As our partners at Give901 launched Project: Grizz Prep Reads, we heard about Jane Oliver, the book-loving literary leader at the Grizzlies Prep boys school in downtown Memphis. Jane cares deeply about producing a passion for reading among her students, and she’s pretty crazy about Memphis, too.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up primarily in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and McKinney, Texas. I’ve lived in Memphis since 2005, though, so I call Memphis “home.”
What made you decide to make Memphis home?
I came to Memphis to teach for a charter school. I had done my graduate research in the success of early charters, and felt that teaching experience was necessary if I wanted to go on to work in education policy. Turns out, teaching is an addicting profession, and I ended up teaching for 16 years!
Why did you become a librarian?
Being a librarian has always been in the back of my mind, but my alma mater didn’t offer a library sciences track. When my daughter was born before my 15th year in the classroom, I knew I wanted to make a change. I love teaching and working with kids, and I’ve always loved reading. Becoming a school or public librarian felt like the perfect marriage of my interests.
What do you think can make a difference in Memphis literacy rates?
Improving literacy rates in Memphis will take changes from so many different stakeholders, and librarians play a role, for sure. One major step is making sure kids and parents have access to high-quality, interesting reading material, from birth. When a kid finds what they enjoy reading, he or she should have unfettered access to that type of book or reading material.
When a kid finds what they enjoy reading, he or she should have unfettered access to that type of book or reading material. — Jane Oliver, Grizzlies Prep Librarian
What were a couple of your favorite books as a child?
I’ve always loved mysteries. I read every Mary Downing Hahn book as a middle schooler, and raced through Mary Higgins Clark in high school. I also loved the emotional relationship stories from Judy Blume.
What is special about your students?
My students are so special because they are all so unique. They read and love things that make adults just shake their heads, and it’s wonderful. For example, a ton of my 6th graders are obsessed with manga [comics or graphic novels originating in Japan]. They cannot get enough of it! If you had asked me in library school what books would be most popular in a boys school, manga would not have made the top of the list at all!
Tell us a story about watching a student learn to love reading.
About two years ago I had a girl in my homeroom who wasn’t very interested in reading. She was a good reader, but was just very much a social butterfly. She would rather socialize than get lost in a book. We had DEAR time everyday [Drop Everything And Read], and I spent a good quarter of the school year suggesting books that she would start and then reject. Finally, I suggested Smile by Raina Telgemeier, and she became obsessed. She gushed about it, and passed it to her best friend. Pretty soon my entire homeroom was on the waiting list at the school library. Our book fair was at this same time, and her mom bought two boxed sets of Telgemeier’s books for my homeroom. It was such an amazing sight. This girl, who could not be sold anything, was asking kids about their favorite passages and pages. She was basically leading her own book club. It became a time that my class was really excited for each day.
What is special about Grizzlies Prep?
Grizzlies Prep is such a special place. Everyday, I watch young men be shaped and pushed to grow and learn, while maintaining their own identities. Boys are often stereotyped in our society, and GP does an amazing job of pushing against that. Boys who love civics get to do service projects; boys who want to code take a technology class; boys are pushed to read novels and discuss them on deep levels. It’s truly an amazing school.
And just for fun, tell us a Memphis food establishment you love and a Memphis characteristic you love:
I can never get enough Las Delicias!
I love the pride and ownership Memphians have about Memphis. Like, we all know there are things that could be better, but at the same time, we’re deeply protective of our city.