, No! by Candace Fleming
A Kiss Means I Love You Kathryn Madeline Allen
Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin
Shout! Shout it Out! by Denise Fleming
Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman
I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black
Every Little Thing by Cedella Marley
H.O.R.S.E. by Christopher Myers

What was programming like at MCL before you got there?
Diverse and abundant. One of the things that attracted me to MCL was the amount of programming offered each day for patrons throughout the city. MCL is a leader in early childhood programs and educations, and my only goal was to perform at the same caliber as my fellow librarians.

What are you most proud of there?
Black Storytime is my pride and joy. During my first interview for my current position, I was asked, ‘What would a storytime for African and African American families look like to you?’ I thought it was a really interesting question and a challenging one. I am so excited to be able to answer it every Saturday now that I have started Black Storytime. Former youth services director Ellen Fader gave me free reign to sculpt the storytime and create a format that I thought would best interest the community.

And I have been encouraged to try new things and think outside the box. I have so much fun breaking out the instruments or rhythm sticks and dancing with the families. When I am able to connect singing and play with early literacy skills for families and then parents come up to me afterwards and start a conversation about what other books or songs might be fun for their child, I know I am doing my job.

I am very deliberate about the book selection, introducing families to stories that appeal and speak to the black experience or are written and illustrated by African American authors and illustrators. When evaluating books for storytime, I not only look at length, theme, and illustrations, but I also check to see how many copies are in our system. I know that early literacy begins and is strengthened at home and I want parents and grandparents to be able to check out titles that I have read or suggested. Gathering new materials that fit these criteria is a constant challenge, but one that I am enjoying immensely.

Who has been attending Black Storytime?
It’s been a really diverse mix. It’s completely open to everyone, so I think that makes a difference. We’ve had some white families, [mixed families], white parents who have adopted black kids. And we have in my neighborhood a really big Senegalese population, so the whole Senegalese community has been coming out. They’ve been really supportive.

Because it’s family storytime, it’s open from [ages] zero to 6. So sometimes we get older brothers and sisters, but usually it’s the 12-to-36-months age range. It’s good to do that, to expose them to music and books and the different types of literature that’s out there. I think sometimes parents get a little nervous: ‘Is it too early to start reading to my kid? They don’t understand what I’m saying.’ But it’s never too early. So it’s nice when they bring the little ones in and they get something out of it, too.

What is next for you at MCL?
Reading is Grand is the next project; it’s going to roll out as a month long program/celebration of grandparents and since it is not just about reading, we are thinking about other ways to get the message across. We know for sure oral storytelling, art, and music will all be a part of the program as those are all ways of sharing family history. The reality is, many grandparents are raising their grandchildren and deserve recognition and support. When I spoke with community members, including a group called Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, they were very enthusiastic about the idea of programs tailored at their needs and gave me tons of suggestions.

What was your reaction to being named a Mover & Shaker?
I was stoked; no other way to put it. It felt like a huge high five & hugs all in one. I could not believe it. I love the Mover & Shaker award because it gives me ideas for future programs that I might be able to bring to my library and puts faces to names that I have only heard or seen in print.

You were pegged as a “Community Builder.” Is that how you view yourself, too?
Yes, definitely. I am constantly juggling in-reach and outreach, youth needs and adult needs, staff needs and customer needs, all to make sure that this neighborhood library is seen as a community center. For me the library is more than just place so I like to get out of the building to both bring folks in and bring our resources to people where they are.

What reactions and feedback have you gotten on being named?
The feedback has been nothing but positive for me. My friends, library and non-library, are so happy for me and it feels great. And my family is my biggest support system. They are over the moon. My parents are the ultimate cheerleaders, for me and my siblings, in everything we do. But this offers something tangible in laymen’s terms, which is another reason why I love Movers & Shakers. It is one thing to say I’m doing this or that cool project and try to explain the nuances of library land, but to have a straight forward article in a national publication is something anyone can get, no matter what field you are in. My dad immediately asked if they sold Library Journal at normal newsstands.

What do you think is the state of teen services right now, the big issues and challenges?
I think it really depends on your service area. I would say a big issue I see is a blanket approach to teen services. Every teen is different and the biggest challenge is figuring out what the teen in front of you needs. A high school reading teacher I work closely with likened being a librarian or teacher to being a wine sommelier; you have to understand that teen’s personality, life experiences, and needs in order to find just what will grab them. It has to be a kid-by-kid response in order to support them and meet them where they are in order to have a meaningful conversation.

I also see a big disconnect between what is real in a teens’ life and what is being written about. This can be in terms of the skin color of the characters or the experiences they are having in the story; especially in terms of ‘neat’ endings. In the communities I choose to work, many of the teens can’t see themselves in books. We are asking teens to suspend disbelief in a time when that is so difficult for them and then expecting the positivity toward reading to still be alive. They are not comfortable being the black sidekick; they are at a school with constant budget cuts so the resources they need have been taken away, where there are over 67 languages spoken but no one speaks theirs.

Many teens are experiencing a reality that is free from shelter and protection—poverty, homelessness, racism, unemployment, violence, hunger. And they want to see books that reflect these realities. Labeling books that have mature content as not suitable for reading in a school environment stigmatizes the books and makes reading a boring chore. It seems curious to me that movies are not policed in the same way books are; PG-13 has violence but kids and teens are still encouraged to go see the latest blockbuster. A book with violence, for example, does not get the same support.

Do you have any strategies for dealing with those situations in your library?
I have a black popular fiction collection. A lot of the teens, even non-black teens, that are experiencing something like a life on the hustle (they’re broke and just trying to figure it out, and their family is just trying to figure it out), they gravitate towards those urban fiction books, and we don’t have teen books like that. I think that sets them up for not liking reading. So I’m giving the teens those [adult] books, but letting them know that they’ll probably have to have a conversation with their parents or teacher about this, if it’s an appropriate text for them to have. I don’t know any other way. I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘Oh no, you can’t read this because you’re not ready to handle this information.’

My mom never policed what I read, and I think that made me love reading. So I just don’t want to be a censor. I just want them to be pumped about reading so they’ll keep doing it.

You’ve got to approach it one-on-one. No blanket approach! Know your community!

Are there any YA books that you typically recommend to your reluctant readers?
After Tupac and D Foster [by Jacqueline Woodson] is my number one. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, because that book is so good. All of Rita’s books, especially Jumped; that one is really popular. And America, by E.R. Frank, they love that book. Ghetto Cowboy [by G. Neri] too; they all love that and for reluctant readers, that’s so good.

What do you think teen services should look like going forward?
The biggest area I would like to see a renewal of focus on going forward is reading. Reading is not purely academic and I hope that there is resurgence of positivity toward reading. Young people are getting distracted at their most distractible time—middle school—and never returning to reading. But they are eager participants when they are hooked. So we have to be more adventurous in the ways we engage in reading instruction and advocacy.

I see e-content as an interesting way to do this, but the digital divide is real where I work. I hear that devices are everywhere and that the content is out there for the taking but it is not getting into every hand. I think we should forget the device; it is about the process. How can we use our resources to show teens what they can get for themselves?

They need facilitators to show them what they can do from home to acquire new reading material in any format—be that a phone, PC, tablet, or library card. I hope in the future we can work more closely with teachers and schools in order to be these facilitators. The love of reading is hard to get back once it has been lost, but if we support YA literature across a variety of genres and themes, and find the right story for the teen in front of us, this won’t be such an uphill battle.

What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
I would love to have a program, or series of programs, that happens in cooperation with another state. There are a number of fabulous youth librarians doing amazing things with early childhood in California and Colorado—like Mel Depper—that I would love to work with in my current setting but I haven’t figured out how to make that happen yet. I am thinking about a youth-centered approach to local programming from a regional perspective. The region where I work is the highest poverty area in Portland. Kids don’t get out in the same way that someone with affluence would. Public transit only goes so far, and just the idea of going out of their city is not even on their radar. So having a partnership library-to-library, for them to see other kids doing the same thing? I think that would be really cool. So many kids these days don’t get that there’s another sphere outside their neighborhood. I want them to realize that there’s something bigger.

What are the best professional development experiences that you have ever had?
The first was the ALA Emerging Leaders program, which made me more thoughtful about what participation and leadership mean. It introduced me to 90 something other newish librarians from around the country; a dozen that I now consider my ‘librarian road crew.’ This is my rock star cohort that I am so proud to call friends. I know I can call or email any of these folks when I have a library question or a crazy idea that I want to work out and they can figure out how to do it or who best I should contact. It also introduced me to two greats in the field, Peter Bromberg and John Chrastka, who helped show me the ALA ropes, and who I credit with my current level of association involvement.

The second was the California State Library and InfoPeople initiative Eureka! Leadership Institute. Thirty librarians from California are selected each year to participate in this intensive week long institute based on a competitive, lengthy application and a project proposal. Eureka is how I was able to get Cuddle Up & Read funded, and introduced me to the world of grant writing. More importantly, I gained a great group of mentors that challenge me and worked with two amazing facilitators who helped me discover my strengths and challenges as a leader.

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.



  1. So proud to call Kirby my family. She is an inspiration to us all, always great to hear about her work. She should toot her own horn more often!! Keep it up Kirbs!!