by Jill Ragar Esfeld
OLATHE — Students at St. Paul School here don’t have to shout, “You’re the best librarian ever!” to let Sharon Markey know she’s the best librarian ever.
But they do it anyway.
Because they’re psyched for reading, and they love Markey.
And her passionate enthusiasm for books is contagious.
She’s read almost every book in the school’s library, she remembers everything she’s read, and students know from experience if she recommends a book specifically for them, they’re going to love it.
It happens all the time.
Principal Tonia Helm calls Markey a “gem.”
“She has these really neat conversations with kids,” she said. “And if they say they don’t like to read, she kind of steers them.
“She’ll say, ‘Well, tell me all about what you do like.’ Then she can individualize a book based on what they tell her.”
Helm’s children attend St. Paul and she’s seen the Markey magic firsthand.
Her son Luke told the librarian he liked Egyptian history, and she got him hooked on “The Red Pyramid” by Rick Riordan.
“Then Luke comes home with ‘The Hittite Warrior’ [by Joanne Williamson],” recalled Helm. “And he says, ‘Mom, Mrs. Markey, she is amazing.’”
Sometimes, students aren’t immediately receptive to a recommendation; in that case, Markey negotiates.
“I say, ‘You know what? I’m going to need you to read the first four chapters of this book,’” she explained. “’And then you come back and we’ll talk about it a little bit and we’ll see what you think.’
“About 96 percent of the time, they’ll come back and say, ‘I’m going to keep it; this is really good.’”
Really good books are key — and the St. Paul library is full of them. Markey has been able to make sure of that because she came to her position with decades of experience dealing with young readers.
As a college graduate armed with an English degree, Markey was headed to law school when she met her husband.
Instead of going to law school, she had 10 children and spent the next 20 years homeschooling them.
“It’s been a long, long journey of doing a lot of reading with a lot of people,” she said. “For me, it was wonderful — I loved it.
“God called me to that.”
Without a doubt, Markey has experience relating to children of every age.
“And all the personalities!” said Helm. “You know she’s got the strong-willed child, she’s got the pleaser, she’s got the one who doesn’t really want to get up off the couch and do anything.
“So she can really adapt herself beautifully.”
Markey made reading a priority with her own children because that’s the way she was raised.
“My parents were incredible readers,” she said. “My father used to stop at the public library on his way home from work and find books he liked from children’s literature.
“And he would bring them home and read out loud to us. So I grew up with books.”
Eventually, Markey returned to academia. But instead of studying law, she got her master’s in library science and worked for the Olathe Public Library for 14 years.
Diamond in the rough
Helm and Markey first met when Markey made the decision to enter her last two children in St. Paul.
At the final check-in, they entered into a long conversation, and Helm was struck by Markey’s wisdom and spirituality.
“And at the time,” she recalled, “Sharon was talking to me about how she worked in the children’s department of the public library.
“And I just said to her: ‘Would you ever want to work in our library?’”
Markey’s immediate response was, “You know, this is something I really am feeling called to do.”
Markey started volunteering one day a week and then, last year, retired from the public library and accepted a full-time position as librarian at St. Paul.
“When I first I came here,” she said, “I saw that darling little library down there and I thought, ‘Boy, this needs some work.’”
But she soon discovered a jewel.
“There were some incredible books that had been sitting on those shelves for a long time,” she said. “And nobody was opening them.
“I thought, ‘This could be a lot of fun.’”
Markey’s approach as she revamped the library was to make sure content was up-to-date and of the highest quality.
“As something fundamental to St. Paul School,” she said, “we wanted to make sure our library was rich in good materials that were good for our academics.”
But she also kept in mind pastor Father Michael Hermes’ credo that St. Paul has a sacred mission to educate its children in the faith.
Markey’s favorite place to spend her limited budget is the publishing company Bethlehem Books.
“We really think the books they offer are excellent,” she said. “There’s not a book that I would hesitate to put in the hands of our kids.”
Markey also searched out what she considered the best books in children’s literature — without regard for what was popular or trendy.
“A lot of our books are out of print,” said Helm. “Sharon has gone online and gotten them used because they are just excellent books.
“We don’t want to be trendy; we want quality books.”
Markey is an avid supporter of the public library and encourages students to take advantage of its services and programs.
At St. Paul, however, she wanted to offer students something they might not find anywhere else.
“The public library has lots of money to spend,” she said. “We can do something different.
“There are books at St. Paul that a public library isn’t going to have.
“They’re not Catholic with a big cross on the front of them. But they have that good, solid content that leads readers to the good, the true and the beautiful.”
Markey’s vast knowledge of children’s books has made her an excellent resource for parents at St. Paul.
“I think for me as a mom,” said Helm, “she helps guide me.
“I can go to Sharon and say, ‘[My daughter] is thinking about reading this book. What do you think?’
“And she’ll say, ‘Well, yes, that would be OK, but you need to have this conversation with her.’”
Now that the school year has come to an end and summer vacation is here, Markey encourages all students to continue reading.
“If kids don’t read in the summer,” she said, “we know they can lose up to two grade levels of reading ability.
“That’s scary. So, we really encourage reading all summer long.”
She counsels kids to tuck a book in their sports bags in case they get some downtime at a swim meet or baseball game.
In addition to the public library, she tells students to seek out books at garage sales and used book stores.
“If you spend fifty cents on a book and you don’t like it,” she says, “nobody’s going to get mad at you for that.”
She also encourages parents to get books on tape for family car trips and to read out loud to their children at every grade level.
“When they go off to high school and college,” she said, “one of the things they’re going to be told to do is sit there in that classroom and listen to what’s being said.
“So, this is helping them build that skill of listening and putting facts together in their heads.”
Thanks to Markey, the small library at St. Paul is a gold mine of great books that are catching the interest of even the most reluctant readers.
And Helm is feeling grateful for that moment years ago when she asked a new mom at check-in if she’d like to volunteer in the library.
“I’m the luckiest principal ever,” she said.
Good Family Reads for the Summer
suggestions from Sharon Markey
- “The Railway Children” — E. Nesbit
- “Five Children and It” — E. Nesbit
- “Seven Day Magic” — Edward Eager
- “Half Magic” — Edward Eager
- “Little Women” — Louisa May Alcott
- “Jo’s Boys” — Louisa May Alcott
- “Freckles” — Gene Stratton-Porter
- “A Girl of the Limberlost” — Gene Stratton-Porter
- “The Good Master” — Kate Seredy
- “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” books — Betty MacDonald
- “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” — Richard Atwater
- “Hank the Cowdog” books — John Erickson
- “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” — Beverly Cleary
- “The Borrowers” — Mary Norton
- “Swallows and Amazons” — Arthur Ransome
- “The Book of Three” — Lloyd Alexander
- “Just So Stories” — Rudyard Kipling
- “The Phantom Tollbooth” — Norton Juster
- “The Wheel on the School” — Meindert DeJong
- “The Great Brain” books — John D. Fitzgerald
Pick up a good book and start reading together. Many of these are on CD at your public library and make for an enjoyable listen in the car as well.