The Friends and the Saint Paul Public Library run an extensive volunteer program. Adult and youth volunteers contributed 23,407 hours last year. If the library used paid staff for these hours, the cost would be over $400,000. Profiled below are just some of the many creative and talented people who donate their time to make our library system one of the best in the country, and help The Friends run award-winning cultural programs, including the Minnesota Book Awards.
They’re known as “reluctant readers,” the kids who read what they must to get the assignment finished, but who wouldn’t voluntarily pick up a novel for pleasure. These (mostly male) adolescents are the ones for whom John Coy writes. His stories hold his readers’ interest because they contain two key ingredients: sports and an intriguing plot.
“I had been writing picture books and young adult novels, and then in March (2009) my first middle grade novel came out,” Coy said. “Top of the Order is the first in a series of four, and this one has a baseball theme. These novels aim to keep boys reading at an age when many boys stop reading for fun.”
Teachers, librarians and publishers are now responding to the need for making more such books available, he added. “Most people in publishing grew up without sports in their lives, so that’s not where their interests were.”
Coy knows his target audience well, because he’s also a teacher. He visits schools around the country as an author and writing specialist, and he talks to students about what they like and don’t like in the books they read. In fact, several fifth grade classes are assisting his writing by critiquing his second book of the series, Eyes on the Goal, to be released in 2010.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he enthused. “They’re great with language, and they’re tougher than my editor! I’ve made more than two hundred changes. And the kids are excited to be part of the professional process of writing a book.”
Saint Anthony Park is Coy’s well-loved neighborhood library. Although he lives in Minneapolis, he has a special affection for the Saint Paul Public Library system, and finds himself drawn to older library buildings.
“I grew up as a library kid; we went every week. I carried that over when I became a parent and Saint Anthony Park was one of those on our list. We didn’t have a car, so it had to be on a bus route. Saint Anthony was on the western route, and Central Library was east. I believe they are two of the most spectacular libraries in the entire country. The combination of the old Carnegie building and the beautiful round children’s room at Saint Anthony Park: I love that space and enjoy it every time I go there. And at Central, I get a feeling of awe at all the people who have been there, its history and its size.”
For 17 years, Coy has belonged to a writers group which meets twice a month at Saint Anthony Park library. The eight members come from the Twin Cities and small rural towns, and they provide each other with support, critique, networking, and significant friendship. “We used to plan our meetings around school bus schedules, and now our kids are graduating from college,” he joked. “We like gathering together there and the librarians have been wonderful working with us. It’s amazing how many people meet in that library.”
Another group he enjoys is his book club, which also has been meeting for 17 years. He agrees that book clubs are a popular way to share ideas, conversation and friendship, although the structures of such clubs vary widely.
“Our group is all men, which is unusual but it works for us,” Coy said. “We end up talking some about the book, some about our lives, and then completely unrelated stuff. We read a really wide range of books, and our process for picking them is unusual in that we have no process. There’s an on-deck circle, where people suggest a book that might get up to bat and we choose from that.”
Budget cuts have resulted in reduced hours, which Coy feels prevents libraries from fulfilling their responsibility to be open, to be a hub of the community. “I’m disheartened that we’ve cut our library funding in ways I wouldn’t have expected we would ever choose to,” he added. “People get confused about the times it’s open, and eventually they simply stop going.
“Libraries are one of the most important institutions in a democracy,” Coy added. “Anyone can walk in, anyone can check out books. Growing up, we went every week, and were able to pick out whatever books we wanted. That’s how I became a reader. Busy libraries indicate a thriving community. For kids from different backgrounds, you learn about a culture larger than your family. You learn what it means to be an American. You learn about your own identity, figuring out, ‘this is what I’m interested in.’ ”
Luck. Serendipity. Kismet. It’s what happens when the right person is matched with the right job, and their work exceeds all expectations.
Patti Shomion, a retired elementary school teacher, recalls the day her BookPals Group was meeting at St. Paul’s Central Library. (BookPals, a project of the Screen Actors Guild foundation, brings volunteer story readers to elementary school classrooms.)
One day last year, library employee Karen Smith stopped by and asked the BookPals group if anyone had experience with puppets. Shomion tentatively raised her hand. She didn’t know it at the time, but that action would lead to the reprise of the Loki Players puppet performers, and to her nomination as Volunteer of the Year for the St. Paul Public Library.
“When I first started volunteering at the library, I thought about shelving books or working in the used book store,” she said. “Then this opportunity came along, and I couldn’t think of a more exciting, wonderful, fun experience than to be a puppeteer!”
Shomion and her husband had recently moved to downtown St. Paul, about ten minutes walk from the library. “The first thing, the day after we moved in, I came to get my library card,” she recalls. “I asked about volunteering and, because I had worked with pre-school, Kindergarten and lower elementary, I was looking to do something with kids.”
Her first play was an adaptation of “Three Little Pigs,” which had been written so one person could do the parts of all three pigs plus the wolf. That was a bit too much for a novice puppeteer, so Shomion partnered with Kim Faurot, a member of the children’s staff at the library. They’ve been collaborating on each performance since then. Faurot is the out-front human who interacts with the puppets, much in the way Fran Allison of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” did on the old television show.
Other productions have included stories of the Gingerbread Man, the Three Little Kittens and Old Mother Hubbard, based on familiar nursery rhymes. “We start with stories that everyone knows, and write our own dialogue,” Shomion said. “We spend 30 to 40 hours just in rehearsal, but then putting music in, and doing research adds more. We have a script, but there is some ad libbing.
“Humor keeps the kids engaged,” she added, “so there’s a lot of banter between the puppets. And it’s fun to see the kids laugh and get so involved. They scream, ‘Run, Pig! Run! Don’t let the wolf get you!’”
It’s a magic moment when the young audience responds and starts cheering for the Gingerbread Man. Parents are surprised when they realize just one or two people are responsible, “but the kids just believe.” They see a six-inch piece of bright fabric scaling a Styrofoam rock, and, to them, it’s a real inchworm with a big personality. More than 200 people attended a recent production, and it wasn’t just the children who were mesmerized.
The Central Library Puppet Theater was recently restored and outfitted with a sound system, new lighting and additional space.* This year marks the 60th anniversary of its original creation, which features a bas relief of Loki, the Norse god of mischief, and the sturdy quality of mid-century construction.
The most recent show was called “Poetry of Puppetry,” which, unlike the others, was an original production. In it, puppets take turns reading poetry. “Kids love poetry!” Shomion enthuses. “They love catching on to it, and figuring what the end words are, and the rhyming.”
While collecting poems and writing them into a show, Shomion received a suggestion from her eight-year-old grandson, Wyatt. “He said, ‘You’re going to do some poems everyone knows so they can chime in, right?’ I thought, ‘Hmmm. Good idea!’”
The show includes three poems by Jack Prelutsky, Children's Poet Laureate of 2006, and Jerry Juhl, a local boy who became a television writer best known for his work with Jim Hensen’s Muppets. “In fact, Jerry Juhl was 13 years old when he did puppet shows on this very stage!” Shomion noted.
Patti Shomion credits her mother with instilling volunteerism in her while she was growing up. “Having been a teacher, I know the value of volunteers in the classroom,” she added. “The librarians are so busy, and so knowledgeable, and I’ve wondered how they find the time to do things like bulletin boards and all the extras.” The ongoing need for volunteers is testament to how well-used are the city library facilities.
Volunteering should be fun, she believes. “Almost all of my volunteer efforts had something to do with children, because that’s a central part of my life,” Shomion said. “If it touches your life somehow, and you can make it personal, it’s much more enjoyable.
“I feel very, very good,” she smiled. “I feel like I’ve been given such a gift.”
*Friends’ Board member since 2002, Margaret M. Marrinan created an endowment to support the upkeep, activities and programs of the historic Jemne puppet stage, which has been a landmark feature of Central Library since 1949. Please contact The Friends at 651-222-3242 if you wish to contribute to the endowment fund.
When she was seven years old, Swati Avasthi decided she didn't like reading anymore. So she simply took a break for a few years. She had already decided, at age five, that she wanted to be a writer and she never strayed from that goal, but reading was another story. The books she was offered did not excite her in the least. She still remembers the books that, four years later, reintroduced her to the pleasure of reading fiction.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Sophocles, the Oedipus Cycle, "were the books that got me back to reading," she recalled. "The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was the first young adult book I read, and I absolutely loved it. It wasn't until I was eleven before I got back to reading, but the whole time, I still wanted to write."
That desire grew from her reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. "I liked it so much that I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she was a writer, so that's what I wanted to be." A couple of careers later, Avasthi is a writer. Her first novel, Split, is due for release by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group next year.
Split is a young adult (YA) novel about 16-year-old Jace Witherspoon, who "shows up on his estranged brother's doorstep with a banged up face (courtesy of his dad), $3.84 and a secret. It's about what happens after. After you've said 'enough,' after you've run, after you've made the split—how do you begin to live again?"
The idea for Split came from her work coordinating a domestic violence legal clinic in Chicago. “There is a secret in the book that I prefer not to reveal," Avasthi said. "But I can tell you that it's about what happens after a person suffering domestic violence leaves. It's a very hard transition, from surviving to living. That's one reason why people return to their abusive situations, because it's uncomfortable to live after surviving so long. So many women struggle with domestic violence, and they struggle for their children who witness violence all the time.
"Like all writers, I began asking the 'what if' questions," she added. "What if I were a survivor of domestic violence?"
By this time, Avasthi had a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature and theater from the University of Chicago. Her work at the legal clinic, plus the reality of earning a living, motivated her to start studying for a law degree. Although that was her long range plan, "when I got pregnant, I immediately started writing," she said. "I had my daughter, stayed home, re-wrote an awful fantasy novel, and then started writing contemporary fiction."
In 2005 she applied for the Loft Mentor Series, primarily because she might have the opportunity to work with Pete Hautman, author of Godless,a National Book Award winner. While proceeding with her planto study law, "I was signing up for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) when the computer quit, just shut down. At that same moment, the Loft called and said I was accepted to be an instructor in the mentor series." She soon refined her career plans, and writing was back on the front burner.
That summer she took a YA class from Mary Logue, and Split emerged from her hard work, her memories and imagination, and her compelling desire to be a writer. "She has helped me so much, and has really been the guide for me all the way from start to finish," Avasthi said.
Instead of going to law school, Avasthi is working on her MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree at the University of Minnesota. With one year left in the three-year program, she has discovered that she enjoys teaching creative writing. "I was a little worried, but my confidence was bolstered by the fact that I had taught a course at the Loft," she said. "They put you in a classroom right away so you get a lot of hands-on experience." She also worked with Julie Schumacher, director of the University's Creative Writing program. "It's hard to get a concrete opinion, something you can use in your writing. But she helped me immeasurably, right from the beginning."
As a judge for three years for the Minnesota Book Awards (twice for YA books, once for the children's category), Avasthi saw other perspectives of what makes a good book. "As a writer, most of my focus is on the story," she noted. "But librarians and booksellers understand really well what makes a person come to a book. It was good to pick up some snippets of that in the judging." She hopes to be a book award judge one more time before she becomes ineligible because she's a recipient.
"I love the fact that Minnesota celebrates writers," she said. "One of the things I like about this place, even after eleven years, is that every adult you know is in a book club, or plays broom-ball or soccer. Everyone is doing something outside of work. I love that they're busy."
Among the classes Avasthi has taught in the Loft Mentor Series are"Pacing and Structure," "Discovering Your Character," and "How to Write a Query Letter and What to Do with It." This summer she will teach a young adult class.
Bidden is the working title for Avasthi's next novel, also written for young adults. It's the second of a two-book deal with Knopf, which won the bid to publish Split.
A bidding war and a two-book contract for a new, unknown author? "I have a really wonderful agent," Avasthi smiled. "It's unbelievable, because it's something you fantasize about but don't have any expectation that it will happen. But here I am!"