Newsmaker: James Patterson

The bestselling author discusses the critical role of school libraries

June 4, 2015

James Patterson

Author James Patterson is primarily known for his lengthy list of bestselling thrillers, but he has recently been making a name for himself as a philanthropist. In March, Patterson announced he would give $1.5 million to school libraries around the nation through small $1,000–$10,000 grants that can be used for any kind of repair or improvement. Patterson talked with American Libraries via phone about his passion for books and the role of school libraries in encouraging a love of reading.

American Libraries: You made headlines last year by giving $1 million dollars in small grants to independent bookstores, and now you’re doing the same for school libraries. The problems bookstores are facing are well known, but school libraries haven’t received as much national attention. Why did you decide to focus on school libraries?

That’s exactly why—because they’re not getting attention. That’s also why I helped independent bookstores. I can’t help every bookstore in the country, even though they need help. I won’t be able to help with every library, but [the grants] will help some. What we’re doing here draws attention to the problem. And the problem is a lot of people don’t think libraries are as important as they are.

What do you see as the major challenges facing school libraries?

Everything from no money to buy new books or too many books that the kids can’t relate to or that aren’t current. [Some school libraries] have no librarians, and that’s really tricky. Also, just a feeling in some of these schools that the library isn’t a cool place to be. That books aren’t cool. That’s what we need to overcome.

Unlike many grant applications, the application process for your grants is simple. Was that intentional?

I want people to do it. I want them to feel it’s possible. I think a lot of stuff that’s asked of people is unnecessary; it’s just bureaucratic nonsense. What I really want to do is make it very easy for people.

We need to supplement our librarian now. We need something to attract more kids into the library. It’s not brain science; I’m just looking for need.

What role do school libraries have in a child’s education?

I think that for every school in the country, the first school trip should be to the school library. Not a trip where they hear all the rules and “don’t do this, and don’t do that.” It should be to get a sense of what’s there. You can visit every country. You can visit space. You can learn about every animal. You can learn about the universe. There’s so much information. We can find out so much about other people. What are different ways to look at the world? That’s the huge thing. Kids—and a lot of us—tend to think everybody looks at the world the same way we do, and it’s not true. There are as many ways to look at the world as there are people, and in libraries, you’re going to meet the most fascinating minds that have ever been on the planet.

For every school in the country, the first school trip should be to the school library.—James Patterson

How can parents and librarians improve their child’s reading skills or desire to read?

When our son was 8, he wasn’t a huge reader, but he was a very bright boy. So Sue [Patterson’s wife] and I said, “You’re going to read every day this summer.” His first response was, “Aw, do I have to?” And we said, “Yes, unless you want to live in the garage. But we’re going to go out and find really cool books for you.” We went out and got Rick Riordan. We got A Wrinkle in Time. We got Al Capone Does My Shirts. And by the end of the summer, Jack had read a dozen or so books, enjoyed all of them, and his reading skills improved dramatically. So there’s one path.

Also important to me are the kids who are at risk. If they don’t become competent readers, how are they going to get through high school? You can’t. If they don’t get through high school and don’t become competent readers, how are they going to get jobs when they get out? How are they going to get to college?

We also have a program at Vanderbilt where we have kids come in from three or four middle schools every Saturday and all through the summer, and we see something really fascinating happen. Even though it’s only a limited number of kids from each school, the whole school’s reading scores have gone up. All of a sudden teachers are seeing that kids are becoming really good readers, and they’re saying, “Hmm, we can do this.” And other kids are seeing it and saying, “Hmm, we can do this.” The kids are on campus every week and talking with professors, and I guarantee that a much higher percentage of these kids will go to college than would have otherwise.

So, there are things we can do. It just takes a bit of imagination, hard work, and people believing in what they’re doing.

Do you have fond memories of your school library growing up?

We didn’t have one, but the local library wasn’t far away. My mother was a teacher at the school, and we were at the library once a week, so the library was definitely a part of our lives.

What message do you have for teachers and school librarians?

If I talk to big groups of librarians or teachers, I usually will start by saying, “I’m here to save lives,” because that’s literally what’s happening. That’s what they’re doing. And it makes getting through the day a lot easier if they can remember that.

I have a friend who just recently retired, but he was a teacher his whole career. A couple years ago I ran into a guy who had been a student of his who is now teacher. I told my friend that I had seen him, and he said, “Oh, that kid was so much trouble. Just thinking about him gives me a headache.” I said, “That’s interesting, because he said you turned his life around, and you’re the reason he and his brother are teachers.” A lot of times teacher and librarians, they never get the feedback. They never get the praise for what they’ve done for a lot of these kids. They are saving lives. Librarians are saving lives.


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