FRANKFORT — Jessica Holmes says she has the best job in the world.
Every school day, she gets to come into the library at the 435-student Westridge Elementary School and work with the young minds of kids who are just learning to read or are working on academic projects or are using the library to supplement what they're learning in the classroom.
She holds "book-nics," in which teachers bring in dishes based on their favorite children's books (such as "butterbeer" from Harry Potter, which contains butter but no beer). She holds Polar Express parties with cocoa — the cocoa in the book is famously described as "thick and rich as melted chocolate bars" — and screens the Tom Hanks movie version of the Chris Van Allsburg book.
Holmes, 34, just returned from New York, where she was honored as one of the nation's 10 top librarians in a contest sponsored by The New York Times and Carnegie Corporation of New York.
She has worked all nine years of her career at Westridge, a school that has been open for less than 11 years. So she had a nearly clean slate with which to work, and with it she established a goal: to make the library the hub of the school.
Her goal is to bring students into the library "just for the pleasure of enjoying the book. ... They develop that love of literature, so it doesn't seem like so much work," she said.
She was nominated for the national award by Joe Lovell, a 35-year classroom teacher, who praised Holmes for activities including hosting a Mock Newbery Club to pick quality books; working with Book Fest, a literature-based program for gifted/talented students in language arts; directing the Battle of the Books competition; and coordinating the school's participation in the Pizza Hut Book It and Lexington Legends' Hit the Books reading incentive programs.
"When Ms. Holmes took charge of our library, our students were checking out books at a rate of 6,000 per year," Lovell wrote in his nomination. "She fought hard to implement a flexible library schedule in order to allow students to check out more frequently and on a timeline that works with each student's reading ability. Her current checkout rate is 20,000 books per year. Our students' reading comprehension scores are above the state average, and I attribute much of that achievement to the amount of reading that our students do. Our school consistently scores at the top of the district in reading."
Holmes also helps stage a "storybook ball," with costumed characters who act out stories. She hosts Totally True Tuesdays, to promote the reading of nonfiction. Holmes directed a district-wide Cinemania Camp with third- through eighth-grade students learning how to create and publish video productions. She is also as an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky, teaching children's literature and related materials to undergraduates.
On a recent morning, Holmes is conversing with four kindergarten students, some of whom are paying attention to the idea of picking out books for checkout while another is talking about the spirited play of games. He cheerfully calls them violent, which he seems to think is synonymous with energetic.
Holmes' job is to redirect the children into the picture books and remind them what they have already read and what may interest them today. With kindergarten students, this is similar to organizing a choreographed class march for kittens.
While the younger children plainly adore Holmes, it's the older children who can articulate why.
Maggie Richardson, 10, said that Holmes "inspired me to read" and promptly ticked off some recent favorites: The Liberation of Gabriel King by K.L. Going, about a kid who learns to confront his fears, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, which follows the journey of a China rabbit who learns that life's miracles can be tempered with sadness, just as seeming ugliness can be laced with love.
"It shows you how something can change so much it winds up right where it belongs," said Richardson of the Edward Tulane tale, talking very fast and with a level of sophistication more suited to a literary critic than a fifth grader.
Holmes remembers the librarian who helped change her life, back in Bullitt County — the elementary school librarian who recommended that she read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson after Holmes' father died in a helicopter crash.
Bridge to Terabithia is about the friendship of two young people that is severed when one of them dies suddenly.
"That was probably my first thought of why books are very powerful, putting the right book with the right child," Holmes said.
The librarian who recommended the book to Holmes worked at two schools in Bullitt County and "was so passionate about reading," Holmes recalled.
Holmes' friends knew early on that her life's work would be with books, said Holmes, who studied education at Transylvania and got her master's degree at the University of Kentucky.
She hopes to be one of those librarians that students look back on when they discover, decades later, that there was a memorable person who opened a door to a life in which books hold magic and comfort. Now, Holmes is reading The Maze Runner by James Dashner to her fifth-grade boys, and the boys are on the edge of their seats to find out how it all turns out, she said.
Surprisingly, Holmes doesn't read many adult novels; she doesn't have time. She is constantly scouring children's and young adult literature, looking for the next read-aloud sensation, the next book to embed itself into a youngster's head for a lifetime.
For her, one of those mind-changing books was Lois Lowry's The Giver, about a young man's escape from a dystopian society.
"I thought, it's not over," she said of the book's question-provoking ending. "There are other places it can go."
Next up: Holmes wants to build a state network of school librarians who can trade information, tips and suggestions. She has already planned a Skype session with one of her co-winners of the national prize, a New York school librarian. They plan to do a project together with their students.
"I am very fortunate to have a job to come in and every day is different," Holmes said. "I feel like I'm making a difference. I love my job."