Renee Handley–Advice for School Librarians

I’d like to welcome Renee Handley to “Advice for Everyone.” Thanks for being with us. Can you tell us your occupation?
Public school librarian. Currently with an intermediate school that serves fifth and sixth grades. I have been involved with education, one way or another, for about fifteen years. I was a preschool helper and substitute teacher for a parochial school when my children first started school themselves. I then started teaching art for lower elementary but never had my teaching certification. I thought I eventually would get it, but then started working in a high school library as an assistant and found a true passion and a mentor that would not take no for an answer and she pushed me into pursuing my Master’s degree. I completed my MLIS in December of 2016, and was hired as a librarian for the 2016 – 17 school year.

How old are you?
Fifty. I have no need to hide my age. I spent most of my late 20s and 30s completely in love with my children and everything about them but rather miserable in other aspects of my life. My 40s were a time for me to rediscover who I was and what I wanted out of life and so when I turned fifty this year I wanted to embrace all that I have done and accomplished.

I notice from your picture that you’re a fan of “Doctor Who?” or a fellow Whovian, in other words?
I fall in love with every single doctor. My first doctor was Tom Baker. I was about seven years old and our local PBS station played Dark Shadows, Monty Python and Doctor Who on Saturday nights. My older brother would watch that line up and I wanted to do whatever he did, so I started watching them all as well. The idea of regeneration has always been exciting and I am never disappointed by The Doctor.

Where do you live?
Asheville, North Carolina in a Hobbit Hole. It is a 117-year-old stone cottage. When I moved in, one of my friends looked at it and exclaimed “YOU LIVE IN THE SHIRE!!!” I figure it is either that or the cottage of a wicked witch. I am okay with either.

Do you have a website or a blog or anything where people can learn more about you?
Not yet. This is actually a goal of mine this year, to start a blog about librarianship. I am not exactly sure what my focus will be, though, so it is still ruminating around my brain.

The most interesting place you’ve visited?
Eyam, Great Britain. It is a little village in Derbyshire Dales. Several years ago, I read a phenomenal historical fiction novel by Geraldine Brooks entitled A Year of Wonders. The book is based around the true story of a small village that was beset by the Bubonic Plague in 1666. The village voluntarily quarantined themselves for a year to try to stop the spread of the disease. Over two-thirds of their population succumbed. I was so fascinated with the story that I gushed about it on social media and a friend of mine, from high school, piped up with “Well, you know that is where I live, right?” I had no clue. She had married a man from this small village and moved there about seven years prior – but I had not seen her since high school and had only recently reconnected with her. I told her that if I ever had the opportunity, I would come visit her. Last year, I took my children to England and Scotland and we made sure to include Eyam on the trip. We stayed in a former stable that had been built in the 1700s and then converted to a home in the late 1800s . It had been in my friend’s husband’s family and was not occupied at the time. It was right across the street from the village church where all the characters that were in the book were buried. It was a completely fascinating town. So incredibly quaint and the people were very friendly and wanted to talk about their claim to fame in history. My children (aged 22 and 19 at the time) counted that as favorite part of our entire trip.

Your favorite meal would be?
I am by no means a “foodie” but I like to be adventurous. So, this is hard to pin down.

Pet peeve?
Inauthentic people. I have always been a person who has been a bit out of step with my peer group, for one reason or another. When I was younger, it bothered me that I couldn’t quite figure out why. When I got older, I began to see the games people feel they need to play in order to make themselves feel special. I often get very angry, but mainly I feel sad for those people and the fact that my friendship will really only be at a surface level with them because I have no idea who they really and truly are.

Favorite book?
Ugh. TOO MANY BOOKS!!!!! I have a lot, and for different reasons.
From childhood, I always had a Nancy Drew mystery tucked under my arm. I was determined that I was going to be a newspaper reporter who solved crimes.
There is a beautiful book called The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A beautiful story set against the background of the time right after the Spanish Civil War. A graveyard for books, a mystery, a love story. So much.

Pretty much anything by Neil Gaiman, whom I refer to as “Muh Boyfriend” (and my actual The Fella is TOTALLY okay with that). The first book I read by him was Neverwhere, and it still holds a special place for me. But for the past four years, I think I have recommended The Graveyard Book at least once a week to a student. At this point, I honestly think his publisher should give me a bit of a kickback. It is such a wonderful book.

Why is Neil Gaiman a favorite?
I just love so much about him. I first stumbled across Neverwhere in about 2005 , when I really, really needed to escape my own reality. It was the perfect vehicle for that in that it involves an alternate world of an underground London where the disaffected live. Then I began hearing some amazing quotes from him in regards to education. ( “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” This is a particular favorite.) He speaks with such admiration about education and how to let your imagination flourish, that I jokingly say that he was flirting with me. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a Storyteller’s night a few years ago. The entire evening was phenomenal, but his presentation of his story was just so immersive. I have always loved the concept of storytelling and I really hope to include it more in my own librarianship. He was once asked if he could decorate a children’s library, what would he include. He said that he would just have the words “…and then what happened?” painted on the wall. I was so incredibly taken with that thought, that I had it tattooed on my arm.

Are you married or have you been?
I was married, and after trying many, many years to make something work that never should have been, we went our separate ways. But I don’t count it as a loss because I have three amazing kids out of it. My oldest daughter is a theatre major at UNCA who has always had so much self confidence. My son is an incredibly smart quirky Viking musician dude, who is trying to figure out his place in the world. My youngest daughter died when she was 23 months old. The official cause of death is still undetermined but is listed as “Sudden Unexplained Death.” It is perhaps related to SIDS but affects children over the age of one. She is still a very present part of all of our lives, even though she passed away in 2004. Her life and death shaped a lot of decisions that we made for ourselves.

If you had any spare time, what would you do with it?
Gosh. So much. As I mentioned, I just finished my master’s degree and the past two years of my life were really crazy with studying. I hermited myself away from a lot of things and even stopped a lot of the things I normally would do for fun, like costuming for theatre. I had to in order to keep focus. I stopped reading for pleasure, and time spent with friends was a rare and wonderful thing. I assumed that I would dive right back into costuming and reading for pleasure and so many other things, but it has taken awhile. I am not sure I am actually going to go back to designing costumes for theatre, though. I loved it, but I am just not sure I want to do that any longer. I think I want to focus on more specialized clothing and costumes.

I have always wanted to travel. That is one of the reasons I joined the Army. But, I never really got that opportunity. I had the opportunity to plan a huge trip with my children last year to the UK and the travel bug has definitely been unleashed. I want to go and see EVERYTHING!!!

If you had the time and funding arranged, where would the next big trip be?
Oh, gosh…. Well, my The Fella and I are planning a trip to Paris next year. We hope to include Prague in it as well. We have a HUGE list of places to visit. He spent several years living in Japan while in the Navy and has traveled extensively in the Pacific Rim, so we thought a trip somewhere that neither of us had gone would be amazing.

Tell us some interesting things about yourself that aren’t already covered.
I broke my arm my last week of Basic Training, in the Army, and had an external fixator applied to my arm because of the way I fell. My hand was shoved up into my arm and the fixator slowly pulled it out and allowed the shattered parts to knit themselves. It took quite a bit longer to heal and so I was assigned to live in the hospital and they gave me a job. I lived there for four months before I was well enough to go on to my advanced training.

I have been involved with theatre since I was in high school, but stepped away from it when I was in college. When I had children, I signed them up for theatre camp as an activity when they were quite young. I ended up being a chaperone and started making costumes for the theatre company. Eventually this led to me having a crazy double life as a costume designer while trying to have my day job and going to grad school.

I served in the Army and Army Reserves as an Intelligence Analyst. I received my BA and tried to work in my field for a couple of years but I was super stressed working in a peripheral field. I grew up in a military family and so I went into a recruiter one day and told them that if they found me one of three jobs I had picked out, I would sign up. They found an analyst position and I left a month later. My parents had no idea I was even interested in the service even though that is where they met and both retired from the Army Reserves. I worked for a Psychological Operations Company, in the Reserves. We were one of the first Reserve units to go into Bosnia in the 90s. I served as a Cultural Analyst. Basically I would find out about the customs of the area and let my soldiers know how to act in order to “win the hearts and minds” of the local populace. I am actually a huge pacifist, and so since our primary job was to train school children how to stay away from land mines, I considered it my own personal Peace Corps.

Can I ask you to offer some advice for school librarians?
DON’T get hung up on the “rules.” I have already, in my short time as a librarian, had parents come to me and ask what their kid should be reading according to Lexile scores or reading norms. I have told them to let their kid guide the reading. If a parent doesn’t like graphic novels because they can’t get past the idea that they are “just comic books” I would tell them to get over it. Kids can’t be forced to like reading and reading things that they aren’t interested in hurts them in the long run. I ascribe to the idea that if someone says they don’t have a favorite book, I will add the word “yet” to the end of that statement.

Renee, thanks much for sharing with us. May the adventures be many and blessed.