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Check It Out: Naomi Jelks, San Francisco Public Library

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The importance of diversity in children’s books, a memoir told as a graphic novel, and the one book about San Francisco everyone should read.By Celadon Staff

Naomi Jelks is the Program Manager of the African American Center at the San Francisco Public Library, where she’s been a librarian for eight years. A SciFi and Fantasy enthusiast, Jelks likes to tailor book recommendations to each reader, but can suggest her favorites across many genres.

What does the world get wrong about librarians?

All public institutions change, including libraries. We’re no longer the “Shhh, you’re being too loud library,” but a place that encourages patrons of all ages to convene and build community. Public libraries remain committed to free and open access to information and are increasingly at the vanguard of ensuring equity is at the center of our service model. We still provide storytime for children, and generous lending privileges for materials, but we’re also a destination for things other than books. Patrons can learn to code using Python or sew using sewing machines in our teen center; if you’re interested in graphic novels there are comic festivals happening at libraries that engage all ages.

What book has made the greatest impact on you?

I’m the mother of a young daughter with a keen eye for quality children’s books. She understood very early that award-winning books have a gold or silver emblem on their covers and would seek them out. One of those was Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson. It won the 2016 Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. The story is lovely, not only because it shows an African American boy traveling to church on the city bus with his grandmother gently guiding him to find the wonder and beauty in his surroundings, but also because of Robinson’s radiant illustrations. My daughter was drawn to the book’s black protagonist and that the illustrations were created by someone in our own community—we’d see Christian in San Francisco’s Mission District frequently. She was duly impressed.

Last Stop on Market Street represents the very best in children’s literature and the importance of representation and being able to reach children of color and supporting their love of reading and literature. As a parent and librarian, I began to really understand how critical it is for emerging readers to see themselves in literature and the ways children’s books help support lifelong learning.

What book do you recommend most and why?

My reader advisory work tends to be more inquiry based as opposed to sharing my recommendations on what I think patrons should read. I typically ask three questions: What was the last book you read that you liked? What subject are you interested in? Would you like a fiction or nonfiction title? In general, that provides me with enough information to recommend a title. If all else fails, I’ll recommend Season of the Witch by David Talbot. Nonfiction is my true love and David’s book masterfully recounts the gripping story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 and 1982, and of the extraordinary men and women who led to the city's ultimate rebirth and triumph. If you want to understand San Francisco of today, this book tells all.

What’s the last great book you read?

Hands down, The Overstory by Richard Powers. My mother is a bit of a tree-hugger and raved about it. I’m a bit of a naysayer regarding fiction titles longer than 400 pages, but the writing is magisterial.

Read more: Check It Out: Librarians’ Best Book Picks

What’s your favorite genre?

For the last several years, Science Fiction and Fantasy. The genre is doing much needed work in making space for different literary voices. I love the works of Charlie Jane Anders who wrote All the Birds in the Sky, N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning work The Fifth Season, and author Nnedi Okorafor. I truly appreciate how expansive and inclusive the genre has become.

What’s your favorite bookstore?

Hands down, Green Apple Books in San Francisco. No matter one’s literary taste, there’s something for everyone. And the staff is knowledgeable and quite helpful.

What’s the most unique or memorable book request you’ve gotten?

I hold dear, face-to-face interactions with youth and young adults who are still in the process of discovering secrets held in public libraries. In a fast-paced digital world, it feels indulgent to spend time talking to librarians at length and to learn how to find print information. Born digital patrons interact with information a bit differently than those of us who came of age pre-Internet. I appreciate educators who ensure young people learn how to find information at public libraries; I especially appreciate educators who insist young people seek out help from librarians. There’s something gratifying about onboarding patrons to the “secrets of finding information in the library.” Sharing the secrets of the Dewey decimal system is a time-honored tradition I’m proud to be a part of.

What have been the biggest book trends at your library in the past six months?

So many stories continue to be told as graphic novels. I initially thought of them solely as great reading material for visual learners and a tool to onboard children to more challenging reading. But in the last couple of months, I’ve read Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do memoir exploring her family’s immigration to the U.S. during the Vietnam war, and John Jennings adaptation of Octavia Butler’s seminal work, Kindred. I don’t think the genre has peaked yet.

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