Kimberly and I started STACKED four years ago this week.
Four years ago come June, I accepted my first job as a degreed librarian.
The journeys through each have been interesting in that at the beginning of both, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. And the truth is, I didn’t really know what I was doing because I didn’t have quite the experience in doing either — blogging or librarianing — to know what it was I should be doing. I just kind of did it, hoping some day to do the things that the people who were really good at blogging and being librarians did. I wanted to know as much about young adult literature as possible. I wanted to be able to recognize what book someone was asking or talking about without having to search on Google or on NoveList or any other tool out there meant to make my job easier.
It seemed impossible. That first week of full-time work as a YA librarian I remember a teen coming up to the reference desk and asking me the title of the book narrated by death and about the Holocaust and having to look it up. Of course, since I was still learning the ins and outs of working the desk, my boss (who was kind and nice and non-judgmental) was there with me and I felt so embarrassed to have to look up one of the most obvious, most well-known YA books out there. Knowing the YA department was my job and here I couldn’t call up The Book Thief.
I made comparisons among books in my early reviews that, when I look back on now, make little or no sense whatsoever. I was drawing on the small pool of knowledge I had as a reader and librarian. Sure, I took a YA lit class in grad school and sure, I read a lot outside of work. But I didn’t quite have the well of knowledge to pull from to think about what makes a book like another book. I hadn’t spent enough time thinking about or learning about what was out there and I hadn’t put in the face time to get to know readers and what satisfies their individual needs and interests when it comes to books.
Four years later, I’m deep in the throes of writing an entire book about YA fiction.
A book that will be published, that will exist on book shelves, and that pulls from the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired from reading, from writing about reading, and from working with teens (and adults) who read and like to talk about YA books.
Four years later, I feel confident in my reader’s advisory skills when it comes to working with teens (and in many respects, adults, too, even though my knowledge pool isn’t quite as deep there in terms of titles and authors, though I have a much stronger understanding of how appeal factors work and can thus better use the tools at my disposal).
In taking a step back and thinking about the amount of knowledge and change that happens in four years — the span of a high school career, if you want to look at it that way — it’s amazing. It’s only been four years since I moved from student to career orientation in nature. But even if the labels and directions have changed, I still feel every day I’m a student, as I continue to learn more, to read more, to think more about those things I’m reading and learning, and I’m applying them as I need to across contexts in my life. Sometimes those thought pieces come up in blogging and sometimes, they come up in the course of answering a question at the reference desk. Sometimes they pop up when helping a colleague or when I’m considering what it is I want to do next.
But I have never forgotten what it feels like to think I will never, ever know as much as anyone else nor that I will ever have the wealth of knowledge that they do. Because every day, I still have that little fear in the back of my head that maybe I don’t know anything and I’m just faking it till I make it. I know it’s not true, but I bring it up as a means of saying this: we all feel it, even when we’ve been doing this for four years, for ten years, for twenty-five years.
I’ve been thinking about all of those new YA readers, those new bloggers, those new YA librarians who step up and take the chance on something new. It is not easy to take on a new challenge, and when you invest time to educate yourself via those who have more experience and share it, it certainly can be intimidating. It can and it does feel like you will never, ever get to the point of knowledge and expertise and comfort with your own skills.
All things — all knowledge, all skills — start from zero. But they don’t have to stay there. Little by little, you build up your knowledge by putting yourself out there. By extending your reach, by stepping a little out of your comfort zone. You build yourself up little by little. But those little steps, those small reaches, they add up. And the way your knowledge and skills build isn’t always linear nor is it ever going to be in the same exact way that those you respect or admire have built up their own knowledge and skill sets (this is one of those lessons it took me forever to not only figure out but to accept not only as the way things are but to accept as a positive thing). The more you work at something and the more time you put into it, the more you learn. The more you grow. The more you figure out a process and more importantly, the more you figure out what it is you’re good at and what it is that makes you passionate.
There is no shame in mistake making. It happens. It’s easy to ask for apologies if you’re sincere about what it is you’re seeking apology for and if you’re willing to own up to any blame. You can change your mind about things, too. You dive headlong into thinking that you’re in love with, say, dystopian fiction and then find that really, you’re not? It’s okay to stop reading it. Even if you’re a blogger. Even if you’re a teacher or a librarian and feel like you need to know about those books. You should know about these things, but if it doesn’t light your flame, don’t waste your energy devoting your time and energy to knowing it all. Figure out the big players, then know just a little bit more — be it other books, other resources, or other people to whom you can turn to get more information when you need it.
I still have reader’s advisory challenges. I still have blogging challenges. But I don’t have to know it all because I know where I can seek out the information and the insight when I need it.
Make connections and foster them. Make connections between and among books. Make connections between and among other bloggers, other librarians, teachers, authors, other readers who aren’t in the book world. This is your network and your knowledge, developed and created and maintained by only you.
But don’t be a taker. Give back. Share your knowledge. Share your experience.
Make those connections worthwhile and nurture them because when things get tough, when you start to get down on yourself and what it is you’re doing, those are the best resources for realigning you and reminding you that you do know what you’re doing. That, even when it feels like you know nothing, you’re already a step or two or sixteen or seven billion ahead of where you were on day one, when you didn’t know the book narrated by death was Marcus Zusak’s.
Have confidence in your knowledge and your skills and your ability to grow. It’s time and effort and it’s work. That investment pays off because it’s not just an investment in a career or in a field of interest, it’s an investment in yourself.
No way did I ever expect to figure out the things I did over the last four years. No way did I ever expect that I’d feel confident, either. But when you can look back over four years or more of work and see the change and growth, it’s sort of an exhilarating and awesome and amazing thing. When you write those final words into the first draft of a book you have written about a topic you knew nothing about just a few years ago or when you’re able to put together a lengthy blog series or when you’re asking to speak at an event or when you’re thrown a reader’s advisory question, you realize not only the depth your knowledge, but how important it is to tell other people that the potential exists within them too. That you remind them and yourself, too, that there is so much more to still learn. It’s not out of reach. It’s there. You just have to work for it.
You can, you will, and you do.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).