February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Literacy Leader: Up Close with Melissa Zymboly Depper

“I am absolutely committed to developing that overarching relationship between families and the library,” says Melissa Zymboly Depper, children’s and family services librarian at the Arapahoe Library District in Centennial, CO, for the past 10 years. The 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker is a passionate early literacy advocate and advisor, as well as a storytime trainer, blogger, and social media master.

In this seventh of a dozen planned interviews with the youth services librarians named as Movers & Shakers this year, Depper talks to School Library Journal about her inspirations and passion for the profession, her favorite read-aloud titles, the importance of collaboration and community, and why the library is critical to giving every child a good start in life.

When/how did you know library science was the right choice for you?
Right after college I worked for a few years at the amazing Tattered Cover Book Store here in Denver, where I spent a lot of time in the children’s area. At first I gravitated to that section because I had been such a reader as a kid that I still knew a lot of the books, and I loved reading the new ones. Then I discovered how much fun it was to talk with the kids about what they were reading and how satisfying it was to help adults find just the right book for the children in their lives.

One of my bosses at the time was Louise Brueggemann (who is now a librarian too) and she started to give me little inventory projects, which got me intrigued with the process of managing and organizing a collection to suit a particular community. I decided that working with children, families, books, and information was what I wanted to do. Libraries had been a big part of my growing up: we used the library all the time; my mom, Rhonie Zymboly, was head of circulation for many years at our local library; and I paged there in high school. I realized that, while I had gotten a great start professionally in bookstores, I wanted to move forward in libraries.

Why children and families as a specialty?
At first, it was the books that brought me to youth services, but now it’s about the relationships. Being a parent is hard work; being in a family is hard work. It does take a village to raise a child, and many of us just don’t have that big of a village to work with anymore, for a number of reasons. For the library to be able to step in and provide help and support and a friendly face and a welcoming place and the answers to questions—that’s huge. I’m very happy to be a part of that.

Can you tell us more about your feelings toward early literacy?
Oh my goodness, you know I have lots of feelings about early literacy! When I was in library school in the early 1990s, early literacy wasn’t even on the radar. Baby storytimes weren’t even on the radar! We knew reading was important and vital to children’s success, but we didn’t know yet how to unpack all that, let alone how to share it with our families. I have two girls, and having a front-row seat as they learned how to talk and to read and to write just fascinated me—and then I learned about early literacy through Every Child Ready to Read and that was that.

There are so many challenges in this world, and so many people struggle, and solutions to our collective problems seem so impossible. And everybody wants the best for their children, but not everybody knows that they can be a critical part of giving them the best, no matter what their background or upbringing or language skills. We know a good start makes a difference; we need to make sure everybody else knows it too. And that good start—reading and talking and engaging with children—is accessible, and affordable, and practical, and measurable, for everybody, anywhere.

I’m not saying literacy is the one answer to everything, but the more we read to our babies, the better our world is going to be.

What books are on your all-time top lists for read-alouds?
I could probably read Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock (Holiday House, 1988) out loud every day for the rest of my life. Older titles I love to share in storytime include The Baby Goes Beep (Roaring Brook, 2013) by Rebecca O’Connell, The Big Fat Worm (Knopf, 1987) by Nancy Van Laan, and Trashy Town (HarperCollins, 1999) by Andrea Zimmerman. Newer favorites are Oh No! (Random, 2012) by Candace Fleming, Tiny Little Fly (candlewick, 2010) by Michael Rosen, and Brontorina (Candlewick, 2010) by James Howe. And I sing Over in the Meadow (Viking, 1999) to my babies every chance I get.

What are you reading right now for yourself?
It’s been a crazy winter, so I’ve been re-reading my Gillian Bradshaw historical fiction: Island of Ghosts: A Novel of Roman Britain (Forge, 1998), Beacon at Alexandria (Houghton Mifflin, 1986), The Sand-Reckoner. (Forge, 2000). They are all awesome. I am a big non-fiction reader for fun, and right now it’s Consider the For: A History of How We Cook and Eat (Basic Books, 2012) by Bee Wilson. I have an enormous stack of professional reading to get to. I’m just starting So Much More than the ABCs by Judith Schickedanz and Molly Collins, which I can heartily recommend even though I’m only two chapters in; I can’t wait to get to the rest of it. I’m also starting to ramp up my picture book reading for the year–I set my goal at 500 picture books for 2013 and am way behind already!

Can you tell us more about what you aim to achieve with your blog?
I started Mel’s Desk in 2009. I was learning so much from the librarians I followed on Twitter that I wanted to make sure I was contributing back. So at first, my blog was a place to put storytime plans and share a few program ideas. My main goal now is to keep talking about how to do storytime, and why to do storytime; to help us all keep improving our storytime skills, and be better advocates for storytime as a core service to our communities.

Did you have programming goals in mind when you started at your library?
Not too long after I came to the Arapahoe Library District in 2003, I went to my supervisor at the time, Virginia Brace, and said that I really wanted to offer some programs for parents in addition to our storytimes and programs for kids. My own girls were in preschool, and I thought one of their master teachers was outstanding, and I wanted to bring her in to present about reading to children.

I owe so much to Virginia, because while she told me they hadn’t had much luck with parent programs in the past, she said, ‘Go ahead and give it a try!’ Shortly after I learned about Every Child Ready to Read, and started to offer those workshops very successfully. Interest in those particular sessions tapered off after a few years, but we are still committed to this idea and now I can’t imagine our library without parent and caregiver programming. My colleague Betsy Brainerd is spearheading our project to become a Family Place library, which…involves great play-based programming for parents and their children together. My colleague Pam Grover does a great job with “Literacy Make and Take” and “Stories & More,” two hands-on early literacy based programs for caregivers and families of young children, funded through our partnership with the Arapahoe County Early Childhood Council. My colleague Laurie Anne Armstrong just started a new outreach project, bringing storytimes to high-need preschools in our area, but her main goal is to teach the teachers about early literacy along the way.

What are you most proud of at your library?
We have been so fortunate to have management and directors that recognize that early literacy is a core service for public libraries. We have been able to put into place a robust storytime training sequence that covers initial and ongoing continuing education and support for our storytime providers—as well as training for their supervisors and early literacy awareness efforts directed to the entire staff. My supervisor Lori Romero and I were able to share out some of the results of our work in the form of storytime competencies and observation forms at the ALSC Institute this past September.

Who do you collaborate the most with?
I have had so many opportunities to collaborate and learn. I work very closely with the members of my team. We are all responsible for our own projects, but we come together all the time to think about the big picture and to set goals and brainstorm and support each other. I have had the incredible experience of helping to found the advocacy group Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy (CLEL); now I personally know so many librarians and what they are working on in their own libraries. When I have a question I have a large network of people I can call, and when someone has a particular need, I love that I can help connect them with someone else who might be able to help.

In the last couple of years, I’ve also started to work more with colleagues outside of Colorado, people I’ve met on Twitter or through Flannel Friday. It’s been fun to work with Flannel Friday leaders to be thoughtful about expanding and overseeing that online community. I’ve also been a part of a few proposals to our national conferences with librarians I feel very close to personally and professionally, but still haven’t met face to face! This type of non-local collaboration is a possibility that didn’t really exist at the beginning of my career and I don’t think it will ever stop feeling exciting and cool.

I think a good collaboration takes real effort. The best projects are the result of a number of passionate minds who all see the main goal from slightly different perspectives. To incorporate all those perspectives takes a lot of synthesis, talking, and thinking, and making mistakes, all of which is hard work. I love it though. I love being made to be smarter and sharper and think more deeply because of the people around me, and I know the finished projects are more powerful when that happens.

What is next for you and why?
I’m working on translating some of our face to face storytime training to online modules for our staff. Our district is wide-spread and off-desk time is precious, so making some of our training be more flexible and adaptive is a major goal. We’re going to be offering our first tech programs for preschoolers and their families later this year—tablets and apps and wiggles and tips—so I’m starting to dive in to the literature and reading more about digital literacies, child development, selection criteria for apps, all of that. Working with ALSC’s Children and Technology Committee has helped me out in this tremendously. And I have a new project with CLEL that we’ll be able to announce later this year, about picture books and early literacy, so that’s been a good challenge to organize. I’m going to ALA for the first time this June, and will be presenting a poster session about early literacy messages in storytime.

What was your reaction to being named a Mover & Shaker?
When I saw the first email about it in my inbox, my hands actually started to shake. To know that my boss, my team, and my colleagues wanted to acknowledge me in this way was both humbling and exciting. It also totally re-motivated me for the next 15 years. There’s a lot to do yet.

You were pegged as an “Advocate.” Is that how you view yourself, too?
Yes.  And I love that this is what I get to do every day. To promote awareness of early literacy, to speak up for the children and families in our communities, to work to provide staff what they need in order to do their jobs well—it’s a privilege.

What do you think are the big issues and challenges for children’s services right now?
I think our biggest challenge is to keep getting out of the library and into the community, and to get the community into us—not just into our physical spaces, but into the mindset that we are there for them. Money is so tight, resources are so limited, habits are so set, we have to be proactive about looking for new ways to do our job and new places to do it and new people to do it with. Our director, Nicolle Davies, says her vision for our library is that we be not just a benefit to our community, but essential to it. Youth services librarians need to be part of the movement that convinces our business and political and education leaders that investing in early childhood is essential to our success.

What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
Develop even more training for our storytime providers—presenting storytime demands a complex skill set and I would love to keep drilling down and offering more and more thoughtful support. Create art, music, and STEM programs for preschoolers. Do more speaking locally about early literacy to community groups. Present at ALA and PLA. Write a book about storytime. Hold a Flannel Friday Storytime Conference. Help CLEL provide free webinars and training materials. Maybe consult and help libraries find their storytime groove. Found a publishing house with the sole purpose of reprinting board books as big books for baby and toddler storytimes.

What have been the best professional development experiences you have ever had?
Being introduced to Every Child Ready to Read and the greater world of early literacy and early learning, has been the pivotal experience of my career. [That] gave me a focus, a ladder, a boat, a tribe—all of the metaphors! I wanted to learn more, so I read, went to workshops, worked with mentors. I wanted to do more, so I proposed programs and services, teamed up with others, and learned about grants, committee work, and advocacy. I wanted to share more, so I started a blog, joined Twitter, and worked to become a better presenter and teacher.

And I’m still learning how to do all of those things and learning new tools to do them with. The best professional growth comes not because you think you should achieve this thing or that thing to be successful, but because you have a cause you believe in utterly that powers you on.

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

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