Three weeks ago, Molly Hazelton became the children’s librarian at the library where she got her first library card.
Hazelton was 5 when she got that card at the Stowe Free Library, and remembers it felt like a passport to the world.
Now, Hazelton, in her 30s, has succeeded Julie Pickett, who retired in May after 32 years on the job.
Hazelton grew up in Richmond, Vt., and attended Mount Mansfield Union High School, but says she “grew up pretty much in Stowe,” since her parents and grandparents skied here.
Her favorite books to check out with that brand-new library card? “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster and James and Deborah Howe’s “Bunnicula” series, about a vampire pet rabbit.
Hazelton graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2002 with a degree in sociology and classical studies, and from Simmons University in 2004 with a master’s degree in library and information science.
She worked as an archivist in Greece before doing graduate work in Ohio and New York City. From there, she got a grant-funded project working for the Leo Baeck Institute, which needed its entire archives digitized.
Hazelton said she oversaw the digitization of 12 million images.
In 2010, Hazelton took a job teaching at St. Catherine University before pursuing a certificate in school library management in 2018.
She’s excited to work with Stowe’s kids.
“I really wanted to come home,” she said. “I love to read. I’m in particular a huge fan of middle grade and young adult literature. I prefer reading that to grown-up books, sometimes.
“I really like kids. I like working with kids. I find them to be refreshing,” Hazelton said.
She looks forward to curating the children’s book collection at the Stowe Free Library, which has more than 3,000 pieces of material.
It’s important that Hazelton read as much as she can so she knows what to recommend kids, especially reluctant readers.
“My librarian superpower is that I’m a really fast reader, and so I read a lot. I checked out a book yesterday and finished it last night and brought it back,” Hazelton says.
When she meets a kid who says he or she “doesn’t like to read,” she works her way down through the collection, starting with what’s funny.
“I like books that make me laugh,” and she figures for kids intimidated by reading, it’s the same.
Right now, among Hazelton’s favorite books are “The War That Saved My Life” and “The War I Finally Won” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, about a girl born with a disability who sees World War II and her brother’s draft as a chance to get away from her oppressive mother.
She also likes “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland, a historical fiction thriller set in the 1800s that disrupts the Civil War with a zombie battle.
“It’s got everything” — including representation of women and African-American people, something that’s important to Hazelton.
For kids, she says, it’s important both to see themselves represented in literature, and to look through the pages of a book to see what life is like for people who are different from them.
“I’m a white girl. I don’t know very much about other cultures, because I haven’t experienced that. I think that in particular, if you live in a place where there’s not a whole lot of difference, reading well-curated books about other cultures builds empathy,” Hazelton said. “Even though maybe I haven’t experienced what the people in the books I’m reading (have experienced), I kind of learn about their life and I can make parallels or differences. It kind of builds understanding between people and I think that’s fantastic. I want a collection that represents the kids that live in my community, but I also want books that represent kids that don’t live in my community.”
She praised Pickett for the collection she amassed over her 32-year career, and says diversity and representation in children’s literature has increased.
In 2015, 73.3 percent of children’s book characters were white, according to The Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Next were non-humans, including animals and fire trucks, at 12.5 percent.
Black characters starred in 7.6 percent of children’s books, Asian Pacific Americans in 3.3 percent, Latinx characters 2.4 percent, and Native American characters in only 0.9 percent of children’s literature.
Last year, things looked different.
According to the same organization, in 2018, black character representation was up to 10 percent of children’s books, non-human characters 27 percent, Asian Pacific American characters 7 percent, Latinx characters 5 percent and Native American representation around 1 percent.
White characters made up the rest — 50 percent in 2018.
When it comes to cultural fairness and representation, Hazelton said books with outdated viewpoints that could perpetuate hateful stereotypes — such as the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which has been criticized for its portrayal of Native Americans — still serve a purpose, provided they’re just a part of a child’s literary diet, not the only meal.
“You have to remember the context in which she wrote the book,” Hazelton said of Wilder, and said as children’s librarian, she encourages kids to pair those books with others that offer different perspectives on that time period.
“How do these books work to better inform you?” she suggested kids ask.
Hazelton says she looks forward to the end of summer vacation, when kids come back in full force to Stowe Free Library’s after-school offerings and programs.
“I just want kids to read,” she said. She wants to make sure they know “there is a book for them,” no matter who they are.
Hazelton is being paid about $44,000 per year for her work.