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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Middle Kingdom: Suzhou, China

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This month’s journey takes us to Dulwich College Suzhou in Suzhou, China, where Lisa talks with Head of Libraries and Senior School Librarian Leigh Collazo.

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Dulwich College Suzhou

Lisa: Right off the bat, I’ll clarify for our readers that in this case, “college” means something other than how we use the term in the United States. Dulwich College Suzhou includes students ages 2-19. Leigh, what are three to five additional things our blog readers should know about your community, school, or library/media center?

Leigh: Dulwich College London was the first in our franchise, established in 1619. It has since expanded into Dulwich College International, which currently operates five additional schools and two international high schools in Asia.

Dulwich College Suzhou students and faculty represent over 40 nationalities all over the world. Our largest groups come from UK, Korea, and the United States. Our students are ages 2-19, separated into three schools: DUCKS (PreK-1st grade), Junior School (grades 2-5), and Senior School (grades 6-12). We have about 900 total students across the three schools. Though we do have very nice boarding facilities available, the vast majority of our students live off-campus with their families.

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Lingering Garden, Suzhou

Suzhou is a beautiful Chinese city! We are located about 50 miles from Shanghai, which is easy to access via a 25-minute bullet train ride. Often called the “Venice of China,” Suzhou is most famous for its UNESCO World Heritage gardens, water towns, Buddhist temples, pagodas, and network of canals running through the city. All over the city, we see beautiful willow trees, colorful flowers, and lots of sculptures. There is a large recreational lake with a boardwalk within a five-minute walk from my front door. The weather here is very like that of northern Florida: hot and humid in the summer, cool (but still humid) in the winter. We get lots of rain, but it is rarely cold enough to snow. There are many expats from all over the world in Suzhou; I’ve heard the figures are as high as 10% foreigners in this area, mostly from Europe, Australia, and the USA.

We have two libraries at Dulwich College, located in the Junior School and Senior School. We have full-time library employees: two librarians (fully-certified with MLS degrees), one library intern (who will receive her MLS this December), and two library assistants. Together, our libraries boast a growing collection of 38,000 books and international newspapers and magazines. Our libraries are open from 7:50 am-4:30 pm daily. Both libraries have computers and iPads for students to use in the library. Both libraries have wireless Internet, and Senior School students are also able to connect to the school’s VPN. We subscribe to many of the same databases I used in my Texas library—Encyclopedia Britannica, PebbleGo, JSTOR, Tumblebooks, BrainPop, and Facts on File.

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I think many people would be surprised to hear that I have had few difficulties with Chinese government censorship when purchasing library books. When we order (from the USA and UK), Customs does inspect our purchases, but I have not had any books rejected. I am able to purchase the same books here that I was able to purchase in the USA, plus I can purchase books from Australia, UK, and Canada, too!

Lisa: What recent changes or new elements are affecting the work you do with middle school students?

Leigh: Last year was my first year at my school, and we spent a large part of the year genrefying the 15,000 fiction titles in our library. It’s been a huge hit with students and faculty, and our overall circulation last year increased 89% over the previous school year.

This year, I am thrilled to tell you that we are adding Overdrive e-books for all our Senior School students, which I expect to launch by the end of September. My library assistant has been working on genrefying our 2,100-title Mandarin section, something our students requested last year. We plan to genrefy our Korean section this year as well, which is about 1,200 titles.

In November, we are bringing illustrator Matthew Holm (Babymouse series, Squish series) to Suzhou to speak to our students. We also have slam poet Nick Toczek visiting in November. All of our middle school students will get the chance to hear them speak.

ph_Panda Older ReadersLast, we are participating in Battle of the Books for the first time this year. We are using books on the Panda Older Readers Book List, plus seven more titles selected by participating librarians in the Shanghai area. In March 2016, our students will compete against other international schools from all over Shanghai, Wuxi, Suzhou, and Kunshan. They will also get to meet Newbery Award winning author Kwame Alexander at the competition.

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often by your middle school students?

Leigh:

  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • The Selection by Kiera Cass
  • Dork Diaries series by Rachel Renée Russell
  • Half Bad by Sally Green
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Lisa: What books do you personally love to place into middle school students’ hands?

Leigh:

  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
  • Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
  • Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
  • The Seer and the Sword by Victoria Hanley

Lisa: If you had a new staffer starting tomorrow, what piece of advice would you be sure to give them? 

Leigh:

  1. Read the books! You can’t recommend them if you don’t read them.
  2. Be the weirdo. Be the crazy one who plays the spoons or breakdances or decorates the library with cat posters. Don’t be afraid to be yourself or be different from the other teachers. You are not them. You are you!

Lisa: What do you like most about working with middle-schoolers?

Leigh: I love their energy and their quirkiness. They are old enough to do many things for themselves, but they are still young enough to need guidance from trusted adults. I can joke around with middle school students, and they (usually!) get the jokes. Middle schoolers can be challenging sometimes, but every day, they make me laugh, give me hope, and even help me see things in a different way. Who else can say that about their job?

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Lisa: Could you share some information about your most popular/successful/innovative program for promoting books and reading to middle schoolers?

Leigh: I am a huge proponent of genrefication of fiction sections. Genrefication better reflects the way students browse the library. Front-facing library books (where the entire front cover is visible) also really helps students select books, as does multiple themed book displays. My favorite and most successful book promotion tool is reading and booktalking a LOT of titles. I booktalk all day long!

Lisa: How have books or other things changed for middle kingdom readers during your time as a librarian?

Leigh: I started working as a librarian in 2004. Since then, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number and acceptance of graphic novels. I’ve separated my graphic novels into their own section (rather than 741.5) since 2011. They were taking over the 700 section! That said, I think graphic novels still have a long way to go before many people consider them “real reading.”

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