×

The Forbes Children’s Department: Home to kids, community and one very curious fish

  • Jonah Peters, 2, of Northampton, watches Paco the fish at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ralph Holley leads a session for toddlers. Participating are, left, Aubrey Everett and his daughter Adalyn Everett, 17 months, and Regina Hoyt with her children, Brandon Hoyt, 5, and Joanna Hoyt, 3. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Author/illustrator Jeff Mack talks about his vision for Paco’s tank at Forbes Library. His mural features fish attempting to fly. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Wayne Graham and Nga Truong sit with their daughter, Jonah Peters, of Northampton, at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jessie McConkey looks for a book with Kat Janeczek, a librarian in the children’s and young-adult section, at Forbes Library. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brandon Hoyt, 5, of Northampton, watches Paco the fish at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Marley McConkey, 7, and his brother Kona McConkey, 4, read at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult department. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Marley McConkey, 7, and his brother Kona McConkey, 4, read at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Forbes Library kids’ membership card with art by Mo Willems. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aubrey Everett and his daughter Adalyn Everett, 17 months, at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jonah Peters, 2, of Northampton, watches Paco the fish at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jonah Peters, 2, of Northampton, watches Paco the fish at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michelle Vigeant and her daughter Gabriel Dalton, 2, of Cummington, play with a doll house at Forbes. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A mural by Jarrett J. Krosoczka leading down the steps to the children’s and young-adult section at Forbes Library. “I also thought of Grace Lin’s recent TED Talk about how books can become windows into the lives of others,” he said.

  • “Many local authors did come by and pay a visit while I worked on the mural — Mike Curato, Tony DiTerlizzi, Angela DiTerlizzi, Mo Willems, and Jeanne Birdsall, who brought muffins and coffee,” said children’s book author Jarrett J. Krosoczka. “The opening reception featured appearances by many local authors and every child in attendance was handed a paint marker to add flowers to the section of the mural that features Forbes Library.” —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A summer reading passport at Forbes Library in the children’s and young-adult section. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • At left, Kat Janeczek, senior assistant in the children’s and young-adult department at Forbes Library.



Monday, August 07, 2017

On a muggy day in July, siblings Brandon and Joanna Hoyt, ages five and three, sat on the narrow gray shelf that borders Paco’s fish tank in the children’s and young-adult department of Forbes Library. “Do you like the fish?” asked their mother, Regina Hoyt, gesturing at the giant blue pacu, an Amazonian cousin of the piranha. The little girl frowned. “No,” she said. “I like the little fish because they’re little.” “I like Paco because he swims,” Brandon Hoyt told his mother, who corrected him: “I think Paco’s a girl fish, so say ‘she swims.’ ”

There’s a lot to learn about Paco, who has been a fixture at Forbes for nearly 30 years. She swims in fresh water and loves strawberries and bananas. Once considered a he, this particular pacu (or colossoma brachypomus) is actually a she, according to a pet psychic who visited the library as a patron. At least that’s the story that the department’s senior assistant Katharine Janeczek heard. “Paco was always Paco, but we started using ‘she’ pronouns,” she said one morning in her shared office. “We get a lot of people who come in and make a beeline for the fish tank. Then they’ll say, ‘Is that the same fish? I remember that fish from when I was so small.’ And it’s incredible to say yes.”

Over the years, Paco has inspired haiku and song lyrics, even a premature obituary of sorts in 2014, when rumors surfaced that she had passed. And this summer, Paco got a colorful new backdrop for her tank courtesy of Jeff Mack, the South Hadley-based author/illustrator of many popular picture and chapter books including “Good News Bad News” and the Bunnicula series.

Mack’s backdrop is one of several works of art recently donated to the library by children’s authors/illustrators in the Valley. Last fall, Jarrett J. Krosoczka (perhaps best known for his Lunch Lady graphic novels) painted a mural of downtown Northampton alongside the stairs leading from the main floor of the library down to the children’s department. And just last month, Forbes debuted a new library card designed by Mo Willems specifically for kids who, until now, have relied on their parents to check out their books. The card features his most popular characters — Elephant, Piggie and Pigeon — reading a mess of books.

If there’s a common theme that connects all these public works of art, it’s fun — and the power of imagination. The concept for Paco’s mural came to Mack while he was on an airplane, looking out the window. “I had this tank in my mind, and I’m thinking, ‘What could go in this tank?’ And I’m looking out at the clouds, and I see a few other airplanes, and I start thinking, ‘What if fish, even if they can’t fly, they can try?’ So I decided to turn this tank into a sky scene.” The digitally rendered result shows a multitude of fish trying to fly by any means possible — hot-air balloon, propeller, jetpack, hanglider, even a pair of tennis rackets fashioned into makeshift wings.

It’s a clever scene in more ways than one. While Mack was still in the brainstorming phase with Lisa Downing, director of Forbes Library, she had mentioned that Paco was mostly by herself in her tank. “So,” Mack recalled, “I was thinking it would be nice to give this fish some company, even if it was just in the background.” 

Downing adds: “Later someone said to me, ‘But what if Paco doesn’t like it?’ It never occurred to me. After the piece of artwork was installed — the mural has a reflective surface — she was so still, staring at it for two days. I thought, ‘Oh my god, maybe she doesn’t like it,’ but we deduced that she was just looking at her reflection, and now she’s back to her usual behavior.”

‘Windows and Mirrors’

In the scene of Northampton that Krosoczka painted on the walls of the stairwell, the buildings’ windows feature the covers of children’s books written by local authors and illustrators, including Springfield’s Dr. Seuss (“The Cat in the Hat”), Hatfield’s Jane Yolen (“Owl Moon”), Florence’s Grace Lin (“The Ugly Vegetables”) and Northampton’s Mo Willems (the Pigeon series). “I knew early on in the design process that I wanted to celebrate our amazing community of children’s book authors and illustrators,” said Krosoczka, who, while working on the mural, was visited by several author-friends, including Jeanne Birdsall (the Penderwicks series), who brought muffins and coffee.

“I could not be more proud of the mural… I also want to return to tinker with it,” he added. “I hope that, someday, my great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy the art that I was lucky enough to put on the walls of Forbes.”

For Willems, as well, the connection to Forbes is a personal one. Designing the new library card for kids was “really the bare minimum of trying to give back,” said the author, who moved to Northampton in 2008 with his wife, Cher, and their daughter, Trixie. “The first day we came to Northampton, when we were thinking of moving here, the first place we visited was the library. And that helped us make our decision to relocate from Brooklyn,” Willems added. “The short story is, we as a family love the Forbes Library… and how cool is it that you can go into your library and see a mural done by a friend of yours — or when you check out a book, it’s your characters on [the card]? It’s fabulous.”

The point of all of these projects is to engage young readers, and the children department’s close-knit staff do just that — every single day. In 2016, Sarah Johnson became the new head of the department, replacing longtime librarian Judith McGowan. (Johnson is currently on maternity leave.) Thanks to Johnson and her staff, including Janeczek and department assistant Ralph Holley, a sense of joy and whimsy permeates the children’s section, from the handmade decorations that change with every season to the lively programming for kids of all ages and backgrounds, as well as their caregivers. Depending on the day and time, visitors might walk into a storytime session for babies, a meeting of the Scientific Kids’ Club (other clubs are devoted to Minecraft and LEGOs) or an installment of “Crafternoon,” in which librarians teach kids four and up DIY activities, such as making a mermaid tail out of a sock. 

They clearly enjoy their jobs. When they aren’t recommending books for kids, the librarians brainstorm ideas for them: They keep a running list, “Good Picturebook Ideas,” taped to the inside of a cabinet door behind the circulation desk. (Sample titles include: “Have You Seen My Syllable?” “Bedward, Edward,” “The Axis of Weevil,” and, of course, “The Library Fish: Moments with Paco.”)

But the team also delves deeper, organizing book displays by theme — in addition to showcasing LGBTQ stories every May for Pride, they highlight books for Women’s History Month, African American History Month and National Hispanic Heritage month.

“I think social activism is an essential function of libraries, especially right now. It’s a space that should actively be welcoming,” Janeczek said. “We will get people coming in and saying, ‘Can I get books about kids who look like my kid?’ Like, ‘Where are the picture books about little black boys?’ And we have those. We definitely try to reflect the community.”

But, she hastened to add, it’s just as important to give kids stories about people who are different from them: “I’m loosely borrowing this from Grace Lin,” she began, referencing the author’s widely circulated TED Talk, “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf,” about the importance of diversity in children’s literature, “but we need books that are like mirrors and like windows for kids. It’s so important for kids to have both.”

Willems had another tip for readers looking to expand their horizons: “One of the things that I encourage people to do, every time they go to the library, particularly with picture books: Just check out one book by an author/illustrator that you’ve never heard of. And then that way, you’ve discovered somebody new.

“The best children’s book authors and illustrators stand out because they’re being the most individual — they’re showing something of themselves,” he continued. “And because there are so many ways to be yourself, there are so many ways to make books.”