If you’ve spotted a lovely winged creature roaming the halls of the University of Virginia Children's Hospital, you’re not seeing things. Count yourself among the enchanted. For just one hour each month, Briar the Book Faery brings a much-needed dose of magic to anxious children, worried parents and even busy staff members.
When Kimberley Barker – normally a librarian at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library – dons her wings, she goes deep into the character of Briar Copperleaf to bring a brief respite to those facing a stressful reality.
“No one is ever at the hospital for a fun thing and many people are experiencing some of the worst things they are ever going to experience. You’re sitting there overwhelmed and upset and, all of a sudden, here comes this creature walking toward you, wearing a beautiful costume, wings and a flower crown,” said Barker, who created Briar the Book Faery (that’s the Middle English spelling).
Barker is very much connected to 21st-century technology in her “real” job, where she works as an emerging technologies librarian, using digital tools like virtual reality, 3-D printing and 360-degree video, and overseeing social media and the Health System library’s newsletter. But when she puts on her faery wings, she becomes a creature from Appledoria, clueless about the strange gadgets of the human world.
“Briar lives in a moss-covered cottage in an ancient forest with a one-eyed crow and fox. Briar is very, very old, even though she doesn’t look old. She comes and visits UVA Hospital for an hour each month on the second Thursday at 10 a.m.,” said Barker, who speaks in a half-Irish, half-Australian accent when channeling Briar.
Spreading Literacy and Make-Believe
Briar is the central character of a traveling Storytime Program at the hospital that over the past 2½ years has brought more than 200 free books to children, not to mention enchanting encounters with more than 300 people. The SoHo Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to children’s literacy, donates the books.
The impact Briar has had on people of all ages has been a surprising – and rewarding – part of the program. “It isn’t just children, but people my age and older, who just really embrace the character and suspend all disbelief and really engage with Briar,” Barker said.
“The staff members also love to see Briar come,” added Lydia Witman, Briar’s human companion and Barker’s librarian colleague. “The impact on our nurses and other health care providers has been a lovely unexpected side benefit of the Storytime Program. It makes them feel good about working in a place where this beautiful thing is allowed to happen. It’s only once a month, but it really is a magical hour for everybody.”
While Briar gets all of the attention, Barker emphasizes that she couldn’t do the character without Witman. When Witman is not helping Briar navigate the strange human world, she manages Patient & Family Library Services, an extension of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. In 2016, just as Witman was getting ready to open a library space in the main hospital lobby, she was approached by Janet Allaire (then director of ambulatory services for the Children’s Hospital and Women’s Services) about creating a children’s storytime program.
Witman knew Barker would be the perfect person to read stories, and Barker immediately embraced the volunteer opportunity.
“Briar is something I made up on the fly,” Barker said. “I’m a very creative and imaginative person, but my daily work doesn’t really call on that side of me.
“This really saved my sanity in a lot of ways. I was desperate for a creative outlet. And my son is an artist, so we work together on what different crowns we should craft from plants that are in season.”
Barker is also good at scouring thrift shops and the internet for bargains to keep Briar dressed in long flowing gowns of changing colors to match the seasons.
“The passion that Kimberley brings to this character,” noted Witman, “comes across to patients and families. Sometimes they’ll try to nudge her, but she won’t break character.”
Barker is committed to staying true to the magic. “Distraction is one of the most powerful tools we have. ... I’ve been in the hospital as a patient and any moment that you can step away from that grief and fear, it’s just a beautiful thing.”
Even if it’s unlikely to come true, Barker dreams of being hired as the UVA Children’s Hospital director of magic, where she oversees a team of faeries and elves (played by UVA students), who guide each child and their family through the hospital experience. For now though, she will keep bringing patients all of the magic she can muster as Briar, brightening their days as much as she can each month.
[Can’t get enough of Briar the Book Faery? Follow #briarthefaery on Instagram or see her on the library’s Facebook page.]