With a heart of gold and a smile as bright as her personality, it’s no surprise that Avery Shelburne is referred to by many of Fabled Bookshop & Cafe’s loyal customers as “Waco’s hidden gem.” As the children’s book buyer, Shelburne curates the children’s section at the shop, which is known for its diverse collection and magical environment. Visitors to the shop can always depend on her for excellent recommendations catered to their children’s interests.
WACOAN: As a children’s book buyer for Fabled, you obviously really love books. When did you first become interested in reading?
Shelburne: As a child, all of my best friends were found in books. Anne of Green Gables, Winnie the Pooh, Pippi Longstocking, Ramona. I tended to gravitate to slightly mischievous characters.
WACOAN: Those are usually the best ones, right?
Shelburne: They are, they’re so much fun! I loved reading from an early age, I loved all the Roald Dahl books. I read them over and over again. I read “My Side of the Mountain” probably twelve times. I loved survival stories, I loved stories about being outside. Books have always been a safe place for me. Then when I got to college, I planned to be a Christian counselor. I had double majored in psychology and Christian studies, then towards the end, I had one full year left of school and was like, ‘Something’s just not settling right, maybe I should do something different.’
But I had one year left, and my mom said, ‘Hey, why don’t you take an education class and see what you think?’ I was like, ‘I am not a teacher, that is not what I want to do.’ I took a literacy class. I had three semesters left of college. I fell in love with it, and it was just a moment of clicking. Like, ‘this is exactly where I’m supposed to be, this is what I want to do.’ Then I added a ton of education classes to the end of my last three semesters and the summer and ended up finishing my certification to be an elementary school teacher the summer after I graduated. Then I taught third grade. I started in elementary school classrooms and taught in and out of public and private schools for a long time.
In the midst of that, we moved back to Waco, and my husband and I went back to graduate school. I have a master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis in reading. I went back to school to become a reading specialist and did a whole lot of classwork and extra certification testing. Now I have what is called a Master Reading Teacher Certification. I focused more on the literacy component of early reading skills, and then I wanted to have a baby!
We were in College Station, and my husband was working towards a Ph.D. at Texas A&M. I surprised him and said, ‘Hey, what if you go back to work full time and do school part-time, and I’ll work part-time and we’ll have a baby!” He said, “I thought this was going to be a few years from now?’ I said, ‘Nope, I think it should be right now!’ When I got pregnant, I decided to start my own business as a reading specialist. I did that in College Station, just seeing kids out of my home for a couple of years while my little one was a newborn. When we moved back to Waco, that was my initial plan, to start my business back up here. My bosses from graduate school called and said, ‘Would you want to come teach adjunct for Baylor?’
WACOAN: That’s a wonderful opportunity.
Shelburne: Yes, I told them ‘That would be awesome!’ For about six years on and off, as I had another baby, I taught in the education school at Baylor. That was an incredible experience. I taught in the teacher education program. I taught a couple of different classes working with students who wanted to become teachers. I was still in and out of the elementary school classroom, so I got some great experience there. It was an amazing opportunity to work with some really fantastic professionals who really take the science of literacy seriously. It was fun to get to be a part of that.
WACOAN: Reading is one of those things you either really love or really hate.
Shelburne: Yes! It’s so true! It’s hard to find the middle ground!
WACOAN: When you have families come to your section that do struggle to find things to encourage their children to read, what types of books do you typically suggest for them?
Shelburne: I definitely start with what the child’s interested in. The most important thing that I start with is questions. I always feel like the best way to connect with somebody is to ask them lots of questions, so when I’m talking with kiddos I’m getting to know them. I want to know their interests, I want to know what makes them come alive, you know? That’s always so much fun to get to know them. Then from there, if we can find a subject that gets them excited, then I’m looking for a level that feels comfortable to them. A lot of times I say to kids, ‘Finding the right book is like finding the right pair of shoes. Some of them are too tight, some of them are too big. We’re looking for the ones that fit just right.’
WACOAN: How do you test the level of a child’s reading capability, especially when you’re trying to prevent embarrassing a child who struggles with reading?
Shelburne: We don’t have formal assessments here. I do a lot of assessments when I’m working with kiddos in the education setting. Here, one of my easiest ways to do it is using The Five Finger Rule. When we pick up a book, I’ll have a kiddo read a page and if there are more than five words on a page that they find difficult, we say that book is probably on their frustration level. We don’t say it’s too hard, I just say, ‘This might frustrate you, let’s try something that might be a little bit smoother, a little more exciting, a little more fun to read.’ We look for one where they only struggle with two to three words on a page, which is more their instructional level. Of course with parents, I tell them they need a lot of books that are on their independent reading level, or books they can pretty much fly through. Books they’ve pretty much memorized, that are confidence building, that are fluency building. They’re really starting to memorize sight words, the high-frequency words.
WACOAN: When the book is a little easier to read, it’s also easier to fall in love with it.
Shelburne: Oh, absolutely. Then we just celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. When they finish a page, I act like they have just climbed Mount Everest. I cannot believe how great they are.
WACOAN: I’m sure it feels that way!
Shelburne: Yes! I can’t believe how brilliant they are, I’m so excited for them! It’s all the high fives and hugs when they do well. We just want to associate that happy feeling of success with the book that they’re reading.
WACOAN: How did you become the children’s book buyer at Fabled?
Shelburne: It’s a really crazy story. I was back in the classroom. I had taught for Baylor for a long time, then I found a school here in Waco, Valor Preparatory Academy. It’s a university model school. We go to school Monday, Wednesday and Friday and homeschool Tuesday and Thursday. It’s a dream. I started teaching second grade at Valor, and my husband had just finished his Ph.D. He had just gotten his more permanent job here, we felt settled. I was like, ‘I want to find something that is a little more consistent.’ At Baylor, I would teach some semesters, then not teach others.
I was at Valor and loved it so much that I knew I had to get my kids there, so the following year my kids were there. I had been at Valor for three years, and I was teaching art. It was kind of random, but so much fun! It was a blast. I was the reading specialist at the same time. I would work with kiddos, pull them out, assess them, work with teachers and parents, but then I would also teach art. Towards the end of that year, I had this super strange feeling in my spirit that it was time to let that job go.
I am a planner, I am not a person who is going to give up one job before another job is solidly in place for the future. I had this unmistakable feeling that that was what I was supposed to do; not sign my contract for the coming year. To finish out my school year, then not come back the following year. I was terrified, but I really felt like it was an act of obedience to follow that feeling in my spirit. So I didn’t sign my contract. I told them to go ahead and hire the next person, and that whole summer I was panicking.
I was like, ‘Should I start my business back up again and tutor from home? Should I go back and teach at Baylor for a while?’ I was really spiraling. I did not know what to do. It was getting closer and closer to August. I felt very fearful in the waiting. I do not wait well. That was a hard season for me. But I was having a playdate at my house with a friend of mine, who was in a book club with Alison Frenzel, one of our owners, whom I did not know yet.
I was just telling her, ‘I just don’t know what to do, should I start a blog? All I want to do is read books, and that’s not a job that people just do.’ She said, ‘Oh my gosh, Avery, my friend Alison texted me this morning asking me if I knew of someone who would be a good children’s book buyer for a new book shop they’re opening in Waco.’
WACOAN: That’s very serendipitous!
Shelburne: I mean, I started bawling. I did not even know that something like this was possible, that this existed in the world. Then I would never think I would be chosen to do this. It just blew my mind. So [my friend] Paige texted Alison back that day. I talked to Alison and it was just like we had an immediate heart connection, like a soul-deep connection about books.
WACOAN: Isn’t it beautiful when you find that?
Shelburne: Yes! It was like instant friends. It felt easy to talk to her. She has an artist’s soul. To hear her talk about books and the vision she and Kimberly [Batson] had for Fabled, I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t be a part of this.’ That’s how much I wanted this. I was checking my e-mail every ten minutes! Then they offered me the job. There are moments in your life where you feel so seen and loved. Doing something you love for a living is a privilege and very few people in the world get to do something they love and get paid to do it. Something in me has come alive, something in me awoken when I was able to take this job. It is the most beautiful fit for me. I feel like I have stretched into my skin. This is what I’ve always wanted.
WACOAN: It really does seem like the perfect fit. I can tell you are really knowledgeable about what you have in your collection, and what you don’t have. You seem to love what you do.
Shelburne: At Fabled we are trying to curate a collection that has a specific mission. Everything we do here is to champion the love of reading and bring beautiful redemptive, hopeful stories to our community. We have a small space. I have to be selective about what goes on the shelves. We want to have books you can’t find elsewhere. Fabled is offering a different experience when you are here, which is what we hope to do.
WACOAN: It offers community, too, I’m sure.
Shelburne: That’s what we want. We call it ‘the literary linger.’ We’re trying to create a space where people are our listeners and learners. Where they sit and talk through ideas and are sharing their own stories, creating empathy. We hope we’re making an impact on the world through that.
WACOAN: Currently in your collection, what are your top favorite books? I know that’s a hard question for a book lover.
Shelburne: That’s so hard, but I have an answer! My all-time favorite book in the whole world is the original “Winnie-the-Pooh.” It is my absolute favorite book and it will be until I die! Pooh and I just have the same worldview. He’s so gentle and tender, and it was the first chapter book I read out loud to my boys. I will always treasure that. My other favorites are “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” by Grace Lin, a story about gratitude. It is absolutely beautiful. A new book from 2020 is “The Silver Arrow” by Lev Grossman, about a magic train. It is your most beautiful, exciting childhood dreams come true. It is so fun and beautifully written. “The BFG” by Roald Dahl is one of my favorites, I read it five times as a child.
WACOAN: Have you had any particularly heartfelt moments while working here?
Shelburne: My all-time favorite moment is there is a little girl who comes to story time almost every week, who pretends to be ‘Miss Avery’ at home. Her mom told me she gets her little stuffed animals out and does the story time and pretends to be me. That almost kills me. It was so sweet!
WACOAN: That’s adorable!
Shelburne: I have another little girl who brings me art all the time, I have a lot of her art in my office.
WACOAN: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?
Shelburne: The biggest thing for me to express is that I’m so incredibly grateful. I can’t believe this is mine to do, I really can’t. I feel like I am living a dream when I am here. It is one of my favorite places in the world. I genuinely love to be here, and I love what we are working toward. We make a lot of mistakes and I’m still learning and growing, but what our hearts are reaching for and what we are aligned with within our mission is so important and beautiful. It feels crazy that I get to do this, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
– Mr. Snow. We have so many fun memories of our kids dancing under that big cabana rooftop, eating snow cones all through the year, and driving around at sunset with a cup of sweetness in our laps. It’s the best!
– We love the Cotton Belt Trail out near our home in McGregor. It’s a five-mile stretch when you walk it to the end and back, and I think I’ve worked through a thousand hard moments pounding that trail. We also love the little trails into the woods that lead to the creek where my boys catch tadpoles and we skip rocks across the water.
Avery’s Must-Have Items:
– My Stanley water bottle. I have two of them and I’m seriously obsessed. It’s like a pacifier that I take literally everywhere.
-My Bare Minerals tinted sunscreen. It’s lightweight and sheer but offers great protection from the sun, and if you add some mascara and lip gloss, boom you’re ready for the day.
-Dr. Teal’s Epsom salts and bubble bath. I am a big believer in bubble baths. I take like three a week. It’s a moment just for me where I can take a deep breath and let my mind settle down. Momma needs a minute, you know?
-My super-soft sweatpants from Aerie. They are my absolute favorite thing in my closet. I change into them the second I walk in the door.
– My leather-bound journal and sharpie pens. I start my day with a quiet moment of gratitude where I reflect on the day before and number ‘gifts’ in my journal from one to 1000, and then I start again. I’m on my seventh list of 1000 now. It is the most important discipline in my life and has absolutely changed the way I walk in the world.