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Love of books drives longtime West Valley librarian

November 12, 2018

On the way to West Valley School library students get a glimpse of the treasure trove inside through hallway windows. Inside, open books with colorful covers sit atop shelving units in a row, creating a rainbow effect.

Connecting students with those books is Renell Wilson’s priority as the school librarian and media specialist.

“I enjoy finding the right book for the right kid,” Wilson, 55, said, adding that she enjoys helping teachers find the right book to work on classroom issues. “Maybe kids are having trouble getting along on the playground, or maybe somebody is tattling a lot ... with the right book you can have a powerful lesson without the kids even realizing it.”

Purchasing books for the library is a big task with a bright side.

“I love purchasing the books. It’s like Christmas shopping for the kids,” Wilson said.

With all the choices and limited shelves - how does she decide?

“I actually spend a lot of the summer working on my book order because I want to give it my full attention,” Wilson said.

The process starts with reading library journals and magazines specializing in reviewing children’s and young adult literature. She also pays attention to what book stores stock and what titles colleagues and students talk about and request.

“I just have an ongoing wish list,” she said.

What are the favorites among students today?

“Third-graders love a series called ‘Dogman.’ It’s a graphic novel and graphic novels have become very popular. ‘Elephant and Piggie’ books are also very popular. They are so clever and really cute. I cannot keep them on the shelf. I’ve had kids actually fight over the book.”

“Another series kids love is ‘Magnus Chase,‘” she said, a fantasy novel trilogy based on Norse mythology. “The older kids love the ‘Divergent’ series,” which is set in a dystopian future.

As a youth, Wilson said her favorite book was “Are You there God? It’s Me, Margaret” and the “Ramona” series.

One place where there is unlimited shelving space is online.

“I’ve ordered a few Kindles for the library, so I can download series that are popular and kids will be able to check those out,” Wilson said. “Whatever format they chose - if they’re reading I’m happy.”

In a digital age, her role as a media specialist is to help students discern what are reputable and quality sources.

“We now have to spend quite a bit of time of times helping kids to be responsible users of technology and to help them to navigate finding good information rather than just the first thing they find ... it takes more time to be intentional about finding good sources and we subscribe to some databases to help with that process,” she said.

“I think it’s more important than ever to be informed thinkers,” Wilson said.

Wilson started out the first 10 years of her career teaching elementary grades, but for the last 20 has been head librarian at West Valley School. She said it was her husband who encouraged her to take the position when it opened.

“I love books and I just love everything to do with literacy and that’s always been a passion,” Wilson said.

She was hired for the job and spent summers traveling to Missoula to attend the University of Montana and complete a librarian endorsement.

Last summer, Wilson received the Northwest Montana Reading Council Outstanding Educator of the Year in Reading award.

“I think libraries are special and they are unique. It’s hard to find a quiet place. We have kids who sometimes come in during their lunch periods because it’s quiet, it’s safe, it’s comfortable; they can lose themselves in a book. It’s not always easy to do that in other places. I think we live in a busy, fast-paced world and I think it’s a little slower place in the library. Except when I have kindergartners in here,” she said, smiling.

“You know, you have the world at your fingertips, and I know that sounds cliche, but the library is the place kids can go either if they’re looking for information or they’re just looking for an escape,” she said.

And libraries don’t have to be in buildings. To spread the love of books, Wilson had help from her father-in-law to build a Little Free Library in the Pleasant View Drive neighborhood, stocking it with children’s books. She also keeps the school library open on a limited schedule in the summer.

Wilson recalled growing up in a small town in the Great Falls area where the school library was the only library in town. During the summer, a bookmobile would come into town.

“That was such a treat for me. So, I’ve always had a real positive attitude when it comes to libraries. I just love ’em,” she said - in whatever form.

Wilson not only has a strong understanding of the power literacy holds, but also may hold the title of strongest librarian in the neighborhood - at least that’s her trainer’s objective.

“I like to do Olympic weight-lifting,” Wilson said.

She started lifting like an Olympian at age 50 when results from a scan showed she was losing bone density. Rather than go on medication, she asked her doctors if she could step it up in the weight room, watch her diet and supplement it with calcium.

“They said ‘sure, give it a try,’” she said, and she did.

The adage “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is true when it comes to education in Wilson’s family. Her husband Mark is the technology coordinator at West Valley and previously taught third grade. Their daughter-in-law Kate is a first-grade teacher at the school. Sons Jareth and Kramer and daughter Halle also teach in the valley.

“Education is just part of our family and what we all do,” she said, noting the family joke is that there are enough Wilsons to open a school.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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