Getting to Know Youth Librarian Donna Newell

What’s now the Library’s Waldo Branch was once a small outpost at the old Southwest High School. Donna Newell was there, as a student and library page and later – fresh out of college – as a fulltime staffer.

She was there as the branch grew up, moving first to a new interim location and then in 1988 to its current tree-lined spot at 75th Street and Grand Avenue. And she has been there ever since. Newell is hoping, she says, that the Library will act on a long-discussed new home for the busy neighborhood branch “so I can work in it a couple of years before I retire.”

How could it open without her?

With 37 uninterrupted years at the Library, atop a total of six years as a high school and college page, you could say Newell is as much an institution as the institution itself – “an anchor for both Waldo and YFE,” as Crystal Faris, the Library’s director of youth and family engagement, puts it.

Donna, left, joins Library colleague Helen Mahurin and her husband Tom in groundbreaking ceremonies for the Library’s new South Branch – now called the Waldo Branch – in April 1988. 
Donna gets an assist from her granddaughter Jayden at a Read to a Dog program in September 2018. 

Newell, a children’s senior librarian, earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Rockhurst University and originally thought she would go into teaching. But the Library had its hooks in her. She went on to earn her MLS at Vanderbilt University’s George Peabody College for Teachers, returned to Kansas City, and embarked on a career that now binds generations of readers. Hers is the Library’s fourth-longest active tenure.

“I just really enjoy working with kids, introducing them to books,” Newell says. “Like when I go to schools and get to show them not only new books but also books that are some of my favorites that they may not have come across.”

Pre-pandemic, when the Library’s Storytime programs were in person, it wasn’t uncommon for her to run into a familiar face – an attendee from years or even decades earlier – with a son, daughter, or grandchild in tow. When her own daughter Virginia was young, Newell would enlist her in Dial-a-Story duets. Now, Virginia’s daughter Jayden is 5 and Newell says, “In a couple of years, I’m looking forward to having her help me.”

Two stepdaughters also used to accompany her to Library programs, and they’ve given Newell four more grandchildren. Family is central to her life. She also likes to join her husband Butch in a little fishing (for carp and catfish at Longview Lake); enjoys sitting down to Monopoly, Sorry, and other board games; and is a big reader – romance novels are a guilty pleasure, though she’s not averse to stepping outside her comfort zone.

“I was never too big on the idea of reading Manga,” Newell says, “but there was this one series that Virginia was kind of twisting my arm to read. She said it was kind of payback for when I would suggest books to her. So, I started reading it, and we’ve been watching the anime series of it as well. I’m getting much more comfortable with reading right to left.”



Five favorites

What are a quintessential children’s librarian’s top five children’s books? “I have so many favorites, I can’t give you my top five,” Newell says. “But I will give you five favorites.”

· Going to the Zoo by Tom Paxton. “This is a songbook, and children always enjoy singing along with me as well as clapping their hands. It also has large illustrations.”

· Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina. “This book includes monkey sounds and actions, which the children enjoy doing. This is a story I can tell as well as read from the book.”

· The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Jack Kent. “This is my favorite illustrated version of the song as it has a young boy trying to give the presents to a young girl. The illustrations are very funny.”

· The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. “The first book in the Prydain Chronicles, a fantasy series involving Welsh mythology. One of my favorite juvenile fiction authors.”