Raleigh librarian, outspoken in book banning discourse, wins national honor

It’s rarely quiet in Mount Vernon Middle School’s library. From the minute the building opens until the the last few moments of the day, students fill the space — playing with LEGOs and puzzles, using computers and 3-D printers and talking about their favorite books.

A sign outside the library encourages that energy: “In this library, we don’t shush. We roar.”

Julie Stivers, Mount Vernon’s pink-haired librarian, is a big reason for this.

Mount Vernon Middle School is an alternative school for students who need additional academic support and have fallen behind at their base schools. Before attending Mount Vernon, many of the students had never willingly spent time in their school library. They were told the reading they enjoyed, like comic books and Japanese cartoons, weren’t valuable.

To engage these students, Stivers runs comic book and anime clubs, and puts on no-cost book fairs at which she encourages students (as well as their parents) to take home a new book for themselves at no charge.

Stivers gives her students personal attention and encouragement, affirming their interests and passions.

For her commitment to nurturing her students’ reading lives and full selves, Stivers has been honored as the 2023 School Librarian of the Year, awarded by School Library Journal and sponsored by Scholastic.

“Librarians like to say, ‘This isn’t a grocery store,’” Stivers told The News & Observer. “You don’t come into a library today only to pick something off of a shelf. Libraries today are more of a kitchen, where you’re creating and doing and experimenting. You can be the doer, or you can treat the library as a safe hangout space.”

Stivers’ award honors her as a change-making librarian, helping her students fall in love with reading in a supported space.

“Julie has made the library a place where kids truly want to be, a place where they belong, and a place that many call home,” Carrie West, a school counselor at Mount Vernon, told School Library Journal of Stivers. “This welcoming environment, coupled with the ability to see themselves in the materials, has allowed students to open up to Julie in a way they may not otherwise.”

Stivers will receive a $2,500 cash award, plus subscriptions and donations that will benefit the Mount Vernon library.

Julie Stivers, center, librarian at Mount Vernon Middle School in Raleigh, has been named the 2023 School Librarian of the Year by School Library Journal and sponsored by Scholastic.
Julie Stivers, center, librarian at Mount Vernon Middle School in Raleigh, has been named the 2023 School Librarian of the Year by School Library Journal and sponsored by Scholastic.

Mount Vernon’s school library affirms

Stivers received her master’s in library sciences from UNC Chapel Hill at 42 after working as an overseas ESL teacher, adult trainer, technical writer and stay-at-home mom.

She joined Mount Vernon with one goal: connect students with literature they could see themselves in.

After one year as their librarian, Mount Vernon saw a 150% increase in book circulation, as she ensured the school’s collection reflected the students’ interests, identities and passions. (Manga, or Japanese comics, is a crowd favorite genre at Mount Vernon, so Manga and graphic novels take up half of the library’s collection.)

“My favorite kind of data is student statements, when they say something like ‘You made me love reading,’ or they get excited talking about a specific book,” she said.

“A lot of my former students stay in touch with me. They want to keep up a relationship with their middle school librarian, which is flattering and humbling and wonderful.”

Last year, Stivers was honored as the North Carolina Librarian of the Year, an award given in recognition of outstanding performance in the school library media center.

In 2017, Stivers won the American Association of School Librarians’ Frances Henne Award, given to a librarian with five or fewer years experience demonstrating excellent leadership qualities. And in 2018, she was named an American Library Association Emerging Leader, one of two school librarians in the national group.

“Every student that walks through the door deserves to see books on the shelves that affirm themselves, their families and communities, and their lived experiences. Full stop,” Stivers said.

“That’s what librarians are fighting for, and I can’t think of anything more valuable to fight for. If someone is trying to ban a book that is a good age fit for that school, they’re really trying to ban a person or community. That’s the message our students can hear, and how damaging is that? Libraries should be healing spaces, not damaging places.”

Wake County middle school librarian wins national award

Book banning pushback

Stivers advocated to keep numerous LGBTQ+ books in school libraries before the Wake County School Board last September.

“There’s only a small group of well-organized parents being exceptionally loud, but most parents and families support libraries and their students having access to books,” Stivers said.

“Every library out there is picking age-appropriate books, and we want to affirm every student, making them feel good about who they are.”

Stivers told the school board how talking about and implementing book bans harms the students “whose identities are authentically and thoughtfully portrayed in literature,” but it also harms all students who do not have the opportunity to learn and build empathy through reading.

She read aloud some of her students’ comments, demonstrating how a diverse, inclusive collection of books has helped them feel valued and understood.

Mount Vernon’s no-cost book fair

The #TrueBookFAIR is a twice-yearly free fair that takes the full year to execute. It’s funded through school funds and donations, and each student gets to pick out two new books free of charge.

The book fair’s name came from a former student, Stivers said, who said “all other school book fairs have been unfair.”

At the winter fair, students can pick out a book for a younger family member, and at the spring fair, parents and other adults are encouraged to bring home a book too, helping them understand and experience the kinds of books their students are met with at their school library.

“An adult will ask me about an adult book, and I’ll say ‘I don’t read those,’” she said. “I spend all my reading time reading the books my students read.”

Triangle Asked & Answered: What do you want to know?

Have a question about something in our community? The News & Observer’s Service Journalism team wants your questions for our Triangle Asked & Answered series. Reach out to us by filling out this form or by sending an email to ask@newsobserver.com.

We read these books that some parents say shouldn’t be in school libraries. What we found

This medical device saved her daughter’s life. Now, she wants one in every NC school