On First Day, City Librarian Starts On Page One

Lucy Gellman | July 4th, 2023

On First Day, City Librarian Starts On Page One

Books  |  Culture & Community  |  Downtown  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Free Public Library  |  Literacy

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City Librarian Maria Bernhey. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Maria Bernhey opened the cover of Alexandra Penfold’s All Are Neighbors, and a bright cityscape appeared in miniature across the page. On a tiny, vibrant sidewalk, two kids lifted a recycling bin with big smiles on their faces. Another wheeled past them, waving hello. In front of Bernhey, two-and-a-half year old Ramaa Khambete tiptoed up to book, taking everything in. 

“Oooh, tacos! My favorite!” Bernhey said as she turned to the next page, and a squeal of delight went up from somewhere on the left side of a wriggling, dimpled and mellifluous knot of young readers.

That scene unfolded Monday morning at the Ives Main Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, as Bernhey led a weekly “Stay and Play” to kick off her tenure as New Haven’s ninth city librarian. She follows beloved City Librarian John Jessen, who died last year of cancer at the age of 56, and Interim City Librarian Maureen Sullivan, who steered the organization through a year of transition.

“I want to ensure that our libraries are welcoming and inclusive,” Bernhey said Monday after reading, surrounded by tightly packed shelves of books and nearly a dozen neatly packed early literacy kits in the children’s section of the building. “We hear so much in the media about books being banned  … for me it’s just [about] affirming that everyone is welcome here. When you’re reflected in the materials, you’re more likely to come back.” 

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Young Minds Librarian Sharon Breslow, who leads Ives' Stay and Play sessions each Monday and Wednesday at 11 a.m. 

As she took a chair beside Young Minds Librarian Sharon Breslow, an intimate group of parents, caregivers and children could see that approach in real time. After a rousing call-and-response of “Hey Diddle Diddle,” Breslow turned the floor over to Bernhey, who opened with both storytelling and song. 

“If you’re rea-dy for a story, wiggle your ears,” she started to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” A few pint-sized readers reached for their tiny earlobes; several waved their arms excitedly in the air and bounced on the floor. Ramaa found a rainbow on the rug, and began to jump between bands of color. In the moment, it felt like the most celebratory welcome for Bernhey that a community could imagine.

Bernhey reached for All Are Neighbors, which came out last year and tells the story of a city that is as diverse and polyphonic as New Haven—and perhaps even more harmonious across its neighborhoods. As she cracked open the cover, illustrations from Suzanne Kaufman sprang to life across the pages, showing a city as dense as the one blooming around the library. 

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On one page, kids waved hello to a new neighbor, their cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling with the wonder of a new friend. On another, a teal-and-yellow city bus pulled up to an apartment building, the driver waving to passers-by as new passengers got on. 

She lingered on a page dedicated to food and arts education, pointing out a Halal market, taco truck and dim sum restaurant that lived beside a jazz school, community bookstore and snug coffeehouse. On the sidewalk outside, kids and parents of all races waved excitedly to each other as they ambled along, some in hijabs and tzitzit as others rocked perfectly coiffed afros, long, bouncing curls, bucket hats and Sikh turbans in immaculately wrapped gold voile.    

Around Bernhey, kids, parents, grandparents and babysitters formed a half moon that never seemed to stay still. Bernhey didn’t seem to mind; a smile crept across her face as one boy reached for a stuffed hippopotamus, and rested his little arm across its back.

Next to him, a new friend played with a stuffed animal raccoon. Ramaa asked Breslow for the toy spiders she’d been playing with just moments before. 

“It’s ok if our friends are still moving around!” Bernhey said. “We know they’re still listening.” 

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Breslow, who read a second book afterward, and Ramaa. 

That it felt so natural should have come as no surprise to those who know her record of service and investment in early childhood learning and literacy. Bernhey for years managed children’s programming and early literacy initiatives for the New York Public Library, and oversaw youth services during her time as a public services administrator at the NHFPL. As recently as last month, she helped kick off the NHFPL’s Summer Reading Challenge, which runs at all five branches all summer.  

Around the room, parents and caretakers expressed excitement for Bernhey’s first day, many adding that the library has become a lifeline and a sanctuary for them. Siddhisha Khambete, who moved to New Haven from India last year, said she’s grateful for the routine that stay and play provides—Ramaa knows to look forward to it every Monday and Wednesday at Ives. The two come from stories and songs, but leave with new books that they're excited to dive into. 

“Most of my day is dedicated to her,” Khambete said as Ramaa walked in wide, uneven circles around one half of the rug. “This is like her second home.”

Parents Grant and Maddy Murphy-Holton, who moved from Australia last year for Maddy’s research, bring their two-year-old daughter Quinn each week. Like Khambete, they said, it adds structure to Quinn’s week—and to theirs. It’s also made the transition to New Haven that much easier.

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Quinn, who is two years and two months. 

That’s one of Bernhey’s goals, she said—to make sure all New Haveners feel welcome at the library, whether they’ve just arrived in the city, or have lived here for generations. In an interview with the Arts Paper in May, she identified digital equity, early literacy initiatives, citywide advocacy, and the NHFPL’s next strategic plan as just four of her primary priorities.  

On a day-to-day basis, she said Monday, she’d like that to include an expansion of the library’s bilingual story hours, which currently run every Tuesday at the Fair Haven Branch Library with author Nohra Bernal. She added that the NHFPL also has a growing partnership with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), through which it has been able to offer more resources in Pashto and other languages that newcomers may rely on.

"You know, it's language learning across the board," she said. "For folks where Spanish is their first language, they're learning the English translation of it as well, and vice versa. So it really is a way to just build language, build literacy, build vocabulary. And that's what reading is really all about."

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She also intends to grow literacy initiatives across all five branches, which staffing woes have limited for over the past year. This summer, Michelle Ziogas will become the first full-time children’s librarian that the Hill’s Wilson Branch has had in years, a position made possible by a bump in this year’s city budget. She was formerly the adult services outreach librarian at the same branch. 

Breslow, who has worked part-time at the NHFPL since 2016, also said that she’s glad to see Bernhey step into her new role. Prior to her time at the NHFPL, Breslow worked for 15 years in the Bridgeport Public Library system, from which she stepped back when her daughter was born. It’s both the staff and the tiny, wide-eyed and delighted patrons at the NHFPL that keep her coming to work. 

“It feels hopeful for the future of the library,” she said. “I’m excited.”