Kirby Larson (Librarians are Rockstars!)

[Alison Tran] Together with Steve from Circulating Ideas, we are chatting via Skype with Newberry honor winning author Kirby Larson and we’re so excited to talk to her. We’re talking all about libraries today, thank you for joining us Kirby.

[Kirby] Well thank you for inviting me and this is one of my favorite topics.

Oh we’re so glad and thank you for joining us as well Steve.

[Steve] And I am very happy to be here.

Hehe. Well, Kirby, let’s kick things off. Could you tell us all about your childhood library? Do you have any special memories, or favorite books that you checked out over and over?

Well, you know, my family moved around a lot, so I did not have a childhood library, but no matter where we went, we always did find the library and I remember loving the Ricka, Flicka and Dicka stories, which, when I’ve gone back to revisit them, it’s sort of like well, like what did you love about them? But, as someone who moved around a lot I think it was important to have that continuity and familiarity of those stories. And then I also wanted to solve mysteries like Encyclopedia Brown.

Oh yeah.

And I really believed there was such a place as the mushroom planet and a person named Mrs Piggle Wiggle.

Oh, what, there isn’t?

Sorry. I hate to break it to you.

Oh crushed, I’m crushed.

Another dream’s gone.

Those are such good books and, and it does sound really comforting, so that must have been good to have like any library was kind of a solid place for you then.

Exactly, yeah.

Oh, that’s so cool. Well did you ever get shushed in the library? Did you ever cause trouble?

You know, I don’t, I, I was the first born and I was a very good girl, I followed all the rules, so I don’t, I would probably have scolded someone else who was making noise. I was, followed those rules very seriously.

Oh good citizen. Well, since you were so good about being such a, you know, library citizen, did you get to know your librarians? Did they appreciate your help in shushing?

You know, I remember, because I moved around a lot a couple of times I got the assignment to be a library assistant, which was a good way for a new kid to, you know, kind of get to know the school and get involved and I just, I remember just loving putting the books back where they belonged, but also looking at the titles as I put them back and maybe checking out to see if that was something that I might be interested in reading. I was a pretty eclectic reader, I notice when I go to schools now that, for example, a lot of 5th and 6th graders are really hooked on fantasy, or certain series, and I, I was more of an eclectic reader, trying different things and maybe being that library assistant helped me, you know, be open to different genres, different titles.

Oh, I love that.

Kirby, you write historical fiction and that requires a lot of research. How have libraries or librarians played a role in the research you’ve done for your writing?

Well, I don’t think there is enough time in this podcast for me to fully answer that question. I call librarians my fairy godmothers and godfathers. For example, it was a research librarian who taught me about the Stanford Maps which are old maps available online. And I really rely on maps to help me confidently build place in my stories and before I learned about the Stanford Maps I was scouring used book stores or eBay, trying to find old maps of certain areas and as you can imagine that was very difficult and so when I was introduced to those, it was like “Eureka!”, I can, I know about a place now. I’ve also used reference librarians to help me figure out when certain words or phrases were introduced into the vernacular. And one particular example I remember is the phrase, or word, “blotter wings”. I was afraid it was a little too contemporary for the book I was using it in and I think that might have been Hattie Big Sky, I can’t remember now, but I discovered it actually was part of the lexicon, you know, in the early 1900s, so I was safe to use that. And recently a very kind reference librarian scanned an article that I’d just could not get a hold of myself and emailed it to me, so what I love most about reference librarians is they get kind of invested in what you’re, you know, what you’re trying to figure out and it seems like no question is too small or too silly for those hard working librarians. I just, I wouldn’t be able to write the books I do without them.

Oh, that’s so great.

Yeah luckily us librarians are very thorough in the first place and they love learning new things, so it’s nice for us to answer reference questions.

Yeah and you know, I have to say one thing and I’m pretty much a self taught researcher and so someday I’m going to like take a librarian out to coffee and ask them if they will please teach me how to use keywords in a database search because I really, that is an art and I have yet to figure it out.

Wow. Like you’ve just earned the love of every librarian everywhere ever.

It’s mutual, let me tell ya.

Well thank you Kirby, that’s, that’s. So, I have to ask, in your book The Friendship Doll you wrote about these amazing dolls that Japan gave the United States as a gift in the 1920s. So fascinating, over the decades, especially during the war years, some of those dolls have gone missing and you have this incredible story on your blog about a library that discovered that they might own one of the missing dolls because one of the librarians had read your book. Can you share that story with our listeners? And do you have any updates on that?

First can I tell you that I am not a doll person. But when I heard this story behind the friendship dolls, that they were created in an effort to improve the relations between the US and Japan, I was hooked. And when I saw my first friendship doll I was moved by how beautiful she was and how it seemed like she was on the verge of trying to tell me something. So in the back of the book I included an author’s note which directs people to a website that is managed by a man named Bill Gordon, who is also passionate about the friendship dolls and after they toured the country in about 1928, the 58 dolls were sent to museums around the country and Mr Gordon’s site lists those museums by state. So, in an intrepid librarian in Minnesota noticed that a doll named Miss Miyazaki was sent to their public library and yet she had never seen it. So luckily, the library had gone to a, the system had gone to a complete inventory a few years before and it only took her a few phone calls to discover that the doll was stored in a very deep, dark basement and practically forgotten. So it was really exciting. They brought her out, out of this storage area and actually a man named Alan Pate, who was probably the world’s leading expert on friendship dolls, flew to Minnesota to verify that it was indeed one of the original dolls, and it was, which was very exciting. But sadly the doll was, had not been stored in proper conditions and she requires extensive and very expensive repairs and so the library is still in the process of deciding what to do, so I don’t really have an update for you about that, but it, for example, they have to go to Japan to be repaired. And if they, the repairs can cost upward of $50,000, so you can see for a small library system, that would be quite an undertaking. So they’re still discussing what to do with her, but it was so exciting because my dream in writing that book was that someone would say hey, you know, maybe grandma, maybe that doll in grandma’s attic is one of those friendship dolls, so it was a really rewarding to see that dream come true.

Oh that’s fantastic and I, I hope that they’re able to raise the funds. It sounds like they need a Kickstarter or something, so.


To get the funding for that.

Well that’s a great, cool story.

I’ll have to mention that to them, they might not be aware.

Kirby, in Hattie Big Sky, your character Hattie obviously understands the joys of literacy, even lending books out to the neighbor children. Do you think Hattie would have made a good librarian if her life had taken a different turn?

I love this question, and I love the image of Hattie as a librarian. I, I think that would have been the perfect occupation for her. I want to share, I made this wonderful connection with this school in Bodkins, Ohio and it’s a very small school in a really small town and the reading teacher was so taken with Hattie Big Sky that she anointed all of her older students, she called them her Hatties, even the boys, they didn’t mind, and the little kids that like, the second graders I think it was, were the chasers of the school and the older kids took, walked the little ones down to the public library so they can get their first library cards and I just loved how Hattie inspired even more readers to be connected with books, that was really rewarding to me and I think Hattie would have loved it too.

Oh, that’s so sweet. Well we are.

A very cute story.

Well we are really excited about the upcoming sequel to your Newberry winning title Hattie Big Sky, the title being Hattie Ever After. Let’s switch gears from the library conversation a little and talk about this awesome book. How did you decide to write a sequel? And are there any hints you can share as to what fans can expect?

Oh well I don’t know if you can hear me laughing but I had no intention of writing a sequel. When I finished Hattie’s, Hattie Big Sky I felt confident I had finished Hattie’s story and so I was shocked when I began to get emails and letters from people saying well what happened next? And I, you know, sequels are rather nerve-wracking, or I think they are, and so I resisted writing one until two summers ago I decided to reread Hattie Big Sky and I realized that I had missed Hattie and so I told myself if I could think of a problem that was uniquely different than the one she faced in Hattie Big Sky I would go ahead and try a sequel and of course my brain came up with a problem and so I started that book. Had I known I was going to write a sequel I would have let, done things a lot differently in Hattie Big Sky, but I had to take Hattie from where she was at the end of that book, in Great Falls, Montana and decide where she would go next. And she does end up in San Francisco.


Which was quite a change for that little farm, you know, small town girl to go to a big town. And so Hattie’s fans can look forward to finding out what happens to her in San Francisco. And I promise the book does answer the question I get asked most often, which is did Hattie and Charlie get married. But I want you to notice that I purposely titled the book Hattie Ever After to show you that this is the last book about Hattie. I have learned that I am not a sequel writer, I, it was the most nerve-wracking book I’ve ever written.

Oh, wow.

I felt like all my fans were leaning over my shoulder and I didn’t want to do anything wrong.

That’s a lot of pressure.

It was an incredible amount of pressure.

Well, we can’t wait, I mean.


So excited, more Hattie, San Francisco, I mean. And thank you for going through that pressure and writing it for us, yes, exactly.

And it’s, oh I was just going to say, other than using libraries extensively, of course, can you describe what your writing process is for us? Like what’s a typical day in the writerly life of Kirby Larson?

Oh I love that. Writerly life, that sounds wonderful. My life isn’t that dramatic, but it typically starts with a long walk with Winston the wonder dog and you might have heard him barking a little bit earlier.

Oh, hi, Winston.

I find it’s a great way to clear my head and I, I can’t tell you how many writing problems I’ve solved on those outings. Even, you know, even if I’m thinking about it, you just look at nature or and just, you know, thinking about something Winston’s doing and all of a sudden a solution to what I’ve been struggling with usually pops in my head. So after that walk and breakfast etc I’m usually at my home office desk by 8 or 9 in the morning and I pretty much am there the rest of the day, writing is my full-time job. I’m lucky to be able to do that. And right now I’m winding up a project, so I’m beginning to think about what’s next and I have another historical novel that’s finished, but needing some revision and another novel that’s tapping my shoulder impatient to be born. So, I’ll probably alternate my time between the revision and the research and wrestling with that first draft of the, the book that’s tapping my shoulder.


But no Hattie Part 3.

She is, we’re done, but I, I will say that I, I love, even though the book that I just completed is my first ever boy main character, I think I’ll be going back to my strong girl characters because I just love being able to show that women in history did amazing things and most of them were footnotes or on the sidelines and I’d really like to shine the spotlight on how women have really helped to make this country what it is.

That’s fantastic. We just, we love it, so we just can’t wait for your upcoming books and Hattie Ever After and gosh, Kirby, thank you so much for joining us today, this was fabulous.

And thanks to the three of you for taking time from your morning to chat with me, it’s so much fun for me to talk about books and about libraries, so this was a pure pleasure. Thank you.