Lydia M. Sigwarth Discusses Dear Librarian
An interview with Lydia M. Sigwarth
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode of the Growing Readers Podcast, I talk with author and children’s librarian Lydia M. Sigwarth about her debut picture book Dear Librarian, a “thank you” to anyone who has offered a child love and support during a difficult time.
Wisconsin librarian Lydia is working her dream job of talking books with budding bookworms. Dear Librarian is her debut picture book that covers her personal experience with homelessness and the connection she formed with the library and a special librarian during this time. We discuss the book, overcoming adversity, the importance of libraries and librarians, and the stunning artwork from illustrator-newcomer Romina Galotta. I hope you enjoy our conversation!
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Bianca Schulze: Before we start talking about your gorgeous new picture book, Dear Librarian, I was hoping that you could share a little bit about yourself with our listeners and maybe share something that your most loyal fans might not even know about you.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: I don’t know if I have loyal fans, but this is exciting. Thanks for having me on the podcast. I’m really excited about it.
My name is Lydia Sigwarth. I’m a children’s librarian in Wisconsin. I have a fluffy puppy named Agatha Christie because I’m just that stereotypical. I love libraries. I love books. I love budding readers. I love talking to them. And I play the ukulele so badly. And I love mysteries.
Bianca Schulze: Awesome. We have a couple of things in common, you know, obviously our love of books, but I also play the ukulele terribly.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: We should start a club for terrible ukulele players.
Bianca Schulze: Totally. But it does make storytime fun with the kids, no matter how terrible the playing is.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: It does. I mean, I think one of the reasons I love working with children so much is that they’re really lovely critics. They’re very straightforward. They like something, or they don’t, but when they like something, they like it. You don’t have to impress them with your vocal talents. They just want you to sing a song.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. And you said that you don’t know if you have any loyal fans, but I guarantee you, as a librarian, you have many young, loyal fans for sure. I guarantee.
Lydia M. Sigarth: I do really love my library kids. I’ve been with my library for 15 years, so I’ve been able to watch them grow up and become these amazing people. So, it’s been fantastic.
Bianca Schulze: That’s amazing. As we head into summer break here in the US, Dear Librarian would be the perfect book to talk about because the library and the librarians and librarians inside the library offer so much joy and adventure in the books and escape from the heat. But they also act as a haven for many people. And I know that you hope that Dear Librarian carries with it the magic of libraries and the power of empathy. And I want to confirm that it does do that. So, let’s talk about why it was important for you to share this particular story with the world.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Yeah. So, a couple of years ago, I had one of those moments, like … that moment when a detective is thinking back on the case, and suddenly the puzzle pieces slot together, and the detective is just like I got it! Like they have this Eureka moment. I had a moment like that in a meeting at my job, you know, somebody came in to talk to us about something important for the librarians to know—we were just sitting around talking about things. And the presenter works with homeless families in my area. And she just defined homelessness in a way I hadn’t heard of before, which was just anyone with a nonpermanent housing situation, which would include people living with family or friends. They’re between permanent housing. And I was like, oh my gosh, I was homeless.
I had never thought of that before, but my family moved across the country when I was five years old—I had a very large family—so finding housing for us was difficult, especially at this time when my father had started a new job. And we were just in this transitional period. It was just like a really difficult, unsure time for my family. For six months, we didn’t have anywhere to live.
When my family would talk about that time in our lives, it was a difficult time. But we would always refer to it as, oh, that year we lived at the library. The local library was where we went all the time. It didn’t matter whose house we were staying; being in the libraries was the consistent, stable environment that we had. And I just had never thought of it as we were homeless.
We went to the library a lot. So, in that meeting, I had just this totally eureka moment of realizing that’s what had happened and just how hugely impactful that was on me. Like I always knew I liked libraries, and I knew my whole life being a librarian was what I wanted to do when I grew up. But I had never before realized that a thread of my life led back directly to that moment.
Bianca Schulze: So, the story that you just told me of your life in that time aired as a story on This American Life, so I have listened to that, and I encourage anybody else to go and look that up because you remember that particular year of your life as the year you spent in the library and in the episode of this American Life, you get reunited with the librarian there. What was that experience like for you?
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Oh, it was so surreal and amazing. Her name is Deb Stevenson. But when we were kids, we just called her Mrs. S. I didn’t know her name until This American Life. But she was just the most amazing person when I was a kid. I had such clear memories of her, and all of my siblings do too. She was so kind and attentive to us. We all had really fond memories of her.
As I’ve been working for the last 15 years in libraries, I would think of her pretty often as the ultimate librarian and the person that I wanted to be for the kids at my library. I tried to reach out to her a couple of years ago, but I didn’t know her name, and I couldn’t find her when I was looking.
Deb is the most loving person there is. I can’t even describe what it’s like to see someone for the first time at least 20 years and just hug them and feel safe and at home and totally accepted after a 20-year gap, and I just started crying right away. We both did because it was just this wonderful, beautiful moment of being like, I know this person, and this person knows me. She was so kind and encouraging about my career, who I was as a person, who I was as a librarian, and it was completely overwhelming. It was the most affirming moment of my life.
Bianca Schulze: It was so lovely to listen to that This American Life episode and to sort of play some sort of a witness to that moment because it sounded so special. And I think anyone that listened to it felt how special it was. And so, was it after that meeting that you decided that you wanted to create this picture book, Dear Librarian, or when did you know that you needed your story to be in a picture book?
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Well, this whole situation has far exceeded any of my expectations for my life. I’ve always wanted to write. I love children’s books and I love reading them. I love presenting them at storytime and it’s something I always wanted to do. But I also knew that it’s extremely difficult to break into publishing. I knew my self-esteem wasn’t ready for the rejections, so I never tried it. But my editor Elizabeth at Macmillan reached out to me after the episode aired. She found me on Twitter, and I was like, OK, let’s do it. I would absolutely love to do it.
The next weekend I was visiting my parents and I went to church with them. I was sitting in the pew, not listening because I was just thinking about it. And it sounds so ridiculous and cliche, but this is the God-honest truth that the stanzas just started coming to me at that moment. And I was like, oh, my God, I have to write this down. So, I went to the Sunday school room, and I was like, hey, do you have like paper and a pencil or something. So, they gave me a bizarre coloring sheet that was blank on the back, and I went and found an empty hallway at my parents’ church, and I was just writing it down on the back seat, and that I went home, I typed it up, and I sent it in to my publisher. And that’s the book.
Bianca Schulze: I have written a couple of picture books myself and sometimes you can sit there for a while and think, you know what the story needs to be about, but getting it started and what are the words that you want to use. But then when they come to you, they come, and you have to seize that moment, and you have to get it down. So, I love that you shared that story of where you were. And sometimes it’s that moment of being somewhere where you’re sort of safe to rest your mind. And you were in a place where all the other noise from your life wasn’t there. It wasn’t in that room. And so, therefore, your creative brain was able to kick in.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Yeah, yeah. And it really was extremely important to me in creating this book that it wasn’t heavy-handed at all. I have seen children’s books trying to teach kids something—that are trying to explain something—, and it ends up coming across as a little heavy-handed. Kids don’t really like that; they don’t like being pandered to. I really wanted to be like, that’s my story, that’s what happened to me. And if they learn, you know, if they’re like, oh, I should be nice to people, that maybe sometimes, you know, when you see somebody out in public that you don’t know what their situation is and you should be nice to them no matter what, if they learn that … I’m really happy.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I think you did a marvelous job with that. And the combination of your words with the artwork works great. I like the spread where you’re in the basement with your sisters. I love that scene because you were all cramped together. I think three of your sisters were in a bed or mattress on the floor …
Lydia M. Sigwarth: We had three sisters on a mattress and then three sisters on a couch.
Bianca Schulze: Three sisters on the couch. Yes. Yes. And then so that’s the part that I just love. It’s done so delicately. You say it was like a fun sister sleepover. But then it’s also subtly acknowledged that it was tricky, and it was difficult. And there’s like little speech bubbles with the artwork, you know, of having to sort of squeeze in on the couch and sharing the blanket and sharing the space. And, you know, doing that every night would have been tricky. But it’s done really, really well. It’s sensitive and kids will feel like it’s relatable, too, because they understand how it works with siblings. And maybe having to be that close with your siblings every single day could be just a little bit too much at times. But I just really loved that that sort of delicate way that the information was presented. And it was just beautiful.
Bianca Schulze: I know that you have a favorite spread and it’s the library spread. Will you tell our listeners a little bit about why that particular spread is your favorite and maybe describe what they will see when they open up the book to that page?
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Yeah. Well, thank you very much for your kind words. I love the art. I am so, so lucky to having Romina Galotta as my illustrator. And she is an absolute star. She spent so much time just talking to me about my family, about my childhood, about how I feel about libraries. And I felt like she was really able to get across the bittersweet emotions of that time, like you were saying. I love the spread in the basement because I remember when I look back at that time, I was like, oh, yeah, we were all together. And it was a sleepover. And I liked it as a kid because I got to spend time with my sisters. I’m sure my poor 14-year-old sister was like; I’m a teenager, and I have no space at all. So, I feel like that’s really well communicated.
But yeah, one of my favorite spreads is when little Lydia goes into the library for the first time, and it’s the first time that this beautiful motif shows up in the book of what we call the library magic. And it’s these little floral elements and book characters and animals and everything just kind of coming out of the books. The magic goes into this beautiful, sun-filled room that’s very similar to a room in the library that this is based on. And you can see that those magical elements are coming out of these books. It’s also kind of the first time in the book that there is that much color as well that, you know, you don’t even realize until you get to that spread that there had not been as much color in the rest of the book until she sees the library.
Bianca Schulze: I love that you love the library page, so I want to follow up with the library page and say that I think my favorite pages are the two librarian pages. So little Lydia comes in and loves the library, and then she meets the librarian. You described the illustrations; there’s the floral and the magic coming up around her from behind the desk. And I just love that. And then it ties in for the full circle where Big Lydia—Grown up Lydia—is sitting behind the desk, and now she’s the librarian inspired to become the librarian so that she can give back to the community, just as the librarian did for her when she was little. And so, I have to say; I love the two librarians’ spreads the most because of that reason.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Yeah, I love them, too! I will say Romina made me look like I had amazing hair. My hair has never looked like that a day in my life. But I’m like, fictional me has great hair.
Bianca Schulze: OK, well, for that, I’m going to interrupt you and say I’m looking at your hair right now. And I was thinking to myself how cute your hairstyle is so that you’re not giving your hair enough credit. But what was funny also is while I was reading the book, I thought the way your mom’s hair …
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Doesn’t my mom look fantastic?
Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. I was like, that hair is incredible.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: My mom is, I mean, obviously, this woman is amazing. She actually gave birth to nine children. She has raised them all to be contributing members of society. Like she’s fantastic. She’s, what, almost 60, and still fits in her wedding dress. Like she’s amazing. But Romina just loved it when I sent her old pictures of my parents because they really had an 80s look. She gave my mom this amazing 80s hair.
It’s been a really interesting experience, I think, for my whole family to think back at this time of our lives with some clarity of like, oh, this definition basically to be like we were homeless at that time, you know, and it was rough. It was really different for all of us. I had a little easier go at it in some ways because I was five, so I didn’t quite understand the whole situation, and I was a pretty happy-go-lucky kid.
It was obviously much more stressful for my parents. They were trying to do their best, look after a very large family and not overburden the people who were so kind and letting us stay with them. You know, it was quite a balancing act for them. And I feel lucky that as an adult, I’m able to look back at it and my parents and be like you did your best. And that was a rough time. But look what’s come from it. So, I would hope that maybe parents who had to go through the same thing as my parents feel encouraged that, you know, if you have a good support system, you know, your kids are going to be OK. And actually, some of the best things from their lives might come from that really tough moment.
Bianca Schulze: My gosh, I got goosebumps when you said that. I just think time and time again, whenever I come across a great story, more often than not, it stems from a portion of the writer’s life where they experienced some level of adversity. It just shows that while it would be great if nobody had to have struggles in their life and hardship to overcome. Wouldn’t that be lovely? But the truth is that we all experience some level of adversity, and it’s what helps us develop our character, like the way we choose to overcome it or the way we channel that adversity. And sometimes, that channeling of the hardship is done on a subconscious level. It doesn’t even have to be done consciously. But I just think adversity really can play an important part in giving us better life experiences in the future. But it would be nice if the world didn’t have to experience adversity at all.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: I am happy that my story will help people understand that. I think we have this idea of what homelessness is in our heads, and we think of the most extreme homelessness, unfortunately, people who have to live under bridges. And that’s what we see, and that’s what we think of. And we definitely need to address that and help people in those situations and set up a better social structure that does get people to that point. But I also want to get out that that’s not the only way this exists and that people who are not to that extreme still need their village to help them. They still need understanding, empathy, kindness, and a good support system to help them in that point of time that even though people don’t look homeless, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need our compassion.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. OK, so I want to ask you, what specific daily practices do you think contribute to your success in getting this children’s book created and even just in your success as a librarian.
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Oh, that is a great question. I guess I would say that I always try to be a very good listener when talking to kids. I think kids know when you’re not actually paying attention to them and when you’re not really listening to them. And I really try to listen as carefully and respectfully to kids who are talking to me as I can because I believe what they have to say is just as important and maybe even more important than what grownups have to say because kids don’t have those alternative motives that adults do and that they’re going to be much more honest with you about their thoughts and their opinions. I think I’ve learned more from my library kids than I have from a lot of other people in my life. So that’s something I really try really hard to do every day. I hope and pray that has gained me some of the friendships and the trust in the bonds I hold with the members of my community.
This summer, what I’m trying to concentrate on with my library kids, is just providing a second space outside of their home where I don’t expect anything because they have been in their house with their family for a year and a half. And I just want to be able to be here and not ask anything of them because they’ve been having to keep up with school and trying to help around the house and wearing their masks and all these things.
We’ve asked a lot of our kids in the last year and a half, and they’ve just done so well. They just are like, OK, whatever you need for me, I wear a mask now. I notice they are all such troopers, and I just want them to be in the library and, you know, whatever you need, let me know. Otherwise, I’m just going to let you do your thing. And I don’t need anything from you.
I think that in general, it’s really important, no matter if this seems a basic thing for those of us who are in libraries or book people, but every couple of months a kid asks me how much this is going to cost for this book? How much is it going to cost me for a library card? We’re having a water balloon fight in the park this summer. How much is that going to cost? You know, and like, it doesn’t cost anything. You can just exist here. You don’t need to give me anything. We live in a capitalistic society, so that is mind-boggling. That is mind-blowing for kids to be anywhere where they’re not expected to pay for anything. The library is one of the only places in our society where you don’t have to pay for anything.
Bianca Schulze: A lot of kids have stayed remote learning through this whole school year, and they have been in their home and being able to sort of branch out to somewhere that feels as safe and comfortable as a library and offering them, as you called it, a second space, I think is wonderful. I have literally had kids crying in my car because they’ve wanted to go to the library.
Well, to be a writer, they say that you need to be a reader first. So, was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Well, that is actually a question I have an answer to. So, this is another thing with the amazing Mrs. S. So; we lived in the area where that library was for five or six years. I went from being read to, to being a reader myself at that library with Deb as my librarian. And as many people with siblings know, kids want to be different than their siblings, and different siblings will take on certain attributes. So, my sister, who is just one year older than me, she was the smart one. She was the reader. She is still smarter than me. And so that was her thing. And so, I was like, well, I’m not going to be a reader. I’m going to be the funny one in the family. I like to think I’m still the funny one in the family, but that’s up for debate. So, I really wasn’t into reading. I was really into being outside and getting dirty as I possibly could. I had a grand old time as a kid. But the summer reading program, one year, Mrs. S. really wanted me to sign up for it. She really worked on me that summer, and I wanted to please her.
Mrs. S. was so proud of me. And I thought, well, I’m a reader now. I’m happy when I read. She bought me books that I thought were fun, including books about sisters. I had five sisters at that point, so I just had a sister lifestyle. Deb is also from a large family. So, I think she really connected with me on that. She kind of understood why I was so resistant to being like my sister. I haven’t stopped reading since. I have read one hundred forty-five books this year so far. So that’s where I’m at now.
Bianca Schulze: That’s amazing. Well, is there anything else that you think we need to know about Dear Librarian, yourself, or maybe any future books?
Lydia M. Sigwarth: Yeah. And if anybody wants to publish another book with me, I have so many stories I would love to tell you. I have a super large family, and we’ve got family stories up the wazoo. I’ve been collecting ideas for the last fifteen years that I’ve been working with kids because kids are hilarious.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s amazing. And I think you have all the perfect attributes for working with kids, being a reader first, and being immersed in the kid world every day. So, I can’t wait to see where you’re going to go in the future because this first book is wonderful. So, congratulations, and I can’t wait for the world to read Dear Librarian. And I hope that any adults listening right now will take their kids to the library this summer if you feel safe to do so and just enjoy that second space, as Lydia described it.
The transcription of this interview with Lydia M. Sigwarth has been condensed and edited for readability.
About the Book
Written by Lydia M. Sigwarth
Illustrated by Romina Galotta
Ages 4-8 | 40 Pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux | ISBN-13: 9780374313906
Publisher’s Synopsis: When Lydia was five years old, she and her family had to leave their home. They hopped from Grandma’s house to Aunt Linda’s house to Cousin Alice’s house, but no place was permanent. Then one day, everything changed. Lydia’s mom took her to a new place ― not a house, but a big building with stone columns, and tall, tall steps. The library.
In the library, Lydia found her special spot across from the sunny window, at a round desk. For behind that desk was her new friend, the librarian. Together, Lydia and the librarian discovered a world beyond their walls, one that sparkled with spectacular joy.
Paired with warm art by newcomer Romina Galotta and a foreword by Ira Glass, Dear Librarian is a “thank you” to anyone who has offered a child love and support during a difficult time.
Buy the Book
About the Author
Lydia M. Sigwarth is an author and children’s librarian in Wisconsin. Being a librarian has been her dream job since she was a small child – well, either that or a time-traveling girl detective/ballerina (sadly the latter didn’t end up being a viable option due to technological limitations.) Lydia Margaret currently lives in Platteville, Wisconsin with her family. In her spare time, she reads, plays ukulele, and watches posh British shows with pretty costumes. Her absolute favorite thing to do is talk books with budding bookworms. Dear Librarian is her debut picture book.
For more information, visit: https://lydiamsigwarth.com/
This American Life: Episode 664: The Room of Requirement: Act Three
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June 15, 2021 at 12:55PM Bianca Schulze