Behind the Desk: Jen Dickenson (Librarian)


Behind the Desk is a new series in which I interview amazing published authors, unpublished writers, librarians, teachers, book designers, etc. so that we can learn more about the intricacies, struggles, and excitement that goes on in the world of books and literature. Feel free to contact me with suggestions for future interviewees!

Note: Normally, Behind the Desk is published once a month, but this month there are two interviews: one to celebrate the film release of SOLD, based on Patricia McCormick's book of the same name, and the other to honor National Library Week!

Behind the Desk: Jen Dickenson

jen pace dickenson librarian polk county

I've done the math and it turns out that Jen is my oldest friend. We met when I moved to Saluda, North Carolina at the age of five, became pen pals when I returned to England at the age of eight (playlists on tape, yin yang necklaces, and lots of colorful ink were involved in those letters), and last year I attended her beautiful wedding back in Saluda. Jen is not only adventurous, smart, and kind-hearted, but she's also a champion of books and reading. Can there be a greater type of person on the planet?! 

After receiving her Master of Library and Information Science degree, Jen became the the Youth Services Librarian at Polk County Public Library in Columbus, NC. She has planned some extraordinary events for children and teens, is always coming home with stacks of autographed books from conferences, has a column on books in her local paper, and loves checking out Malaprop's, her awesome local bookstore. 

Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, NC

Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, NC

How does it feel to put the books of the world into the hands of readers? Has there been a time that you've seen someone transformed by reading or gone from being a reluctant reader to an enthusiastic one?
It feels amazing! Most people who come into the library are looking for something specific, but when someone asks for a recommendation it makes my day! I love sharing my love of books with others. And I can’t help but comment when someone checks out a book I love, when I see someone reading something I’ve read on an airplane, or when I’m eavesdropping on book-related conversations at Malaprop’s.

I have a few reluctant readers in my family and I was really delighted in recent years to find two books for my brother that he actually read and loved (Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and American Sniper by Chris Kyle, both of which were turned into movies). It’s a really great feeling to find that perfect book for someone who claims to hate reading!

In general, what do you look for when buying children's/teen books for your library? Does anything in particular grab your attention or turn you off? 
I mostly use professional sources for recommendations (School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, etc.), but of course I have a limited budget. So, when it comes down to buying time and I have to make a decision, I might base that on “buzz” I’ve heard about the book, how familiar I am with the author, and, even in some cases, cover art or the title!

Western North Carolina in its natural beauty

Western North Carolina in its natural beauty

How often do you buy books by first-time authors? What can new authors do to increase their readership, particularly in conjunction with libraries?
If a first-time author has made it so far as to get into one of the publications I read or acquire some other kind of buzz, I have no problem ordering their book. In fact, with so many authors out there, I can’t remember all of their names and chances are I won’t know whether or not the book is their debut!

As far as promoting their work at libraries, it can help to send a postcard announcing the release of their book. Or even contact the staff member in charge of programming to set up a book signing/event, as most libraries host local author series.

Does your library buy or promote self-published books? Why or why not?
Generally no, unless it is a local author or a popular book for some other reason. We try to purchase books that will appeal to the most people. Also, self-published books are sometimes not available through our distributor (Ingram) and may not have a catalog record, which makes it difficult to process for staff.

mo willems elephant & piggie book

What sorts of books do your visitors request and/or check out time and time again?
I don’t get a lot of requests for children’s and teen books. (I get a lot more for DVDs! I know the staff members who purchase books for adults get a lot of requests.) When I do, it’s usually to expand or complete a series that they have started.

As far as what is checked out, picture books of all kinds are popular. Classics, books that feature something that child is “into” (trucks, princesses, horses), or just random books that the kid sees and likes the cover art. The Mo WillemsElephant and Piggie series and the Fancy Nancy books by Jane O'Connor are some of the most popular series in that collection. We also have an “easy readers” section at the library for those learning to read; the Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne is still super popular after all these years.

hunger games book trilogy

For juvenile fiction, graphic novels are well loved as well as series such as Geronimo Stilton, Warriors, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Harry Potter. Even though most of these books have been around for a while, they are still the ones most kids enjoy. For non-fiction, kids love LEGO and Minecraft books! Teens usually seem to be into whatever book is being turned into a movie: Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The 5th Wave, etc.

As a reader, what do you appreciate most in a book (i.e. plot, character development, voice)? Why do you think that is?
Hard question! I think the most important thing is voice. That’s what keeps me reading. If I don’t like the author’s voice, I’ll pick up another book instead. Next is the characters—my favorite books are those with characters I really love (example: Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower). The plot is the least important—I will read about almost anything and, if I get to the end, chances are I really enjoyed it. UNLESS there is some twist at the end that ruins it! The ending is very important and can turn a 5-star book into a 2-star book for me (most recent example: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult). I feel really cheated when I find out what I was reading was all lies!

everything everything nicola yoon

When was the last time a book had you so hooked you wouldn't have put it down if J. K. Rowling herself were standing in front of you?
(First off, let me shamefully admit that this Youth Services Librarian has never read Harry Potter. Yes, you all should march me through the streets yelling “shame” a la Cersei on Game of Thrones.) Most recently, Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon (her debut novel, by the way). A young adult novel, it's a beautiful love story that I read from cover to cover in one sitting (until about 3am when I had to work that next morning), which is very rare for me.

How can libraries help writers become published authors?
Many libraries have writers groups and/or events where you can meet local authors, who you can ask questions about getting published. You can use the library’s services and materials to do research about your book or the publication process.

Jen with Sherman Alexie at a recent conference

Jen with Sherman Alexie at a recent conference

What are three of your favorite books and why?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky because Charlie is the best literary character and made me fall in love with the book. (Also, it was a rare case where the movie captured that as well!)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie because it is the perfect balance of humor and heartache. The Starbucks employees in Bundang, South Korea must have thought I was crazy, laughing and crying over the course of the two hours I read it [Jen previously taught English in South Korea].

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. I generally find non-fiction dry and boring and have never been interested in Mt. Everest. But Krakauer writes so beautifully that I was completely captivated and engrossed in the tragedy.

world's strongest librarian josh hanagarne book

If you could meet one author for a chat over coffee, who would it be and what would you most want to say to her/him?
Another hard question, because I have met many authors due to my signed books addiction and I never know what to say to them! My favorites that I’ve met are probably Jason Segel and Wiley Cash, because they were both hilarious! Josh Hanagarne, whose memoir The World's Strongest Librarian and speech at the 2015 Association for Rural & Small Libraries conference, brought me to tears. I'd love to meet Stephen Chbosky and Jon Krakauer, but I’ll probably just be reduced to babbling if that ever happens.