Julie Stivers: Creating a Place to Read and Thrive | 2023 School Librarian of the Year

Julie Stivers’s library at Mount Vernon Middle School in Raleigh, NC, empowers academic-recovery students to “be brave together.”

202 School Librarian of the Year Winner-header bar

Julie Stivers, Librarian, Mount Vernon Middle School, Raleigh, NC
Photos by Natalia Weedy

 

At the door to the library at Mount Vernon Middle School in Raleigh, NC, students are greeted with a sign.

“You are just the student I hoped would show up! Welcome to your library. I’m glad you’re here.”

Those words encapsulate the library program Julie Stivers has crafted over the years, built through actions dedicated to creating a space that is an incubator of joy and belonging, traits that are particularly welcome for the students she serves.

Mount Vernon is an alternative, public, academic-recovery middle school. The roughly 80 percent Black and Latinx students come to the school from throughout the district, most having fallen behind and been held back for a variety of reasons, from missing class due to illness or simply having gotten lost in a large classroom. At Mount Vernon, classes are capped at 10 students. Stivers sees it as a place that lets students “come to rewrite their school stories.”

“I wish every school could be like ours,” she says. “Students can’t get lost here, physically or socially and emotionally, because it’s so small.”

Stivers is lucky if she gets a full year with students, who can arrive throughout the school year. Some, like those in the school’s booster program, can finish two grades of school in only a year before heading to high school.

It makes building community particularly challenging. So Stivers invests deeply in building relationships, from daily interactions and phone calls home to families to community reads and running in-person and virtual clubs.

For many of her students, coming to Mount Vernon is also the first time they are excited about reading. After Stivers’s first year, library circulation increased over 150 percent and continues to grow. That’s due largely to the collection Stivers has curated to reflect her students, their identities, and their interests. She has quadrupled the fiction section and increased the graphic novel and manga section more than 20 times since she arrived.

Numbers alone paint a picture of success, but her students’ own words really tell the story. “Thank you for making me love reading again.” “This is the first book I’ve ever finished.” “How did you know just what I needed?”

SLJ April Cover Julie Strives School Librarian of the Year“Julie Stivers is simply the greatest librarian I have worked with during my 17-year career,” wrote Mount Vernon school counselor Carrie West in a nomination letter. “She works tirelessly to evaluate her practice, write grants, research materials, manage student clubs, lead teams, and be a change agent within our school and for libraries across the nation.”

Stivers has been recognized locally for her advocacy, named the 2021–22 Wake County Public School System School Library Media Coordinator of the Year and the North Carolina School Library Media Association Library Media Coordinator of the Year in 2022. She also won the 2017 American Association of School Librarians Frances Henne Award—which recognizes a school librarian with five years or less experience who shows great leadership—and was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2019.

Stivers says it is “surreal” to receive the 2023 School Librarian of the Year award, especially because becoming a librarian wasn’t her first plan. Growing up with a librarian for a mother, “I distanced myself from the library,” Stivers says. “You never want to think you’ll be what your parents are, but then you get older and realize your parents are amazing.”

After teaching English overseas and spending time as a technical writer, Stivers was at home caring for her children when she realized she wanted to do something where she could engage with young people and books. She earned her master’s at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Sciences when she was 40.

Even though she still considers herself a “baby librarian,” Stivers has already spent nearly a decade at Mount Vernon making a difference in the lives of her students and helping librarians around the state and country rethink what it means to be a librarian.

 

Making a library a home

Before Stivers arrived at Mount Vernon, kids didn’t visit the library unless they had to. “It was a bland space with outdated, culturally irrelevant books,” West says. But today, it’s “a place that many call home.”

The bright lime-green and Carolina-blue paint that adorns the walls has earned the library the nickname “little jewel.” That’s also a nice way of describing the tiny 600 square feet Stivers has to work with. But while it may be small in size, it always has exactly what students need.

Inside, Stivers has created a permanent circle setup that facilitates community and learning through a library culture rooted in restorative practices. She turned the librarian’s “office” into a student makerspace to support STEAM activities.

“A powerful school library is created by student interest,” she says, and a good one must “nurture their reading lives but also their interests.” One year, a student came looking for books on guitars, a subject that was missing from the collection. “First thing was to get books on guitars, but we also talked about guitars, and we have a 3-D printer that he used to print out a new pick guard,” Stivers says.

With a budget that ranges from $1,000 to $4,000 a year, Stivers has utilized grants and donations to update her collection and support programming. In 2016, she received $7,000 through a Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries Grant that she used to gut and replace most of the collection. In 2018, she received more than $25,000 from a Heart of America Foundation Grant to augment her makerspace, including furniture, supplies, and the 3-D printer. Stivers has also raised more than $22,000 on DonorsChoose for over 40 projects.

She writes so many grants that she was recently named the school’s grants coordinator.

“I’m really greedy for my students,” Stivers says. “No matter what my budget is, I want more for them.”

That attitude drives library programming in other ways, too. Twice a year, Stivers hosts a #TrueBookFAIR, events where students pick out at least two brand-new books, free of charge. The name comes from a former student who declared that every other book fair he’d gone to before was a “book unfair.”



 

Stivers has made the fair a true community-wide event in celebration of reading. In the fall, the fair features titles for younger readers so students can pick a gift for a cousin or a sibling. And in the spring, she hosts part of the fair at night during family events so every member—adults and kids—may pick a book for themselves.

Stivers’s commitment to equity extends beyond the library. She also cochairs the school’s equity team, and she has provided public comments at school board meetings to fight censorship and affirm queer students and families, noted Marlo Gaddis, Wake County Public School System chief technology officer, in a nomination letter. That advocacy has empowered others to speak up as well and has made Stivers a national mentor, Gaddis wrote.

Stivers also runs student interest clubs for everything from creative writing to Japanese calligraphy, but her most popular are the manga and anime clubs. Those mainstays of the library program run during the school year and the summer and welcome back former students for in-person and virtual events.

The library doors are always open: students have access during homeroom, between classes, during lunch, and after school. Stivers often visits classrooms to collaborate with teachers. The many interdisciplinary lessons she has developed and cotaught over the years include an eighth-grade social studies unit that used the graphic novel The Underground Abductor to learn about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, culminating in student infographics of why Tubman should replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill and 3-D printing a stamp for current $20 bills.

Beth Campbell worked with Stivers on a seventh grade science unit about cells and the human body using the manga Cells at Work. “Julie rolled up her sleeves and elevated what we were doing,” Campbell remembers. “She was a coteacher in every way. To have someone bring that energy motivates me as a teacher and nurtures my own energy.”

 

Julie Strivers School Librarian of the Year with studentsHealing reading trauma

New students often arrive at Stivers’s library excitedly commenting on the books she has. “And I’ll say, ‘We have.’ It’s never my library. It’s our space.”

Her favorite way to describe her job is to nurture, but that doesn’t mean babying. “The library is a nurturing space, but not in the sense of coddling or that I don’t have high expectations,” Stivers says. “I want it to be a sanctuary for students and a place where we can be brave together.”

“I think the biggest thing is that Julie makes kids feel seen,” adds Campbell, noting that in a recent conversation, students “talked most often about her accepting them. She cares more about them having access to books than late fees. Kids talked about getting second chances when circumstances at home made it difficult to bring books back.”

Stivers’s philosophy is largely driven by her goal to heal students of the reading trauma so many of them have experienced prior to coming to Mount Vernon. Stivers has copresented on this topic with Denver, CO, school librarian Julia Torres, and the two have spoken about how reading can be a source of pain, humiliation, and stress for many students, especially those from marginalized communities.

“To us, students are traumatized by some of the reading structures we have in place, the types of reading we privilege, and who is represented in the books,” Stivers says.

Reading trauma stems from many different encounters students have in the library and with adults and books in general, from being shamed when they are told to “pick a real book” instead of reading a graphic novel, to being required to read texts that fail to feature BIPOC, or queer, or neurodivergent characters that would reflect children’s experiences.

Undoing, or interrupting, reading trauma starts with librarians realigning their role, moving beyond the idea that their job is just the transaction of putting a book in a student’s hands. “If we are really supporting students, we’re a partner, and we’re a collaborator in what we’re going to discover together,” Stivers says. “We are not keepers of the books. That’s not our role. We don’t serve books or authors. We’re supporting students.”

Stivers has documented the success of her efforts to interrupt the traditional and traumatic experiences of the library through a project called #LibFive. In 2017, along with several eighth graders, Stivers created a professional development program for youth librarians on best practices to create an inclusive library.

Students conducted their own research, reflecting on the Mount Vernon library and their experiences at the libraries at their base schools. After several months, they came up with the five biggest ways to build an inclusive library environment, including such advice as “Graphic novels and manga are not extra” and “Make the library a sorting-free zone.” Today, #LibFive is offered through Project READY, a free online professional development curriculum for U.S. youth librarians.

“I hope the #LibFive has inspired other educators to work with their students to celebrate and leverage student expertise in their own ways to improve their schools and districts and the educational field,” Stivers says.

Despite a small budget and an even smaller physical space, Stivers and her library have made an outsized impact on students at Mount Vernon and far beyond. If there’s a secret to convincing administrators of the power of the library, for Stivers, it’s a simple one: Share positive stories, which she calls “a kind of data” that registers with administrators.

“My first year, I had a tiny budget but a very supportive principal. I couldn’t just ask for more. He saw students reading, and I shared stories about them, like the first book a student finished.”

“You have to tell them stories,” she says. There are plenty of great ones to share.

 


Andrew Bauld is a freelance writer covering education.

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