BRISTOL, Va. — A confessed nerdy teenager, Pam Neal retreated into libraries during those early years and took many journeys inside her mind through books.
After spending three decades inside city school libraries making reading exciting for tweens and teens, Neal is now helping the Bristol Public Library recruit more young readers.
"My mother always told people, 'I tried to teach Pamela how to cook, but she always told me she’d be in the kitchen after I finish this chapter.' Books have just always been with me throughout my life," Neal said.
Entering Neal's office at the library gives visitors a taste of her personality, one intertwined with heroes and heroines that leap off the pages of literary classics and bestsellers and onto her walls, desk and door.
Witches, charms and Katniss Everdeen, the lead character of the wildly successful "Hunger Games" trilogy of books and the subsequent movie are scattered among the decor. Being a teen librarian at a time when young adult novels could not be hotter makes her job even more satisfying.
Before she arrived at the library, between 16 and 20 students a week participated in teen programming. That number now has blossomed to almost 200 a week.
"My kids are very excited about new novels coming out and to see them get that jazzed up about reading is very gratifying," Neal said. "I sometimes spend half of my day trying to find the next big series out there for young adults that is going to be huge to discuss with them. The literature that is hot right now is dystopian. I don't understand and I ask my kids time and time again why they like this stuff because it is so depressing.
Dystopian books are centered on communities or societies characterized by human misery and oppression like disease or overcrowding.
"Like 'Hunger Games,' this is kids killing kids, but they do know where the line is drawn and they know this is escape, pure escape. But what these kids do not realize is dystopian has been around for decades. I just recently showed my teens a movie called 'Soylent Green.' That has a dark futuristic theme, but kids have locked on to that now."
Neal comes from a family in which her mother was Cuban and her father was from Kentucky. Her mom lived in the communist land before Castro took over. She was sent to Nashville to attend college and that is where the two met.
Neal attended the University of Tennessee, where she earned her master’s in library science and met her husband. who later became a certified public accountant.
"I was a dark-haired hippie from Nashville and he was a straight-laced guy from Bristol with his pocket protector. He was a Republican and I was a Democrat. But we were both readers. That may have been what balanced us out," she said.
She was a librarian for Virginia Middle School for 27 years, then completed her school career at Virginia High School with 10 years of service before her retirement in 2011.
During all those years some would say Neal became a bit of a book whisperer.
"I could see a student walk into the library and find out just a little about them and I could match them up with their book. Don't ask me how, but when that happens and a child really starts to enjoy reading, there's no word written that can describe that," Neal said.
The librarian also said that these days young people have so much to deal with like social pressures, class work and other school-related dilemmas, they need some sort of therapy to help keep things on an even keel.
"I think that is what's so great about our group and what we try to accomplish with books. It can be a place to hide for them," Neal said. "Our group runs across all social segments in those ages. Those labels and tags of who is supposed to run with whom and all that, it doesn't register with them. They rise above that and have lively debates about literature. That is so satisfying, to see them form friendships while discussing books."