Nancy Pearl is a beloved writer, librarian and Seattle icon. In 1993, she became the executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library and a rock star among librarians. She built a following by reviewing books on NPR’s Morning Edition and won national recognition for her work. She also wrote the novel “George & Lizzie” and the nonfiction book “Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason,” as well as three other “Book Lust” books.
This month, Sasquatch Books has published a new children’s book that tells the story of Pearl’s childhood. In “Library Girl,” written by Karen Henry Clark and illustrated by Sheryl Murray, readers meet Nancy as a young girl who feels out of place at school. In fact, the title phrase “library girl” starts out as a playground taunt. However, Nancy finds comfort in books and kindness in librarians.
The book is full of wonderful details and real people, including a milkman who finds Nancy in distress and delivers her in his milk truck to a speaking engagement at the library. Nancy explores her love of reading with the support of librarians at the Detroit Public Library. Ultimately, the book shows how she finds her purpose and passion and grows up to be a librarian.
It was a thrill to talk with Pearl in anticipation of the publication of “Library Girl.”
“The author, Karen Henry Clark, approached me about writing this book,” she said. Pearl and Clark had worked together in the 1970s at a bookstore in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “She asked me about [writing] a picture book about my love of libraries and pretending my bike was a horse. I am pretty much up for anything, so I said, ‘Sure,’ thinking it probably won’t happen anyway.”
Clark and Pearl ended up spending hours on the phone discussing the project. Clark traveled to Detroit to photograph Pearl’s family home and a library branch that is central to the story. Illustrator Sheryl Murray used Clark’s photos as inspiration for specific exteriors such as Pearl’s childhood home as well as dreamy images conjured by Nancy’s imagination as she is reading. One memorable illustration depicts gentle, ghostlike horses grazing in a library reading room.
I asked Pearl how she felt about children reading her story. “I feel the library saved my life. It was the place where I felt I belonged. That’s what the library meant to me,” she explained. “I wanted in some way to repay the library, to thank the public library and librarians for being so supportive.”
Pearl appreciates the diversity of authors and stories now available in children’s books. “Something books can do is generate empathy for people who are not you,” she said. “And that is nothing but good for us all.”
She finds that her own reading habits have changed somewhat in recent years. “In 2016, when Trump was elected, I stopped being able to read anything too serious,” she explained. “I have talked to many people who say recent events have had the same effect on them.”
Pearl is retired from the Seattle Public Library but is very much engaged in her passion for books. On the Seattle Channel program “Book Lust with Nancy Pearl,” she interviews authors including Julie Otsuka and Gish Jen. Pearl says she has no plans to write another book but still thinks about her characters George and Lizzie and what they are up to these days. She still posts her book recommendations and notifications about upcoming events on
@Nancy_Pearl on Twitter.
I asked Pearl why she chose to retire in Seattle. “I love the spring and the fall here. They are wonderful seasons,” she said. “I have been here almost 30 years. I know a lot of people; I have a lot of friends,” she continued. “The city is great for walking and biking. I loved Seattle from the minute I came here to work in the library.”
Jennifer Astion is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who lives in Seattle.
Nancy Pearl will interview “Library Girl” author Karen Henry Clark and illustrator Sheryl Murray at University Bookstore on October 11 at 6 p.m. Check the store’s event calendar for details.
Read more of the Oct. 5-11, 2022 issue.