Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The New York Times

In Person; Here She Comes, Ms. Librarian

CHAMPIONS come in a variety of forms. In the sports arena, they show up with a swagger and a sweat; in fairy tales, they appear on horseback or amid magical puffs of smoke; in the business world they strut in designer power suits. And then there’s Carol Kolb Phillips, head of youth services at the East Brunswick Public Library.

As Ms. Phillips conducts the Magic Carpet Ride story time for a dozen children, she clearly is leading her charges in a flight of fancy, but she does not wear a wizard’s cap. Her animal print sweater and khaki skirt, selected to complement the animal theme of the books she reads aloud, are not the corporate uniform of someone who manages, as she does, a $300,000-a-year budget. But money is not on her mind at the moment. Reading is. In fact, reading almost always is. And that is the source of her power.

Her voice is gentle and strong, with hints of her native Buffalo accent on the short ”a” sounds. The toddlers are listening, even as they fidget. The pre-teens readily join in the ”Open, Shut Them” preschool standard — hand motions and all. Obviously, the petite 44-year-old librarian has engaged their attention and captured their imagination. More important, she is their champion.

”She has such a commitment to children,” said Sharon Karmazin, the library’s director. ”Carol is always there to remind us that kids should have the same level of support and service as adults.”

LIKE many a champion, Ms. Phillips has awards to back up her accomplishments. The New Jersey Library Association, a chapter of the Chicago-based American Library Association, recently named her Librarian of the Year. This is the first time the honor has gone to someone other than an administrator, noted Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the state library association in Trenton. ”She’s totally involved in virtually every aspect of youth services work,” said Ms. Tumulty. ”She’s an exceptional role model.”

Ms. Phillips also works in an exceptional setting, one that she helped fashion. Receiving some 2,000 visitors a day, the East Brunswick Public Library has the highest per-capita circulation for a municipal library in the state, with 19.4 items checked out for each resident of the city last year — a total of 844,601 items. Juvenile circulation accounts for more than 42 percent of that.

Besides introducing children’s computer stations, beefing up the reference department and overseeing the holdings of books, periodicals, videos, audios and software, Ms. Phillips has developed extensive programming for infants through teen-agers. A decade ago, she began workshops for parents of 6- to 18- month-olds. She also offers a nursery rhyme program for 1- to 2-year-olds and their care givers. Story time for 4-year-olds is televised live over the cable channel that operates out of the library. Ms. Phillips also runs innovative summer and winter reading clubs featuring picture book characters. Last year, her ”Lyle, Lyle Crocodile Summer Reading Club,” for which she established a partnership with the nearby

Crystal Springs Family Aquatic Center, won the American Library Association’s John Cotton Dana award, the highest national honor in library public relations.

”She’s one of the movers and shakers in the world of library services for children,” said Lauren Wohl, marketing director of Hyperion Books for Children in New York City. ”I think she’s one of the more important librarians.”

Since 1983 Ms. Phillips has reviewed books for the influential monthly School Library Journal. And she has also captured what Ms. Karmazin terms the librarians’ equivalent of the triple crown. She served on the 1990-91 Caldecott Award Committee to judge the most outstanding picture books. From 1994 through 1996, she pored over more than 1,600 books a year as a member of the Notable Children’s Books Committee, which compiles an annual list of about 55 noteworthy titles. And this year, she was invited to serve on the prestigious Newbery Award Selection Committee to determine the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children from among the books published in 1999.

Ms. Wohl said that what made Ms. Phillips special was her ability to evaluate books in terms of their intended readers, and to articulate her feelings to other adults. ”She really knows kids,” she said. ”She knows when and how to put the right book in the right child’s hands. It’s a magical matching. It takes a sense of timing.”

When she wants a child’s point of view, she goes right to the source, often within her own family. She and her husband Henry (Hap) have five children: Maryjo, 18; Jane, 16; Christine, 14; John, 10, and Robin, 8. ”My children will be the first to tell me if we’re doing something wrong or something that sounds dumb to them,” she said.

Reading and family are central to her life. Ms. Phillips is the coordinator of school library volunteers and services at St. Bartholomew’s, the East Brunswick Catholic school where her two youngest children are students. Last month, she took a vacation — volunteering at the school’s book fair. She is also a lector at St. Bartholomew’s Church. ”There’s nothing I enjoy more than reading aloud,” said Ms. Phillips. ”I really love it.”

But Ms. Phillips didn’t always relish the idea of reading to others, or even to herself. She recalls struggling as a second grader. ”I remember staying after school and having to read aloud,” she says. ”I just couldn’t do it well. I dreaded it.”

Reading had become a little easier by the time she moved to New Jersey when she was 11 years old. (Her father, Paul E. Kolb, an engineer, was transferred, and the family of seven moved from Buffalo to Bridgewater.)

”In seventh grade I really started to read,” she recalled. ”There were always books around and everybody in the family would read. Then it clicked and I decided ‘Oh, this is fun’.”

After graduating from Immaculata High School in Somerville among the top of her class, she majored in American studies at Trinity College in the District of Columbia, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1975.

”American studies is American history and American literature,” said Ms. Phillips. ”So what do you do with that?”

To answer her own question, she found her muse in her mother, Carol D. Kolb, now a retired reference librarian.

In 1977 Ms. Phillips received her master’s in library science from Rutgers University. That same year, she began working at the East Brunswick Public Library as a graduate school intern. She went on to become children’s librarian and was promoted to her present position as head of youth services in 1982.

OVER the years, Ms. Phillips has witnessed many changes, both in the immediate community and in the greater universe of publishing. ”There’s been a change in the people that use the library,” she said. ”The use of the library has grown. We have more cultural diversity than what we had had before. Children do much more intensive research than they ever did, than I ever did. The things that they’re looking for are questions that I’ve never researched.”

Also in that time, cutting-edge technology replaced thumb-worn card catalogues, promising speed and efficiency, and dragging along the potential for controversy with every click of the mouse. Ms. Phillips has offered workshops to address parents’ concerns about the Internet, because she strongly feels ”that it’s parents’ responsibility to provide guidance to children.” But she does not monitor what children call up on screen, just as she wouldn’t peer over their shoulder to find out what book they were reading. ”Kids have rights, too,” she says.

As Librarian of the Year, Ms. Phillips will serve as the face of librarians and their libraries before the public and before legislators who decide on financing. Her passion makes her an ideal representative, said Cynthia Czesak, president of the New Jersey Library Association and director of the Clifton Public Library.

Ms. Karmazin, director of the East Brunswick Public Library, put it this way: ”Often awards are given to recognize something someone may have done. And they take their award and they bring it home and they hang it on the wall or they put in on the table, and that’s it. This award is different. It really recognizes a person for their professionalism, their accomplishment, and then also asks them for the next year to go out and represent the library profession within the New Jersey community. This is our Miss America.”

And Ms. Phillips has the crown — two of them, in fact — to prove it. And they sit right on her desk.

No matter that the crowns are made of plastic. No matter that the ”bouquet” presented at the brunch in her honor was arranged around a puppet flower and that her ceremonial sash was decorated with glued- on felt lettering. No matter that an organizational glitch has delayed her $200 prize. She has her N.J.L.A. watch, a pin that says ”Librarian of the Year,” and a greatly appreciated — and coveted — reserved parking space at the East Brunswick Public Library for the duration of her reign.

Most important, she says, the award gives her ”the opportunity to put in a plug for kids and for library services in public libraries to children, for promoting the fact that children are 20 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future.” Spoken like a true champion.

Lullabies and Crocodiles

Need ideas for summer reading? Here are a few recommendations from Carol Kolb Phillips and her staff at the East Brunswick Public Library.

Pre-school Through Kindergarten

”Barnyard Lullaby.” Written and illustrated by Frank Asch. (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1998).

”The Cut-Ups at Camp Custer.” Written and illustrated by James Marshall. (Viking Kestrel, 1989).

”Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young.” Selected by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Marc Brown. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Grades One Through Three

”The Adventures of Captain Underpants: an Epic Novel.” Written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey. (Blue Sky Press, 1997)

”Henry and Mudge and the Bedtime Thumps.” Story by Cynthia Rylat. Pictures by Sucie Stevenson. (Bradbury Press, 1991.)

”Swamp Angel.” Written by Anne Isaacs. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. (Dutton Children’s Books, 1994).

Grades 4 Through 6

”The Absolutely True Story . . . How I Visited Yellowstone Park with the Terrible Rupes.” Written by Willo Davis Roberts. (A Jean Karl Book, Atheneum, 1994).

”Ella Enchanted.” Written by Gail Carson Levine. (HarperCollins, 1997).

”P.S. Longer Letter Later: a Novel in Letters.” Written by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin. (Scholastic Press, 1998).

Grades 7 through 9

”The Golden Compass.” Written by Philip Pullman. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

”Rats Saw God.” Written by Rob Thomas. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1996). ”Slot Machine.” Written by Chris Lynch. (HarperCollins, 1995).

All Ages

”Crocodile! Crocodile! Stories Told Around the World.” Retold by Barbara Baumgartner. Illustrated by Judith Moffatt. (Dorling Kindersley, 1994).

”From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs.” Compiled by Amy L. Cohn. Illustrated by 11 Caldecott Medal and 4 Caldecott Honor Book artists. (Scholastic Press, 1993).

”Harlem: a Poem.” Written by Walter Dean Myers. Pictures by Christopher Myers. (Scholastic Inc., 1997).

”The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups.” Revealed and illustrated by David Wisniewski. (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1998).