Madam Librarian

Meet the NoPo Librarian Who’s Watching Over an Entire School of Bookworms

James John Elementary doesn’t have a ton of wealthy parents. But the book-loving culture there runs deep.

By Julia Silverman January 21, 2020 Published in the February 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Alli Weseman

At any elementary school, the library is a sanctuary, the one place where quiet prevails.

At James John Elementary in St. Johns, the library is just that, plus something more—a proving ground for the state’s largest reading competition.

Every year, about 18,000 elementary school kids from around Oregon join a Battle of the Books team, banding together in small groups to read a predetermined set of 16 books. After months of practice, they compete to answer questions about the texts during school, regional, and state “battles”—picture a pub trivia night, only with less beer and more 9-year-olds.

Often, the state champs hail from relatively affluent suburban schools, where the children of Intel engineers and Nike execs prep for months.

But at James John, where 68 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, they’ve long put up a serious fight against the region’s well-funded Goliaths. In 2019, a team of five kids from the scrappy school bested all comers, surviving eight rounds over seven grueling hours to emerge, victorious and delirious, on the stage of the auditorium at Chemeketa Community College in Salem—the best of the best.

“I was pretty excited for what you might consider to be an underdog because of income levels,” says Elaine Ferrell-Burns, a retired PPS librarian who now serves as the OBOB administrative chair.

"We were rooting, that’s for sure."

And this victory was done with far fewer resources, and just a single coach for all the teams who compete at the school level: librarian/benevolent dictator Robin Rolfe, patron saint of kid bookworms.

“I remember being amazed at their composure, their ability to keep their heads in the game,” Rolfe says of the day. “We so often celebrate the gregarious, sports-minded kids. This is a chance to celebrate the quiet but mighty.”

When the victorious team returned to school, Rolfe had organized a clap-out parade, the state champs at the helm, every other James John kid who joined a school-level team that year marching behind them, with the rest of the school lining the halls, cheering and applauding.

“The whole school took pride in [the win],” says James John parent Laura Miller Streib. “And Robin’s message was: ‘These five individuals won, but to get there, they had to go through you.’”

The knock on OBOB is that it’s too much pressure, too focused on rote memorization. Rolfe pushes back, arguing that it helps kids discover new authors they’d never find their way to on their own, and challenge themselves with nonfiction, biography, poetry. The program pulls in kids who’ve never seen themselves as readers, she adds, because at James John it’s also a way to make friends.

On a recent school day, she gathered a buzzing group of third graders, silencing them with a game of Simon Says. (“Simon says stick out your tongue! Simon says burp! Simon says listen to my words.”) It was match day, with Rolfe as the human equivalent of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, organizing kids onto OBOB teams.

To be as inclusive as possible, she’s devised an eight-book-only school-level competition for emerging readers, with a book list she chooses and practice questions she writes on her own time, with help from former students.

OBOB isn’t all that’s cooking in the James John library, either. Rolfe runs a book club for advanced readers who consider the best of the year’s new fiction, and try to game out which tome might win the coveted Newbery Medal, given to the year’s best new kids’ book. She makes space in a quiet corner for a group of kids who just want to geek out about outer space, runs a summer reading program to combat summer slide, and teaches coding and cooking.

“When you walk in here,” says Rolfe, “you’re tucked under my wing.”

Rolfe’s Picks for Emerging Readers

1. Who Was Roberto Clemente? by James Buckley Jr.

2. Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet by Graham Salisbury

3. Upside Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski

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