SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Without a clear idea of when her next opportunity will be to host an in-person tea party or to read aloud for Toddler Story Hour, children’s librarian Susan Plimpton has decided to retire after nearly a quarter of a century at the Southwest Harbor Public Library.
Known to most as Ms. Susan, Plimpton describes her start at the library as a happy surprise. Before beginning her two–decade career there, Plimpton was an employee of the downtown bookstore, Oz Books, owned by Sheila Wilenski-Lanford.
“I worked there one day a week because I was in love with children’s books,” she said. “When that closed, I just walked down the street heartbroken.”
That walk brought her to the front steps of the library, where Plimpton asked an employee if there were any positions open. At that time, Candy Emlen, who later became the director of the library, was the children’s librarian.
“I was really envious of that job,” said Plimpton, who has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. “I assumed that I would teach preschool and I did, in short-term various ways … I started collecting children’s books when I was in college — to me it is the ultimate artform.”
“The Bluebird” by Fiona French, which is out of print, was the first book Plimpton said she fell head over heels with and she loved “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney.
When Emlen was promoted to library director, she knew Plimpton was the perfect pick to replace her in the children’s library.
“I had the joy of working with Susan for many, many years,” said Emlen in an email to the Islander. “She is an extremely caring and creative children’s librarian. I always marveled at the thought and effort she put into every one of her programs. We all used to say she sprinkled them with fairy dust.
“She is also an avid defender of early literacy; everything she did centered around that belief. I am sure the children will miss her immensely.”
During her 19 years as the children’s librarian, Plimpton fostered many literacy programs such as Summer Story Camp, Reader Dog, The Summer Reading Program, Play Readers, Summer Reading Showtime and one of her favorites, Toddler and Baby story time.
“I have always been a believer in early language development and its impact on a child’s ability to read,” said Plimpton in an email. “It’s our primary goal at Baby and Toddler story times to get kids and parents involved in language. It’s so much fun! Singing, clapping, chanting, marching and dancing to music.”
“Watching that first time that they join in is an extremely magical moment. Just watching the families grow over the years. I feel like the grandmother of the world,” she added, “and it’s a really nice feeling.”
According to one mom, it isn’t just the stories, it’s also the atmosphere Plimpton creates surrounding the adventures contained in the pages that makes what she does special.
“The library’s children’s room offers a glimpse into her boundless creative mind,” wrote Courtney Schusheim in an email to the Islander about Plimpton. “As generations of readers will remember, when you enter the children’s room in Southwest, you enter a magical space, where books come alive in the night, fairies and forest animals hide handspun treasure, and seasonal ceiling adornments hint of Ms. Susan’s next story-time adventure.
“Ms. Susan deeply understands the importance of the caregiver-child bond to early learning and literacy. One of my favorite story time memories was when Ms. Susan and the kids built a giant tent in the middle of the children’s room using sheets and string lights. We snuggled inside the tent, the children proudly holding their homemade mason jar lanterns, while caregivers took turns reading poems and books [around] the light. When we returned home, my kids immediately wanted to recreate the event in our living room.”
Brittany Parker, who is a children’s theater artist and indie-insect band leader for Bee Parks and the Hornets, was inspired to recreate not only what Plimpton does, but also the iconic woman herself, in a smaller form. What started out as The Adventures of Ms. Susan, featuring a puppet and Parker dressed as Plimpton, has morphed into Fractured Folktales with the Tiniest Librarian that is premiering this Friday on the library’s website.
Plimpton recalls the first time Parker performed one of the adventure shows at the library with the puppet of Ms. Susan and Parker in a white curly-haired wig. “To watch myself walk into the room and start passing out popcorn, it was hilarious,” said Plimpton. “She and I have had a blast doing projects over the years.”
“I see her work and dedication as nothing short of heroic, and everyday heroes deserve to have their stories told,” said Parker in an email to the Islander. “That’s what inspired me to make the tiny Susan puppet — a character who can fall into the books on her very shelves and play the hero in the adventures on the page.
“There’s few people in the world who are as dedicated to their jobs as Susan Plimpton — but for her, the job is more like a mission,” Parker added. “She’s so passionate about helping kids with literacy skills — enabling them to explore new worlds and embark on new adventures. She’s one of those rare people who not only dreams up incredible projects and programs, but also puts in all of the groundwork to make them happen. She’s writing the grants and planning the events and making the decorations while STILL having time to serve tea and heart-shaped brownies!”
Outside of her passion for children’s books, Plimpton has a passion for tea and hosting tea parties.
“I am a complete tea fanatic,” said Plimpton. “Tea is like books; there are so many good ones!”
During his summers in Southwest Harbor, Tom Lee, who taught elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., connecting with Ms. Susan was a highlight of the season. “As an elementary school teacher, I found her enthusiasm for children’s literature infectious, which helped to support my own classroom connections to reading with children,” wrote Lee in an email to the Islander. “Over many years, I would check in with Susan over the summer and we would trade new discoveries and recommendations.
“Gradually I began to learn just how deep Susan’s reach was as the children’s librarian in the SWH community. She created various programs, such as Summer Story Camp, The Book Worms for homeschoolers and Reader Dog, which she expanded to include a tutoring component, and many other events and outreach programs that connected children with books as a natural part of her community spirit.”
According to Plimpton, the biggest change over the 20-plus years she worked at the library is the way children are exposed to the value of books.
“We no longer wait in the library for kids to come to us,” she said. “We are much more aware of the underserved and do more outreach. We take library programs to any interested day care centers or homes to provide books and story times.
“Before COVID, we had one afternoon a week when kids could come and have afterschool snacks of popcorn and hot chocolate or sometimes healthy smoothies. One thing for sure. If you feed them, they will come.”
Once Lee became a year–round resident in Southwest Harbor, he often volunteered with Plimpton to help bring her ideas to life.
“Whether it was an ongoing project or the germ of a new idea for bringing children into the library,” said Lee, “Susan’s goal was always to ultimately help and support children. Susan seems to be motivated by an ever–expanding sense of what might be possible. I’m so grateful to have met and worked with her over these past few years.”
Not every children’s book earns Plimpton’s approval. In fact, she feels those who create literature that influences children have a responsibility in that role.
“The books we read need to measure up,” she said, noting that doesn’t mean they have to have a happy ending. “They need to encourage the spirit of the child. I want them to have enlightening, inspiring experiences because I want them to believe life is good.”
Although her co-worker Amanda Crafts has connected with Plimpton over more than books and tea, she values this approach to reaching children.
“Susan is always thinking about how to make books come alive for children and their grownups,” wrote Crafts in an email to the Islander. “Susan is always thinking about how children see the world, and how they will be affected by any given situation. Susan is always thinking about how to make the library more inviting and accessible for its youngest patrons AND she will fight for their rights if she feels they are not being given equal opportunities to learn and grow as any adult patron has.”
When she closes the book on this chapter of her life on April 23, Plimpton does not have immediate plans. Mostly, she is looking forward to spending time outside in the summer and with her husband.
“There’s a story in my head that I would love to write and have my sister, who’s an artist, illustrate,” she said, adding saying goodbye after not seeing children in the library for the last year is going to be difficult. “I’m so sad to miss this generation of little ones who won’t remember coming to the library because they couldn’t.”
It is clear the library staff, children and those who work with and influence children will miss Ms. Susan.
“It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Susan and experience her talents as a true librarian for children,” said the library’s assistant director of operations Kate Pickup-McMullen. “Her gift to the children and their families of our community is her ability to introduce books and reading as an adventure and life-long pursuit. Taking part in one of her seasonal programs is the closest one can get to experiencing the magic of Tasha Tudor’s annual holidays treasure ‘A Time to Keep.’”
“It’s been such a wonderful adventure,” said Plimpton.