Sometimes in the midst of seemingly ordinary circumstances, you have the privilege of meeting amazing people doing extraordinary things. This has been my experience this week with Pam Neal, the librarian in charge of youth programming at the public library in Bristol, Virginia. In this era when reading as a pastime has to compete with camp, vacations, sports, computer games, smart phones and Facebook, Pam has managed to build a program for young people ages 11-22– serving up to eighty kids a week– who choose to come together and discuss literature. Her explanation for the remarkable accomplishment? “I have a passion for books,” she says.
Pam was raised in Nashville and got her Masters in Library Science at University of Tennessee before moving to Bristol in the early seventies with her husband. She worked in the public school system as a school librarian for thirty seven years, then came to the public library almost two years ago. Some of the young people who participate in the book club are former students of Pam’s from their earlier school days. They know her not only as someone who can put a great book in their hands, but as one who can sit in a circle and listen to what they have to say, whether it be about a book or something that’s going on in their lives.
I am humbled by the fact that this week’s book selection was ANGEL, and Pam invited me to come speak with three of her groups–the “tweens” (ages 11-14), teens(14-19) and young adults (20-22). Not only was I thrilled that she selected the book for all three age groups, but since most of my book events have been geared towards adults, I welcomed the opportunity to hear from these younger audiences. The “tween” group was full of questions about Angel and the freedom of her childhood, her relationship with her father and the many questions she has about God. Though she grew up in a different era, they are still able to connect with thirteen year old Angel and the struggles of her life. The teens, big fans of dystopian literature, were interested in hearing about life in the sixties and seventies. Pam and I shared our memories of the Kennedy era and what it was like to live in a world where everyone felt like they needed a bomb shelter in their basement. The young adults were eager to hear about my writing and publishing experiences, and they introduced me to some new things as well- such as the concept of novels written in verse, and Manga, the Japanese form graphic novel that reads from right to left.
Not only do the groups meet regularly at the library but they’ll often gather at a neighborhood restaurant or go to a movie together. The book club is more than just a meeting–it’s a community. In a culture where it’s easy for young people to slip into isolation, where personal, face to face interaction is often replaced by technology, this type of interaction is invaluable.
For sharing your passion with others, for inspiring dozens of young people not only to read voraciously, but to show up every week and share their enthusiasm with each other, for creating a place of contact and human connection in a world that desperately needs it– stand up, Pam Neal! You deserve a round of applause, and much, much more.