Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Brittany Drehobl

You guys, get ready for me to throw the book at you, because Convos with Writers is back and my new interviewee will basically convince you that the hottest club in town is your local library and you will need to HIT IT UP TODAY.

She’s a marathoner with a master degree.
A Cubs fan who also resides in the Holy Land (Wrigleyville)
A Slytherin / Feminist / Activist triple threat
She is…my favorite pink-haired librarian, Brittany Drehobl.

Let’s stop the book-throwing and start the book-talking. Onward!

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1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I honestly write whatever comes to me, and lately that’s been a blog recapping my Chicago Marathon and training way back in 2014 that never transitioned into anything else, some private hand journaling, some well-intentioned Tweeting, a few quarter-finished Young Adult novels, and approximately the 17th round of edits on a picture book featuring my dog, Mac.

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For the past four years, I’ve also been reviewing children’s materials -from picture books to young adult novels- for an international publication, School Library Journal.

I believe that reading widely not only makes me a better librarian, but will also make me a better writer, so can my answer be that I’m reading everything? And I read relatively quickly and often am reading multiple things at a time (I think my record is 9 books at once), so it’s hard to pin down what I’m reading at any given point in time without such a complicated answer. But if I must, I’m very slowly rereading Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar (of Holes fame) to prepare for a library program I’m planning in May, and I just started listening to Becoming Kareem by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

2. If you are a librarian, why aren’t you 75 years old with a turtleneck and glasses?!
You know, I wore the outfit you’re describing to work just the other day!

But really, I think with any group of people or profession, you’re going to find stereotypes like this one. And honestly, in almost any library, you wouldn’t be hard pressed to find an older female employee with glasses and a cardigan covered in cat hair, drinking tea while shushing you. But these days, I also don’t think you’d be hard pressed to find a young guy or woman with a hair color only found in the rainbow, rocking Doc Martens and a few tattoos. But I think I’m just one example that librarians can and should be different than what you expect, whether that means a male, another race, pink hair, whatever! Libraries and librarianship are definitely changing from those stereotypes we all know and associate with the profession, and the people you see working in libraries are changing right along with it.

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3. When did you know you were a writer?
I’ve always been a big reader ever since I learned how (and note, I don’t say I’ve always been a GOOD reader…), but the moment I began thinking of myself as writer was in 3rd grade when my teacher gave out class awards and I received Budding Author. At the time I was really bummed because my third grade self had no idea what the heck a budding author was and why I got that dumb award over something cool like Most Athletic or Funniest.

But when I walked up to accept my weird award, my teacher privately explained to me that mine was some of the best writing she’d ever seen for someone my age. I immediately started to explore my writing talent, penning some poems and even a book about a girl who got a dog for Christmas (talk about wishful thinking!). Writing quickly became a passion… and it turns out that I actually was (…am?) pretty good. I mean, I *did* get a 12/12 on my ACT essay.

4. You get to read ARCs…advanced reader copies of books BEFORE they are released to the public. You also get to give feedback on the ARC. Tell me why that’s so cool.
On a personal level it’s cool because sometimes I get to use my librarian powers to read a book I’ve been dying to get my hands on before it comes out.
Professionally, it’s really cool for a lot of reasons. As a librarian, I can decide for myself if it’s a book that’s worth ordering for my library instead of relying on what other people say in review journals. I can also decide if I should promote the book to patrons the day it comes out, and which patrons would like it, or what specific content is or isn’t in the title because, as a children’s librarian, some parents like to know that information before giving a book to their child.
But as a reviewer, it’s even cooler. I get to help influence what other librarians purchase and market based on quality, appropriateness, and inappropriateness of a text- because librarians aren’t able to read every book, so we rely really heavily on professional reviews when we purchase and market books.

In a few extreme cases, I’ve called out big issues in pre-published books that have actually gotten changed before the books went to their final printing. I’m not sure whether my reviews aided to the problematic content being altered, but it sure feels good to make those revisions to my reviews to reflect the books’ final, hopefully less problematic, edits. Either way, I know I’ve saved some libraries from purchasing some problematic material, but I’ve also gotten some great books onto the shelves where they need to be. That’s literally one of my favorite parts of this job: finding every book its reader, and every reader their book.

5. What were you like in high school?
A Hollister-wearing Hermione Granger, but with stick straight hair and no magical abilities. Really, I was a straight-A student who always did the extra credit and relished raising her hand and getting the right answer in class, who never broke the rules, was involved in way too many after school activities and sports, and who would have never dyed her hair pink.

So I’m exactly the same in a lot of ways, but I’m also completely different in others; like I’m still super nerdy and a total rule follower (…as long as the rules make sense!), but I’ve learned to say no to things I don’t have the time or energy for, and hello, my hair is PINK. That’s growing up for you!

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6. Let’s talk schedules- what kind of quality of life does a librarian have and how do you carve out time to write?
Most librarians and library staff regardless of if they are full or part time have some sort of a weekend and/or evening rotation so the library can stay open as often as it is. I personally have a pretty steady 9-5 schedule and only have to work an occasional night for special library or school events, and at least 4 weekends a year, but usually the rotation is more regular than that. One or two designated nights a week and about a weekend a month is pretty standard.

For a part timer who is possibly juggling multiple jobs (as I have a few times in the past) might be working multiple nights every week and even more weekends a month, and that can be a really rough ride.

And I’ll be honest now, I’ve been in a been of a writing rut lately. For me, I switched from a part time job to a full time job back in August and was involved with a book award committee (the Caudill, have you heard of it?), I’m still learning the ropes at work, my commute is long, so it can be hard to find the time and energy to dedicate to my personal projects. Part of me is frustrated with myself over my lack of progress with my writing and all of these excuses I just listed, but the other part thinks I need to relax.

But I have found that when I have a firm deadline with School Library Journal or one-off projects (like Convos with Writers!), I’m able to plan my days. Also utilizing a laptop, tablet, cloud storage, or even a good ole pen and notebook for my projects so I can write mobily. I have faith in myself and am persistent to a fault, though, which in the writing business, is more than half of the battle.

7. Who are your mentors? How does one identify great mentors?
I have three really great mentors, all of whom hired me for my first library internships and my first real librarian job. Especially at those first jobs they hired me for, but even after I had left, they’ve always been very supportive of me and my career and have been willing and even proactive in helping me become the best librarian I could be.

I think all you need to do to identify a great mentor is to see not only who offers you help if you say you need it, but who takes the time to guide and help you even when you don’t know you need it, and then trusts you enough to achieve your tasks, make mistakes on your own, and go over how to learn from them going forward. There’s a really fine line between guidance and control, and a good mentor will help you feel confident about your skills and the knowledge you have without making you feel like you can’t go it alone without them. You’ll know which side of the line your potential mentor stands on when you’re the one giving feedback, or they’re the one asking for help; a good mentor will make it a conversation and take your opinions into consideration no matter how far their junior in age or experience you are.

8. What music do you listen to? What is inspiring you these days?
I am all about that bass. And by bass I mean Taylor Swift.

I’ve relied heavily on Top 40 hits since I was about 10 so I still listen to everything from the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys to P!nk and Fall Out Boy to Kesha and Chance the Rapper. And Taylor Swift. Lots of Taylor Swift. I also love a bunch of old stuff I picked up from my parents and husband, like the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Fleetwood Mac.

Music is and has always been a really big influencer for me, especially when it comes to writing and working out. But I’m honestly most inspired by big issues and how they’ve affected me when I was younger and how they’re affecting young people today. Literally two of my work-in-progress young adult books could be summed up in the popular hashtags, #MeToo and #Enough. I think as long as I’m working with young people and striving to make the future better for them, I’ll keep being inspired by them and their passions and what affects them most.

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9. A student walks into a library unsure of where to go or what do to. How should they proceed?
ASK! I know it can be intimidating to approach an adult in a public place, but just go up and say “Hey, this is my first time here in a while and I was wondering what programs and services you have for a high schooler like me.” Just the fact that you asked would make any librarian worth their salt want to show you all the cool things they have for you- because believe me, they have cool things for you.

Or when all else fails, READ THE SIGNS. Librarians love to organize, and we put signs everywhere explaining everything. If you look hard enough, you’ll find a sign pointing you in the right direction for the Teen Space, the bathroom, the copy machine and computers (AND how to use them), and so much more.
And if that fails, really, just ask! Please ask!

10. How did you *know* that this was the right career for you? How did you go about creating it for yourself?
I’ve always known I wanted to work with and for kids, especially young adults, and I’ve also always had an affinity for writing and books. After I graduated college with degrees in creative writing and developmental psychology, back during the hardest years of the recession recovery, I was working as a nanny. My youngest charge was 3 years old and in preschool every other day, so when he didn’t have school I would take him to the library to get us out of the house. It was literally during a storytime while the children’s librarian was reading a book about a fire breathing dragon making popcorn that I had this epiphany where I thought to myself, “Hey, I love kids and I love books. I bet I could do this.”

Then, after a lot of research about how one becomes a librarian, getting the required masters degree in library and information science at the University of Illinois (did you know you need a graduate degree to be a librarian?!), two internships and four years of hustling, here I am! I’ve been doing the librarian thing for almost five years now, and I met Kelly (editor’s note: yep, that’s me) at my first real librarian job in Glencoe about that long ago. And that’s really what erases any doubts from my mind that being a librarian is a great fit for me: because as much as I love the book and information parts of my job, I’ve found I mostly love connecting with the people who I work with. Connecting over books and childhood and growing up creates really special bonds between people. It’s a bond I treasure and look forward to making and strengthening every day.

And as for the writing, well, I’m still working on creating that piece of my career, and I know it’s right for me because no matter how hectic life gets, it’s always something that’s on my mind; something I feel like I should be doing. And while I’ve accepted that I can only focus on one career at a time, I think now that I feel so solid in my library life, I can make some big strides in writing soon.

11. Tell me a story about a story.
My husband is one of sixteen cousins on his dad’s side, and we were recently at that grandmother’s house for Easter. I don’t know about you, but since I’m such a goody goody, I always want my significant other’s family to like me and with sixteen grandchildren and going on fourteen great-grandchildren, it’s sometimes hard to find time for special conversations with anyone, let alone the matriarch of the family.

Well, on Sunday, it happened, and Nana asked me if my husband and I went to the movies much. Though we had been a few times recently, I said that we really didn’t, but asked if she had seen anything recently that she would recommend.

She said “Love, Simon.”

I absolutely lit up from the inside out. Not only is “Love, Simon” one of the two movies my husband and I had seen recently, but I got to share with Nana not only that I adored the movie, but how I had read and reviewed the book it was based on (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli) for School Library Journal. Nana knows I am a librarian, but she didn’t know that I reviewed books for a big publication, or that “Love, Simon” was based on a book! It was so amazing to not only be able to bond on such a personal level, but to be able to share such a huge part of my life with her in a way that directly connected to something she wanted to share with me meant everything to me, especially these days that I have no living grandparents of my own. I just can’t wait to lend my copy of Simon to Nana Ronnie and have even more to discuss at our next family gathering!

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Bonus points:
What is a librarian’s pet peeve?
“It was a book with a dog on the cover with a red background and I saw it over on that shelf or maybe that shelf when I was here last year with my mom.”

Don’t worry, we will help you try to find that book and we are also very guilty of remembering the exact same non-specifics about books like location and book covers… but please don’t get mad or frustrated when we can’t find what you want or it’s not what you expected! Sometimes covers of books change in different printings (it’s why you shouldn’t judge them that way!), and sometimes the way the books are on the shelves changes when librarians add or delete items from the collection. And would you believe that sometimes, you misremember everything about the book in the first place?! I’ve definitely done it more than once.

What book should everyone read this year?
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertali
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
March Series by John Lewis

This is such an unfair question to ask me; I could go all day!

How does activism correlate to reading books?
I think it’s as simple and complicated as this: studies show that people who read have elevated levels of empathy for others. And empathy, the ability to understand how others are feeling, is the key ingredient to any kind of activism. Anyone can get loud when they’re personally wronged or inconvenienced, but it takes an empathetic person to go a step further and want to ensure that what they’ve experienced, either through their own lives or secondhand through the news or fiction, doesn’t happen to or is better for everyone else.

Not only does reading help you see more of the world and understand people who aren’t like you, but it gives you the ability to further delve into the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others and believe, no matter how alike or different they are from you, that they matter.

These days, many people favor Kindles or eReaders. What does this technology mean for libraries?
All it means is that libraries have to keep on keepin’ on, and stay on top of the technological trends! I think a lot of the population correlate libraries with books, period. But ask any librarian what their job is and sure, books fall into that, but most importantly it’s serving the community we work in and making sure our patrons get the things they need and want. So just like video didn’t technically kill the radio star, physical books are still the preferred method of a majority of readers, but that doesn’t mean libraries aren’t doing all they can to make your favorite books, movies, TV shows, and more accessible on your favorite devices.

Many libraries today lend out e books and e audiobooks, and even have apps you can download to watch popular movies, television shows, and even listen to music with your library card. And going beyond that, many libraries lend objects other than media, like puzzles, STEM kids, even seeds and cooking utensils. Definitely visit your library and see what cool things they can offer you!

What are the best free things at a library that everyone should take advantage of?
Space! No matter what library you walk into, whether you have a library card for there or another library or none at all, nobody is going to question you or what you’re doing or why you’re there (unless you’re breaking the rules); it’s one of the last indoor places in America where you don’t have to buy your right to be there and use the facilities in-house. Whether you need to work on a group project or need a warm place to spend a few hours after school or need a place to take the kid or sibling you’re babysitting, the library is a space where you should always be welcome and respected.

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A big ol’ tall book of thanks to Brittany for sharing her writer life. If you find yourself inspired by her book-reviewing, activism, library-loving life, follow her on Twitter, check her out on Instagram, and swing by her website. Then go stock your shelves with some delicious reads.

In the mean time, do us all a favor and go get yourself an almond milk latte, walk into your library, and ask for three book recommendations and a schedule of events.

Happy reading, friends.

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself: KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com

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