Author Interview: Talking Books and Reading with Elizabeth Burns

We *know* a lot about Elizabeth Burns’ book, TV and movie interests from A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, but she doesn’t talk much about her job as the Youth Services Consultant at the New Jersey State Library Talking Books and Braille Center.  In fact, she makes it clear on the blog that what she says there is her opinion and not her employer’s. Last fall, after reading several articles about Braille literacy, I asked Liz if we could do an interview. In part, to talk about her blogging, but mostly to talk about being a librarian and Braille literacy. My thanks to Liz for answering what started as a “few” and turned into a “bunch” of questions.

Elizabeth “Liz” Burns has spent her entire professional career as an advocate. For ten years, she was a corporate lawyer, and five years ago she transitioned her skills to become a librarian and blogger. By day, Liz is the Youth Services Consultant for the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, a regional library for the National Library Services for the Blind & Physically Handicapped. She advocates for readers, particularly teens, and has been very active in the American Library Association. she is involved with the Outreach to Young Adults With Special Needs (YALSA, 2009-2010); the Schneider Family Book Award Committee (2009-2010); ALA CBC Joint Committee (2008-2010); Printz Committee (YALSA, 2007-2009); Website Advisory Committee (YALSA), 2006-08; and YALSA’s Legislation Committee (2005-2007). She is also a regular contributor to School Library Journal publications.

RT: First, congratulations on the (soon-to-be) fifth anniversary of A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy (aka Tea Cozy)! In that first post, you said saw the blog as being about story …


“Because it’s all about story: the stories we tell, the ones we believe, the ones we read, the ones we watch. The ones we want to believe in; the ones we’re afraid of. The stories we tell because we’re afraid.”

How do you see that story now, five years later? Is there change, evolution, different book same story, or none of the above?
LizB: Thanks! I guess it says a lot about how I process things that I started with a manifesto. One aspect of story that I think more about now is how different readers read the same story, to the point where you wonder, “did we even read the same book?” I know that a person’s subjective reaction to a story is important, and there are a lot of blogs that focus just on that. But, I don’t believe that subjective reaction is the only valid reading of a book. In other words, yes, there are good books and bad books, not just books that didn’t fit a certain reader!

J.D. SalingerI also find it interesting how people sometimes reverse-analyze someone based on their choice for story. To use a broad example, some people truly believe that a person who reads classics or literary fiction is somehow “smarter” than someone who reads chick lit. Or that a decision can be made about you and your ability to empathize with another based solely on whether or not you liked The Catcher in the Rye. So, yes, I do still think about story (perhaps overthink it!) but how I think about it does change.

Elizabeth Burns and Sophie BrookoverRT: Most of us know you as LizB the blogger and/or Liz the Pop Culture librarian who talks about “mainstream” material for readers. We don’t know as much, though, about your role as Youth Services Consultant for the New Jersey State Library Talking Book & Braille Center (TBBC). What would most surprise us about your role?
LizB: Just to explain a little about what my library is: TBBC is a regional library for National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), and provides Braille and audiobooks for people who, for any physical reason, cannot read a traditional print book. TBBC also carries large print books. What would most surprise people is how little face-to-face time I have with children or teenagers. TBBC provides services for the entire state of New Jersey. Customers receive materials via mail or by downloading items; and my interaction with them is over the phone or via email. Occasionally, someone actually comes into our library, but not usually. Also, because of the production time for Braille, audiobooks, and large print, our materials aren’t the ones that came out just last week. So when I am talking with kids and teens about what they read, what they want next, etc., it’s not the book that just hit the bookstores that week. We have a summer reading program, but it’s conducted entirely by mail rather than any in-house events.

RT: What is the favorite part of your job? And, of course, the least favorite?!
LizB: My favorite part is matching readers and books. It’s even better when the child can now read the same book as all their friends.

My least favorite? Well, I guess I’d actually say the most frustrating part is that there are people who are eligible for our services, could be getting books from us, and either don’t know about us or think they aren’t eligible. As I explained earlier, “blind” doesn’t mean no vision, and “visual disability” basically means that even with glasses you need larger print. Is there a problem holding a book? Turning pages? Including doing so for an extended period of time? That person is eligible for services. Also, reading disabilities are covered when there is a physical basis, that is, when a medical doctor certifies that the reading disability is the result of an organic dysfunction. The NLS provides these services for the entire country, using regional libraries. So if you think you know someone who can use these services, check the website.

Another frustration is people not understanding what NLS audiobooks are, and aren’t. Someone may know about us, be eligible, but think that because they can afford to buy audiobooks or their local library has a large audiobook collection that NLS has nothing to offer them. NLS books are not commercial audiobooks; they cannot be bought by individuals; and it also means that they are not the same books that are bought and sold and borrowed in stores and libraries. “The Warriors” books by Erin Hunter are very popular. A child who is eligible for services asks for these in audiobook at the local library. The librarian checks the usual sources and sees that the library doesn’t own them and there aren’t any audiobook versions and tells the child “no.” Truth is, there are versions – NLS versions! But if someone doesn’t think to look at the NLS catalog (or their local regional library catalog) they think “no.”

RT: Before we talk more more about what you do, let me ask a question about your constituency. How do people who cannot read a traditional print book describe themselves?
LizB: “Blind” or “visually impaired” are both acceptable terms. I’d also like to add that “blind,” “visually impaired,” and “visual disability” are also all specific terms. And sometimes different terms are used – low vision, for example. As a general rule:

“Blind” does not mean total vision loss. It is someone who sees at 20/200 or less in their better eye; or whose visual field is no greater than 20 degrees.
“Visually impaired” means that vision is 20/70 or less in the better eye.

The National Library Services for the Blind & Physically Handicapped (NLS) provides services, through regional libraries, for people who cannot read a traditional print book. So, for vision, that means blind or anyone with a “vision disability,” which means someone who even with correction (that is, glasses) cannot read “standard printed material.”

RT: Thank you. This is very helpful to me, as I’m sure it is to our readers. In a related vein, about a month ago, you had a post that I think offered a great response to Jonathon Hunt’s comments about the Schneider Family Book Award, which “honors an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” That said, I think he raises an interesting point about how we do/don’t see characters with disabilities as relevant to telling stories. There is a lot of discussion within the kidlitosphere about expanding our multicultural reading. Do you see a need to include books featuring characters with disabilities as part of the discussion?
LizB: Absolutely! The manual for the Schneider Family Book Award explains why Dr. Katherine Schneider founded this award and includes the criteria for it. The website for the Award I think that books with children with disabilities are needed both to serve as “mirrors” for those children who do have disabilities, or who have family members with disabilities, as well as “windows.” Also, while books need to be accurate, they should not be viewed as educational or to convey a message, that is, that the books existing primarily to teach the public about disabilities.

RT: Along that same line, do you have a go-to list of books for children and young adults that feature characters with disabilities?
LizB: You know my first answer – the Schneider Family Book Awards! The website has not only the current and past winners, but also a bibliography created in 2009 at

NLS has created a great bibliography called “Physical Handicaps: A Selected Bibliography” in 2009. It contains both professional resources for educators and librarians, as well as links to booklists and collection development information.

For anyone interested in the topic, I suggest reading “Evaluating Materials about Children with Disabilities” and “Evaluating Picture Books for Children with Disabilities” by Dr. Linda Lucas That website has a ton of information.

RT: In doing the research for our interview, I found The Blind Leading the Blind by Mark Willis. It is a fascinating, beautiful essay about the parent-child reading relationship when the parent is blind. The essay is dated 1994, yet even then Mark was able to use technology to help his son. Now, 15 years later with technology doing so much more and even mainstream “experts” encouraging read-to-me materials for kids, do you see learning Braille as relevant for readers who are blind? If so, why?
LizB: With read-to-me materials for kids, is learning how to read print relevant for readers with vision?

Reading Braille, like reading print, offers a different reading experience than listening, with the same benefits to a Braille reader as a print reading. Spelling and grammar are two concrete examples of the benefit of Braille/print reading. Studies have shown that just as print literacy improves a person’s life situation, so too does Braille literacy in such areas as employment, education, and self-sufficiency.

RT: According to the National Federation of the Blind ( 90% of blind children are not taught to read. That is staggering. In fact, the US Mint issued the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollarspecifically to raise awareness of and funds for Braille literacy. If people wanted to learn more Braille literacy, how would you recommend they do that? Should they start with official websites or would they benefit by starting with stories? Are there places they can go for “hands on” experiences? Do you have recommendations? Are there things that people can do to get more involved? Where should they start?
LizB: There are a lot of organizations, with great websites and resources that people can look at. Often there are local volunteer opportunities. And, some places (like TBBC) have active outreach and literacy programs, where we visit schools and libraries. Before getting into the list, I’d also add awareness. If you are a library or scout troop doing a book discussion, have you checked first to see if the book is available in alternate formats such as audiobook? When you have fliers or activity sheets, how large of a font are you using? Often, librarians try to get so many books on a book list the font grows smaller and smaller. Kids with low vision or reading disabilities will not be able to read it. Try to use a font that is at least 14. 16 or 18 is even better! And websites; that is a whole different story! Is your website accessible to the technology that children and teens who are blind or have low vision use to surf the web?

NFB has a great website with online resources, and they also have the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind in Baltimore, MD. So those local to Baltimore can both call for more information and visit.

The American Foundation for the Blind ( has online resources, including the Braille Bug website for children. It explains not only Braille, but also how changes in contrast on a computer screen can impact reading.

You can also contact the applicable state government agency to see the services offered in your state for children and adults; in New Jersey, it is the Commission for the Blind & Visually

The Arizona Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired has a virtual vision simulation presentation It helps you see what it means to have central or peripheral vision loss or glaucoma.

In my state, the College of New Jersey has a program for those interested in becoming a teacher of the Blind/Visually Impaired:

Of course, you can contact your local regional library of the NLS. A list of all libraries is at the website,

If you live near Louisville, Kentucky, you can visit the American Printing House for the Blind ( They offer tours of their plant and museum.

Braille books, for all reading levels, are available commercially. APH sells them; and Seedlings ( sells Braille books for children as well as other Braille resources.

What other Braille resources? Building blocks, tactile graphics (imagine a picture with all raised lines so you can feel what a dinosaur is like!), writing slates and styluses, pretty much anything and everything. In addition to the organizations I’ve already listed, which sell many of these things, there is are many resources, including the National Braille Press, the Braille Superstore, and Exceptional Teaching ( I could go on and on; NLS has lists of more online organizations and stores, such as Braille Literacy: Resources for Instruction, Writing Equipment, and Supplies

RT: Ah, you haven’t gotten away from your research roots! Speaking of researching …In April 2005, your article about using non-library skills in a library environment was published at (Career Strategies for Libraries). Now that you are another five years away from your career as a corporate attorney, is there anything in your library career that makes you just as *giddy* today as it did the first day as a librarian?
LizB: Wow, you dig deep! What I like about librarianship is that it is both constant and changing. Constant: the books and information. The changing: how people get those books and information. I love finding new ways to do traditional things, such as using an online newsletter for readers advisory. I also love the philosophy that says, “go out into your community,” rather than waiting for people to come to you. With my current job, that means driving all over the state, but I love having the chance to connect with people. Even better when it’s a shared interest in books!

RT: Can you tell us more about What To Read Next, part of the Youth Services page on the TBBC website? Who do you see as the audience for that page?
LizB: I can tell you it is an area that needs more work! TBBC has gone through a number of changes in the past couple of years that have kept us busy. First, the name change from Library for the Blind & Handicapped to Talking Book & Braille Center. It shifted the focus from why a person uses TBBC to the materials we offer. Second, for years NLS’s audiobooks were on cassette and used special cassette players. NLS’s books are now digital, so either come preloaded onto a cartridge using a flashdrive or can be downloaded onto a flashdrive, and require a new machine, what we call a Digital Talking Book machine. The roll out of this – the change in technology, downloading books, etc. – has been the focus of the library for over a year. It’s an exciting and busy time, so I’ve neglected the What To Read Next page.

I have an online newsletter on the website, but I think the audience for that are the adults: teachers, instructors, parents. For the What to Read Next, it’s the kids and teens.

RT: We’ll bring this full circle with a blog-related question. When writing book reviews, do you ever see yourself “distinguishing your audience” based on their vision abilities? Or wishing that a newly released book came out in a talking-book version?
LizB: In writing reviews, I tend to think a combination of “would my blog reader want to read this,” so stay away from spoilers, yet at the same time, “would my blog reader want to purchase/booktalk this”, so give enough information that they may not read the book, but will remember it when a teen is looking for the latest supernatural romance. And, again at the same time, I also write for me – what it was that struck me about a particular title.

I wish that every new release, that every book, was available immediately in every format: print, large print, Braille, audiobook. If there is a book everyone in class is reading and loving, the child who reads Braille or listens to audiobooks should be able to easily have access to that book so they can join in on the conversation.

The world of commercial audiobooks has changed; there are so many children’s and young adult titles being published each year! Large print, not so much. One of the possibilities I see with e-readers is that they turn every book into a large print book when they allow you to increase the font. So, I’m excited how technology can really change how people read and increase the number of books available to be read.

RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
LizB: Is there anything else left? I think we covered it all!

RT: Thanks Liz for stopping by.

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16 responses to “Author Interview: Talking Books and Reading with Elizabeth Burns

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  9. Excellent point about reverse-analyzing people based on choice of book – I think we are all guilty of judging people by their readings choices to some extent, whether we like to admit it or not. Not that everyone is a book snob through and through, but there are definitely some prejudices depending on book selection. Myself included!

    I wonder if people make a point of reading “smarter” literature in public and keep the chicklit-esque reading at home… would be interesting to know!

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  14. I’ve read Liz’s blog for years and have always been curious about her work at the Talking Book and Braille Center. Thank you for this informative interview.

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