by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff
BANGOR — Sarah Whitten of Old Town is putting romance novels on the map in Bangor and Maine. And the Romance Writers of America, a nonprofit association for writers of the genre, have noticed. The group recently named Whitten Romance Writers of America Librarian of the Year for 2013.
“I was floored,” Whitten said of learning that she had won the award. Whitten, circulation assistant at Bangor Public Library, who also oversees interlibrary loans and does one-on-one computer skills teaching for library patrons, knew she had been nominated by Jan DeLima of Hampden, a former library employee, who is now the author of debut romance novel, “Celtic Moon,” due to be published this fall.
It all began several years ago when Whitten and Dilima were part of a focus group in xx to discuss ways to get more 20- and 30-somethings more engaged in reading. They came up with the idea of a romance novel readers book club.
Thus the Not Your Ordinary Book Club came into being at the library. Soon, Whitten had started blogging about the club, and had set up a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. “We get lots of interaction on Facebook and the blog,” Whitten said. Whitten and Sue Bricknell, public relations person at the library, share the blog writing duties.
Then the group received a Maine Community Foundation grant for the purchase of eReaders for the 15 members of the group. “That absolutely opened up our choices of books we could read,” Whitten said.
When the Library Journal decided to write about library book groups in one of its issues, Bangor Public Library Director Barbara McDade submitted information about the Not Your Ordinary Book Club to the journal, and a story was written about it.
Whitten also was asked to give a presentation about the group at the Maine Library Association conference.
Those milestones were highlighted when Delima nominated Whitten for the Romance Writers of America Award. In nominating Whitten, Delima wrote: “… she knew she had a successful [blog] format on her hands when she posted on the website as February’s choice Nalini Singh’s “Slave to Sensation” and discovered that every copy in the entire state [library] system was borrowed within 24 hours. Even area bookstores sold out.”
Whitten said she started reading romance novels when she was a teenager growing up in Augusta. “I kept that under wraps when I was at [Bates] college. None of the books in my college library were romance novels,” she said, laughing at the memory.
In the those days romance novels were looked down on by those who preferred to read ‘serious’ books. “I stopped apologizing for reading romance novels when I was in my mid-twenties,” Whitten said.
Heroines in romance novels have changed in the wake of feminist attitudes that swept American culture in the 1970s. “People would be surprised by how much romance novels have changed,” Whitten said. “No longer does a woe-is-me heroine need to be rescued by the hero. Heroines are much more independent, confident and strong. That hasn’t always been the case.”
Not Your Ordinary Book Club reads two novels each month, meeting at 6 p.m. Thursdays at the library. “Some are racy, and we try to warm people,” Whitten said. The group also has developed a chili pepper rating system that ranges from green to hot to flaming to charred. “I’ve definitely become the ‘go to’ person for romance novel suggestions,” she said.
When Romance Writers of America announced that Whitten had received the award, she received congratulations from members via email from all over the United States. She will be the guest of honor at the organization’s conference in July in Atlanta, where she will address several thousand people.
“I’m passionate about the romance genre, a strong proponent of it,” Whitten said. The lure of reading the genre, she said, is “it’s an escape into a fantasy world, a complete remove from everyday life. Everything [in the novels] always ends up OK. I think we need that, to get away from life’s struggles and problems — read what you want and enjoy it.”
Whitten said she has no desire to write her own romance novel. “I’ll leave that to others,” she said.
The link to the book group’s social media page, blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed is http://www.bpl.lib.me.us/public/bgindex.htm