16 YA Authors Who Built Their Careers in Libraries

Many authors' jobs in school, public, and academic libraries have informed their writing for teens.

We know that many teachers have become writers for young people, and librarians are no different. Beverly Cleary and Lewis Carroll both spent their days in information services, and many contemporary YA authors also have experience in school, public, and academic libraries. And between gaining research experience, developing knowledge of the publishing market, and having conversations with teens, their careers inform their writing. In honor of National Library Week, here are some YA authors whose work is both in the stacks and behind the reference desk.

Juleah del Rosario, M. K. England, and Jenny Han
Juleah del Rosario, photo by Flor Blake; M. K. England; Jenny Han, photo by Janelle Bendycki

The Bird and the Blade author Megan Bannen’s library life started when she was young. “My mom was a school librarian, and I would earn my allowance by helping her sort catalog cards and shelve books,” she says. In her mid-20s, Bannen made it official as a youth services associate for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and other public libraries in Kansas, where she hosted storytimes. “Patrons didn't always know my name, but they definitely knew me as ‘the lady with the pink ukulele,’” she says. She talks to kids and teens about what they want to read, whether or not it’s on the shelves. “It's helped me see opportunities,” she says. “I find myself thinking things like, ‘I wish there were more YA books dealing with religion. Oh, hey! I should write that!’ Or when I see a lot of elementary-aged reluctant readers shy away from the really thick books getting published in the middle grade market, it makes me think, ‘Maybe we could use more books under fifty thousand words in length. Oh, hey! I should write that, too!’”

As an acquisitions librarian at the University of Colorado Boulder, Juleah del Rosario is in charge of buying all of the resources for the library. “Working in a library at a university played a role in how I thought about college admissions for my first novel, 500 Words or Less,” she says. “The opportunity to attend college can be transformative for many students, but is rife with anxiety, pressure, and, as recent news demonstrates, systems of inequity. Libraries, public, school, or university, can play a role in guiding students and teens through periods of transition, whether it’s navigating complex societal issues or relationships through YA novels, or learning how to critically evaluate information available online.”

Emily A. Duncan is a youth services librarian at the Hudson Library and Historical Society in Hudson, OH, where she coordinates storytimes and programming for teens. “Working in a library and seeing what teens are reading is helpful merely to see what they gravitate toward, but it rarely informs my writing because I've found the teens who really like fantasy will read all fantasy,” she says. Her first novel, Wicked Saints, is the start of a dark fairy tale trilogy.

M.K. England, author of The Disasters, started in libraries as a summer volunteer when she was a teenager, then took a work study job at her college’s music library when she was an undergraduate. Finally, she decided to make librarianship a career. “When a librarian friend finally shook me and asked, 'WHY AREN'T YOU A LIBRARIAN? YOU WOULD LOVE IT,' I finally got my act together and went to library school.” Now, she’s a YA librarian in Virginia. “My favorite part about the job is working with the teens themselves, especially my Teen Advisory Board,” she says. “They're creative, passionate, so full of ideas, and being around their energy absolutely informs the characters I write and my desire to write them. I want to give them the world! And other worlds, I guess, since I write sci-fi/fantasy!”

 

Finding—and writing—what teens are looking for

As the young adult librarian at the Morristown and Morris Township library in Morristown, NJ, Sandy Hall ran teen programming and was in charge of YA collection development. She was also a reader for the Garden State Teen Book Awards. Hall’s first novel, A Little Something Different, was inspired by one of the teens in her library. “She wanted to read a book about living away at college. We couldn't find anything quite like what she was looking for and I filed the idea away,” she says. The author’s next YA romance, The Shortest Distance Between Love and Hate, comes out in July. Even while writing, Hall is never far from libraries. “I currently work part-time as a reference librarian because I love being a librarian and didn't want to give up the profession completely.”

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before author Jenny Han worked with middle and upper school students in the library at the Calhoun School in New York City, where she bought books and coordinated programming like school visits with Rebecca Stead and Gene Luen Yang. That’s all while publishing her first middle grade and YA novels, including Shug and The Summer I Turned Pretty. “My own books were coming out the entire time I was a librarian, and I was so fortunate to have a supportive and generous library director in Jenna Lanterman,” she says. “She was flexible about my schedule, and she always said my book career should come first.”

When Kelly Jensen worked in youth and teen services in Illinois and Wisconsin, she became exhausted by the heavy nonfiction tomes that were being published for teens. “I'd just had another frustrating vendor meeting where I was being shown all of these books that looked so boring to me, and I realized there was a massive hole in the nonfiction side of YA literature,” she says. “Good, interesting reads for both the casual reader who likes nonfiction, as well as books that would be perfect for school assignments but not feel like they were work to read. Those books have their place, but they shouldn't be the main course of what YA nonfiction is.” Since then, Jensen has taken matters into her own hands, publishing two nonfiction YA anthologies, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and (Don't) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health. “I'm constantly reading and talking about YA nonfiction, and it's nice to not only be part of this growing area, but to also know that librarians have way more choices when it comes to filling their nonfiction shelves for teens and that teens have so much more depth and choice,” she says. “I know teens will read adult books, but there is real value in offering something to them, for them.”

One Giant Leap author Heather Kaczynski worked in an Army library for seven years. “Our mission is to support soldiers and military families, as well as the Department of Defense civilians,” she says. “We are often the first place new families come when they arrive on base for their new assignments, so we would be a welcoming community center that would help them get their bearings, learn about the area, and provide entertainment and education.” Being a YA author and a YA librarian was a symbiotic relationship, keeping her aware of the “next big thing,” as well as the “less-hyped” books that would resonate with the kids she served. Kaczynski lived in a conservative area, but her library patrons came from all over the world, and she says it was common to hear three different languages being spoken in the children’s section at one time. “My experience in the library definitely informed my writing, as it opened my eyes to the diversity of our community that I didn't necessarily experience in my own life,” she says. “It helped me realize the importance of reflecting the real world and its people, respectfully, in fiction.”

Alex London, Makiia Lucier, and Hal Schrieve
Alex London; Makiia Lucier, photo by Jenny Bowles; Hal Schrieve, photo by Micah Brown

​Alex London, author of Black Wings Beating and the forthcoming Red Skies Falling, worked as the YA librarian at the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library from 2006–2007. “It definitely exposed me to the wide array of YA that was out there and also exposed me to the gaps,” he says. “I don't think I would've written my first YA novel, Proxy, had I not read so much sci-fi for teens that was so profoundly straight. Luckily, that's much less of an issue now too, with writers across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum writing across every imaginable genre. A well-read librarian right now can point to all kinds of books with all kinds of heroes for all kinds of kids, and what a blessing it must be!”

Makiia Lucier, author of Isle of Blood and Stone, started working in libraries when she was just 17. Her first job was as a library assistant at the University of Oregon Knight Library. “Back then I never thought about librarianship as a career,” she says. “I was a journalism major and my goal was to become a newspaper reporter. But working in an academic library taught me the fundamentals of research—how to navigate online databases, how to search the archives, where to turn when I hit a brick wall—an invaluable skill for a writer of historical fiction and historical fantasy.” Lucier worked in public and academic libraries throughout her career, and received her MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “But by then, after two years of studying literature for children and young adults, ideas had started running through my brain in a never ending loop.... To quiet the voices in my head, I picked up a pencil and a notebook and began my first draft of A Death-Struck Year, which is set during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.”

Angie Manfredi has worked in libraries her entire life, first in her after-school job as a teen, then as Assistant Director at the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library in Raton, NM, where she “did everything from shovel the steps to send invoices to present storytimes.” After receiving her MLIS, she spent 11 years as head of youth services for the Los Alamos County Library System and now serves as a youth services consultant for the State Library of Iowa. Her first book, The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce, is an anthology about body image and body positivity that comes out on September 24. “Working with teens and with YA for so long made me see gaps I wanted to fill in the market and I especially noted the way so many teens talked hatefully about their bodies and thought about being fat as the worst thing you could be, even though they adored me, a fat person,” she says. “I wished they could have a book to meet a lot of other fat people and a book that told them to hang in there, because loving yourself can change everything.”

Mindy McGinnis worked in a high school library in a rural town in Ohio. Many residents there live in poverty, and teens at her school dealt with abuse, violence, inequality, and addiction on a daily basis. Her YA novels are a response to the gritty realities young people face, and the dearth of YA that engaged with these topics when she was their age. In an essay for SLJ , she writes, “As a librarian I became good at finding the readership for a particular book, especially for my students who were dealing with tough topics. It’s a small town, and often I knew what their story was, without them having to tell it. I could pair a teen with a title, and felt the warmth of reward when they finished it and asked for another like it. It’s an unfortunate fact that a book like Heroine or Female of the Species has elements that will resonate with so many young people.”

 

"There truly is a reader for every single book"

Hal Schrieve, author of the 90's monster murder mystery Out of Salem, is studying for hir MLIS at Queens College and previously did special outreach for Queens Public Library to schools, street fairs, and laundromats, as well as correctional outreach to Rikers Island. Currently xie runs programs for young children at the Grand Central Library branch of the NYPL. “Library programs also allow me to see how kids are thinking and what kinds of creative skills they like to practice, which is really fun—I held a zine workshop last week where 6—10 year olds made mini-zines about everything from Bart Simpson to their stuffed animals, and I think kids are really the best artists in the world,” xie says. Working directly with young people is a driving force in both of hir careers. “I think as a writer I would love to offer young people entertaining, absorbing things to read which make them think critically about the world around them and as a librarian I want to direct kids to the many amazing materials that already exist which encourage independent thought, question-asking, and self-expression,” xie says.

Jessica Spotswood has been a children’s library associate at the DC Public Library since 2014. “The kids I see every day are primarily Black, from low-income families dealing with neighborhood violence, rapid gentrification, and systemic racism,” she says. “These kids are funny and creative and smart and independent, and they have a lot of responsibilities I didn't have at their age. They deserve authentic portrayals of themselves in fiction. Their stories aren't mine to tell, but working with them has made me more aware of the importance of supporting authentic #OwnVoices work. In my latest anthologies, The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls and Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft, we sought out contributing authors who are diverse in terms of race, religion, sexuality, and neurodivergence.”

For the past five years, Alyssa Wees, author of The Waking Forest, has worked as an assistant librarian in youth services in Chicago. “My particular specialty is creating take home STEM kits ranging in theme from city engineering to robotics to circuit boards.” Librarianship has influenced her as both a reader and a writer. “Since I began working at the library I read so much more widely than I have in the past,” she says. “Trends tend to come and go, but above all teens are looking for a sincere and interesting story. Doing readers' advisory at the reference desk has made me realize that there truly is a reader for every single book. Working in a library has encouraged me to write the books of my heart and to trust that there is an audience for them.”

In March, Monica Zepeda was named the 2019 winner of Lee and Low’s New Visions Award for Boys of the Beast, a YA contemporary novel about three cousins who go on a road trip after the death of their abuelita, which will be published in 2020. Zepeda currently serves as the Teen Services Librarian at Beverly Hills Public Library in California, where she also works in adult services and does school outreach and summer reading programming for fourth and fifth graders. “Working in a library allows me to keep track of trends and what’s popular in YA,” she says. “I get to know what teens are into and what’s no longer cool. I get to see their dynamics when they interact with each other. I’m a little like an anthropologist that way and I may take some of those observations for my writing. But if a teen vents to me about friend drama or confides something personal, I’m not going to fictionalize that because that’s not my story to tell.”

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Katy Hershberger
Katy Hershberger (khershberger@mediasource.com) is the senior editor for YA at School Library Journal.
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Teri Markson

A shout out for Mary McCoy, 2019 Printz Honor winner for I,Claudia. Mary is the Senior Librarian of the Art, Music & Recreation Department (and previously head of Teen'Scape) at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Posted : Apr 11, 2019 06:28


Kevin Moore

Sara Ryan should be on this list. Award-winning author of YA LGBTQ lit and young adult librarian at Multnomah County Library.

Posted : Apr 11, 2019 02:46


April Henry

My first job was at a library, in 1975, back before there was much in the way of YA lit. I do remember trying to sneak-read the latest Judy Blume when I really should have been shelving.

Posted : Apr 10, 2019 07:24


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