Creative writing and book recommendations

The Siilinjärvi municipal library has provided services for children and adolescents in a number ways for several years now. School children have had the opportunity to engage in creative writing, and the librarian in the children’s section and guest speakers have presented their perspectives about which books are interesting to read.

Siilinjärvi, situated in the North Savo region, has a population of 20,757 and 21 % of the population is under the age of 15. Indeed, many families with children have moved to the area in recent years. The municipality’s population structure poses many challenges, but on the other hand it provides opportunities to offer a diverse range of library services to children and adolescents.

The Siilisaurus

The Siilisaurus Project is one example of collaboration between the library and schools. The idea was to create a story book written by children in Siilinjärvi. School children were therefore given the opportunity to engage in creative writing and publish their own texts in a real book. Together with teachers in the elementary schools, we were able to find pupils interested in writing. During the course of the project, pupils were inspired to write through various organized events. For example, the pupils visited the Uppo- Nalle teddy bear house in Kuopio and met Uppo-Nalle himself and author Elina Karjalainen. Author Hannele Huovi played a significant part in the project as she skillfully guided teachers and pupils during the writing process. She met twice with all of the writers personally and offered inspiring feedback on the completed works. Upon completion of the project, we were presented with a 141-page commemorative publication, Siilisaurus, the brainchild of the collaborative work between the library and elementary schools that contained narratives and poems written by the pupils themselves.

Attention to village schools

Siilinjärvi currently has nine elementary schools where approximately 1,810 pupils altogether study. Only two of them are in the centre of the municipality, which means that there are quite a large number of village schools. The village schools located furthest from the center of Siilinjärvi are approximately 15 km away.

Book recommendations for first- and second-graders have been offered since 2004. The librarian for the library’s children and adolescent section is acting ‘Book Sleuth’ and visits the village schools recommending books each year. The pupils’ classrooms are a familiar, safe place to organize the visits. Nowadays, most of the book recommendation visits are held in classrooms or in the schools’ auditorium.

Book recommendations: what and how?

The idea behind the book recommendations is to spark the audience’s interest in reading. The Booktalker shares the experiences (s)he had while reading a particular book and the thoughts and feelings the book aroused. The Booktalker may also read short excerpts from the book and stop at a point that triggers interest in the audience to read more of the book.

The books to be recommended to firstand second-graders are chosen with care. The level of reading skills in firstgraders, especially, varies tremendously. Some of the children already read quite fluently, but for others, the wondrous world of words has not yet opened up to them.

The majority of the books recommended to pupils have been easyreader books written by Finnish writers. There is a shelf specifically for easy-reader books in the children’s section of the main library. Children are able to spot the easy-readers easily among the other books because they have been marked with a green sticker on the books’ cover. The easy-readers have an average of 40-50 pages and they contain many coloured illustrations that encourage children to read. For children who are able to read more, the Booktalker has offered children’s books that contain more text.

Picture books and non-fiction works may also be recommended to first- and second-graders. There are many types of picture books that still interest school-aged children. Non-fiction works have interested boys especially. The Booktalker has also included books of poems intended for the child reader.

The first- and second-graders have eagerly participated in the book recom- mendation sessions and have gladly related their own thoughts and feelings. The Booktalker tells a little about the books and reads some excerpts (s)he has chosen from various parts of the book beforehand. Often, the Booktalker will hear the comment, “Why did you stop reading at such an exciting point – read more!” That’s not what the Booktalker does, however; rather (s)he encourages pupils to borrow the book and read it themselves. At the end of the session, the Booktalker leaves a list of the recommended books with the teachers. The list contains a short description of each of the books. The booklist helps the pupils and teachers to find a particular book on the library’s bookshelf at a later time, in case they forget the name of the book.

Booktalker rides on the Bookmobile

Since the first- and second-graders enjoy the book recommendation sessions so much, we wanted to offer them to all of the pupils in elementary schools. This marked the onset of the‘Booktalker on board the Bookmobile to village schools’ project.

Our Booktalker for the project was Ulla Pötsönen, information specialist at the Joensuu Regional Library. She won the Finnish Booktalker Championship in 2006 and has been especially commended for the vivacity and intuitiveness of her book recommendation sessions, as well as for her spirited presence at those sessions.

Ulla Pötsönen held the book recommendation sessions in classrooms and school auditoriums; some of the groups were extremely large-as many as 100 children at a time. Despite the large groups, our Booktalker was able to reach out to her audience and inspire the children and adolescents to share their thoughts. She was also able to interrupt the audience in an appropriate way, if the discussion happened to veer off the path. The pupils maintained interest in the book recommendation session throughout the entire hour because the presentation was natural and inspiring. After the session, many pupils wanted to go on talking about the books. The teachers were extremely satisfied.

Thoughts on book recommendations

Ulla Pötsönen’s motive for doing book recommendations is her love of books and reading. She wants to share her own reading experiences and offer alternatives within the realm of literature; there is such a vast amount of books in the world that readers, especially beginners, may find choosing what to read exhausting. The worst case scenario is when the hobby of reading never really takes flight because the reader cannot find anything interesting to read when (s)he looks for something on the library bookshelf, or the reader grabs the wrong type of book: something too difficult or too easy, or downright boring. This is where the Booktalker comes in and presents various alternatives from an objective point of view.

Ulla Pötsönen is well aware of the limited opportunities of Booktalking; not everyone in her audiences becomes adamant readers. However, Booktalkers can be pleased with themselves when they are able to ignite the desire to read in a child or adolescent who has never read a book to the end. The most favourable target group for book recommendations is that of children who are around 10 years old, an age at which many children have developed an inclination for reading. Luring adolescents of 15 or so into the world of books is difficult unless the desire to read has already been sparked at a younger age.

The demand for the recommended books has been enormous; they have been loaned out for long periods of time after the presentations. We have had to acquire additional copies of the most popular ones to ensure the enthusiasm for reading does not fade because supply does not meet demand. The enthusiasm of small school children, especially, fades rapidly unless they are able to get the book they want quickly. The Booktalker has reminded school children that it pays to patiently wait for a book and to ask about it the next time they visit the library. It is also possible to reserve books-this service is free of charge in the Bookmobile.

Jaana Selesniemi
Librarian, children’s and young people’s department
Siilinjärvi, Finland

jaana.selesniemi AT

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Librarian, children’s and young people’s department Siilinjärvi, Finland