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Everyday Hero: Heather Stewart

Johnsburg librarian brings teens back to books by making reading fun

Teen librarian Heather Stewart's favorite part of her job at Johnsburg Public Library is to "encourage teens into reading because that's usually the time when you start to quit reading."
Teen librarian Heather Stewart's favorite part of her job at Johnsburg Public Library is to "encourage teens into reading because that's usually the time when you start to quit reading."

Having an informal chat about the Hunger Games at Jimmy John’s. Building cardboard mazes in honor of Maze Runner. Making Silly Putty and bouncy balls because why not.

These are some of the tasks of a 21st century teen librarian, according to Heather Stewart, and they are making the library cool again.

Stewart, who has served as the teen librarian at Johnsburg Public Library for the past three years, has deployed her unorthodox techniques to great success, increasing the circulation of young adult novels and participation in teen nights.

It was Stewart’s love of young adult novels and her concern about teenagers’ disinterest in reading that drove her to become a teen librarian. She said many teens always have lost interest in reading and never return, and the increase in sports and activities for today’s generation makes it even more difficult.

“Teens are busier and have more pressure on them than ever before,” Stewart said. “Sports are year-round. School can be more demanding, and they struggle to find time for reading if they are even interested to begin with.”

Step one in solving the problem is getting teenagers to see the library as an escape from school and not as an extension. To do that, Stewart said she’ll often have book discussions at places such as Jimmy John’s or Yogeeze Frozen Yogurt to keep the atmosphere relaxed.

And when there are meetings at the library, it stays relaxed with activities driven by the teens’ ideas and even movie nights and pizza after the library is closed to the public.

“It doesn’t matter to me, I encourage them to read anyway I can,” Stewart said. “They are realizing it is an outlet to be themselves and have fun.”

Stewart’s teen activities are gaining traction as school secretaries post fliers and frequent participants spread the word.

Teagan Anderson, 16, has been going to Stewart’s activities for two years and said there has been increased participation each year. Anderson said Stewart has a special way of connecting to teens and opening their eyes to different genres and authors.

“She really talks to you on the same level and is very supportive,” Anderson said. “She always keeps us involved and uses our ideas, and she helps us discover new things.”

Stewart’s passion has not gone unnoticed by Maria Zawacki, director of the Johnsburg Public Library. Zawacki said there is no question more teens have come through the doors since Stewart’s arrival, and there is a revival in interest at the library.

“She has been amazing,” Zawacki said. “You can tell she really cares about what she does and so can the kids. She makes it fun.”

Stewart said she also fights against the stigma that reading is only reading if it is a traditional book.

She said she encourages the use of iPads, Kindles and audiobooks, and she does not steer people away from alternative writing, such as graphic novels.

“Some teens have never had a library card, so I encourage them anyway I can,” Stewart said. “Some people believe graphic novels isn’t real reading, but it is. Some people don’t believe audiobooks are helpful, but I think some audiobooks are better because of the narrator.”

Johnsburg Public Library can expect teen events to continue to grow as Stewart finds new and exciting ways to engage every teenager she can. She said she meets with northern Illinois young adult librarians once a month to share ideas and comes back more motivated each time.

“It’s a never-ending educational process, even if you’re reading a fictional novel,” Stewart said of reading. “You become more worldly in a sense. You learn to enjoy time by yourself. You can engage conversation and have something to talk about to anyone. It can do so much.”

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