Children’s librarian Lydia M. Sigwarth’s first picture book, Dear Librarian, is a warmhearted testament to the power of libraries to change lives. When Sigwarth was a child, her family moved from Colorado to Iowa, where they stayed with friends and relatives but didn’t have a permanent home of their own. During the day, her mother took Sigwarth and her siblings to the public library, where the children’s librarian, Deb Stephenson, not only made them feel welcome but also introduced Sigwarth to the magic of reading.
Dear Librarian was inspired by Sigwarth’s experience of reconnecting with Stephenson many years later during an episode of “This American Life.” Featuring bright, friendly watercolors by Argentine illustrator Romina Galotta, Dear Librarian is sure to become a storytime favorite.
How would you describe your book to someone who doesn’t know your story?
Dear Librarian is a love letter to libraries, librarians and everyone who has inspired a child by giving them a safe space to dream. It’s based on the true story of a difficult time in my childhood, but it’s full of magic and family and celebrates the power of belonging and the little things that make life sweet.
Tell us about Deb Stephenson. When you were young, who was she to you? What impact did she have on you as you grew up and became an adult?
Deb has been a figure of myth throughout my life. I call her “Wonder Woman in a cardigan.” I’ve spent my entire career with a sort of “WWDD” (What would Deb do?) motto guiding me. I always wondered if she would approve of who I became and if she would be proud of me. Within the librarian community, we’re held to very high standards, and one of the reasons I didn’t reach out to her for so long was because I was terrified that Deb would be disappointed in me.
I’ve been working in libraries for half my life. Libraries have always been my home.
What was it like for you to be able to thank someone who’d had such an impact on your life? Have you two stayed in touch?
Anyone who’s listened to the episode of “This American Life” featuring my story knows I shed a lot of happy tears that day. The feeling of being so understood by someone I hadn’t seen in 20 years was affirming and beautiful. I was afraid she wouldn’t remember me—and if she hadn’t, I would have totally understood! Meeting Deb and her reaction being so kind and supportive was more than I could have hoped for. The pandemic has made it hard to meet up in person, but Deb and I have had dinner a few times and stay in touch as much as we can.
Do you remember when you decided to become a children’s librarian? Did it feel like a decision or like an inevitability?
Honestly, I don’t remember a time when my life plan wasn’t to work in a library. (Well, either that or becoming a time-traveling detective/ballerina, but sadly the latter didn't end up being a viable option due to technological limitations.) I started volunteering at my library when I was 15, and I’m now 30, so I’ve been working in libraries for half my life. Libraries have always been my home.
What do you love about being a children’s librarian?
I love talking to library kids. They always have such amazing and unique ideas and thoughts about life. One of my favorite library kid stories is the little guy who very confidently and sincerely asked me for “The After Quill.” After I exhausted all my search capabilities looking for a book by that title, I finally discovered that he was looking for a SEQUEL, or in his words, “The prequel—but AFTER.”
How do your experiences and your story influence your everyday work with children at your library?
In my work, I try to remember that you can never know what battle another person is fighting—and they might not even know they’re fighting a battle at all. As a kid, I didn’t fully understand my family’s situation, and neither do the kids I work with. Since you can’t fully know anyone’s story but your own, I try to approach every family I meet with the same compassion and care I needed at that age.
Why tell your story as a picture book versus something for older readers or even for adults?
From the beginning I wanted Dear Librarian to be a picture book. I turned 6 the year we moved, so my memories are all from a child’s perspective. I’ve always been fascinated by books that talk about complicated subjects from the perspective of a child. In my book, I wanted to talk about something hard and even a bit taboo for kids in a way that they would understand and empathize with.
What was it like to work with the book’s illustrator, Romina Galotta? What is it like for someone to illustrate a piece of your life in a picture book?
Romina is an absolute star. I love her so much and am lucky to have formed a deep friendship with her while we worked on Dear Librarian together. We spent hours talking about my family and my childhood. She cared so deeply about making sure the personality of each member of my family was present on the page and that my siblings and parents were all happy with their representation. I had a blast going back over old family scrapbooks and sent her so many emails full of pictures. Seeing the illustrations take shape was captivating because, while they’re very true to life, they’ve also got Romina’s magic touch.
Do you have plans for more books?
I've got a couple things cooking but nothing to share just yet! I’ve worked with children my entire life, so I’ve been storing up stories for years. Coming from a big family means lots of family lore to pull from as well. I love books that make for fun storytime read alouds, so I’ve got a few of those in the works!
Author photo of Lydia M. Sigwarth courtesy of Krysthol Davis Photography. Childhood photo of Lydia M. Sigwarth courtesy of Lydia M. Sigwarth.