Q&A with Kristen McDonald

Patricia Murphy |

Christine McDonnell’s early love of books and reading took her to libraries, classrooms and the written page. McDonnell, a former NYPL librarian, school librarian, and teacher, studied under Augusta Baker and Pura Belpré, and is the author of more than a dozen books for children and teens. Her 2020 picture book, when the babies come, It tells the story of a librarian who adopts four children who mysteriously appear on an island with nothing but clothes left with the words: “Please take care of my children.” Her latest title is Shelter: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the nation’s first women’s sheltera picture book biography honoring the Boston activist and founder of Rosie’s Place, a local women’s shelter. PW Talk to MacDonald about her life’s work as a librarian and teacher, how her students influence her children’s books, and why she weaves social-emotional learning themes into her books.

Can you describe your early experiences at NYPL with library personalities Augusta Baker and Pura Belpré?

As soon as I graduated from college, I went to library school and then went to work at the New York Public Library at the Mott Haven branch in the South Bronx. Augusta Baker was one of my professors at library school. At the time she was also director of children’s services at the New York Public Library. One of my favorite memories of working at the Mott Haven branch is learning how to make pulp puppets with Pure Belpré and watching her bring Puerto Rican folktales and her puppets Perez and Martina to life. Baker and Belprey were among the first to push for the diversification of library collections. They are also examples of powerful women in our libraries. We stand on their shoulders.

After three years at NYPL and citywide layoffs, you head to Boston to pursue a new career opportunity. what are you doing there?

Since I graduated from college with a library certificate and a teacher’s license, I worked as a school librarian for two years in middle school in seventh and eighth grades. I was then hired by the Center for Children’s Literature Studies at Simmons College to do a community outreach program and teach an introduction to a children’s literature course. Next, I went to work in the Brooklyn Public Schools, where I taught eighth grade English and social studies for a few years, then ninth through twelfth grades English, literature, and writing—and many years in sixth grade.

I started my education career in 1981 and retired in 2014. For the past 10 years, I have been a school librarian for kindergarten through eighth grade in Brookline. This is a busy school with around 900 children and almost 26,000 books! It’s hard work, and it’s fun. I run it like a public library and we keep it open to my readers for as long as possible. I don’t spend a lot of time on library skills. Children will always learn these when needed. Instead, I focus on introducing children to books and creating a safe haven for them. I have been very lucky in my career. It’s long and satisfying.

There are many things in the library. For me, they have always been a sanctuary – and a place of pure joy.

What’s the best part about wearing a teacher and librarian hat?

i like to be both A teacher and a librarian. Just pure fun in the library! The reason I became a librarian in the first place was that when I was teaching students, I knew I wasn’t ready to tell people what to do. As a librarian, I can sidestep this. So, going to library school became my choice. I have always loved books; and, since my sister Regina Hayes [who was head of Viking Children’s Books for 30 years] Publishing was chosen, and I chose the library! There are many things in the library. For me, they have always been a sanctuary – and a place of pure joy.

When I decided to go into the classroom, I loved teaching middle school and high school; but in high school, it wasn’t the same kind of relationship and game you had when you were teaching in middle school. Teaching eighth grade language arts is really special. This is because when you teach writing, you really get to know your students. The connections are much deeper here than in other disciplines.

What is the biggest challenge?

The challenge as a librarian is to figure out the most useful ways to help support teachers’ goals and keep them on hand with the most books so they can use them effectively in their classrooms and students.

In teaching, the biggest challenge is to find where the child’s strength lies, to be able to use that strength, and to make them understand how extraordinary and important it is. This becomes the ballast of your relationship. Another challenge is making sure my students get involved and have fun.

When did you switch from teacher/librarian to writing children’s books?

As part of my job, I write reviews of children’s books and horn book for several years. At the same time, I am also trying to write adult short stories. But when I was teaching at Simmons College, I decided to try writing children’s books. It happened during a panel discussion with Uri Shulevitz, Arnold Lobel and MB Goffstein on picture book art. Someone asked them, “If you didn’t write your own words, what would your ideal text be?” They all said, “No description!” And that became my challenge. Because if you don’t describe, you really have to push the heart of the story to a character in action. That comment was a springboard for me. At first, I thought I was writing picture book words, but the publisher put them together as chapter books, my first book, Don’t be angry, Ivy.

In what ways has your dual career influenced your writing for children? How did your students influence your story?

As a school librarian, I learned how to write picture books by doing author research with first-year students. I’ve noticed in many of the picture books by Australian author Mem Fox that the key elements of these stories are pattern, predictability, repetition and rhythm, which makes them great for first graders. In many ways, they match the structure of teaching children to read. So I went home and wrote my first picture book, dog wants to play.

I also had several eighth graders who influenced my writing. Many are the only children in their families, their marriages have ended, and both parents have remarried. And then, there are new babies coming into these mixed families; so the whole question of how you are included, and how much someone feels trapped and/or doesn’t belong in any one family, intrigues me.That’s it Count me in here we go.and friends first, I had an eighth grader who was attacked and when she went back to school her friends surrounded her and kept her close. You can see their tenderness towards her. This interested me so much that I had to write it down. I think the best stories are close to the heart.

Through these stories and your most recent picture book, you can directly address SEL issues that are personally relevant to you. Can you talk about your recent books that address tough societal issues, and your hopes for these books?What about your readers?

It is important to me that these difficult questions and/or scenarios in my book are balanced with characters that demonstrate resistance, resilience, or provide positive answers. I don’t like simple fixes or sugar-coated darkness, disease, abandonment or sexual assault – I’ve included all of these issues in my book. But I also realize that kids need a positive attitude. I think it’s a righting boat. When these dark questions surface, who will right the wrong? It’s always a character.exist when the baby arrives at the stationy Children are teased and asked where they are from and why they look different. The librarian replied: “Families are not always alike, where we go is more important than where we come from.”

in my book Goyangi means cat, I also wrote about a child from afar. My daughter came from Korea when she was four years old. While the story is fictional, there are some real elements, including many happy moments and outcomes. But there’s also a real element of sadness and loss, and having to acknowledge the core of adoption — it’s not just sunshine.

As for refuge: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the nation’s first women’s shelter, I taught at Rosie’s Place for several years. It’s an amazing place – and the pinnacle of my teaching career. I want to write about Kip Tieran, Rosie’s Place, and homelessness. There are so many homeless people right now that it can paralyze us. Kip has shown passionate perseverance and a willingness to start small to help the homeless. You don’t have to solve the whole problem. But you can do something for someone. Dare to be human – this is Kip’s challenge to us. I hope my latest work will help readers learn to accept others with open arms.

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