When I was in fourth grade, I brought a book home from our school library. My parents took one look at the back cover and ordered me to take it back: there were witches in it, and as far as they were concerned witches were a banned topic. (Witches being in league with the devil, of course, and the devil being a very real and dangerous presence for my religious family.) The book was Madeleine l’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME. I didn’t read it until I was twenty.
Of course, the witch-book-ban made me extremely curious about a subject I hadn’t previously cared about. I decided to investigate it further. One balmy Alabama Saturday, I rode my bike to the school parking lot and stepped up into the possibility-laden sanctum of the Bookmobile. Surprisingly, its collection was large and varied enough to contain a book on witchcraft.
I returned home and spent the next couple of weeks studying every word of the comprehensive tome, learning about Wicca and the power of nature. There was a little bit about the devil, and I read these sections with the thrill of approaching the forbidden. However, all in all, I was disappointed that there were no spells that could make you fly on a broom or turn someone into a toad. I decided that, with all of the botanical knowledge necessary, herb gathering and the like, witchcraft was too labor-intensive for me. Finally, I dug the book from its hiding place under my mattress and returned it to the Bookmobile.
Apparently in the 1970s parents didn’t know about sun protection. At least mine didn’t, because for two summers in a row, upon arriving in Destin, Florida, I played the entire day on the beach, got sun poisoning, threw up all night, and then spent the rest of the week in bed with a fever and blistered skin.
Which would have been pretty awful if it hadn’t been for a tiny public library a few blocks away from our beach house. I checked out the maximum number of books, took them back to my room, and escaped the pain of burnt skin against sand-infested sheets (no matter how much you brushed it out, the sand was everywhere) by plunging into someone else’s non-itchy universe. As soon as I finished my allotted stack of books, I was right back amongst the shelves, selecting my next collection of pain medication.
For two summers in a row, the Destin library was a haven for me. It not only fed my mind, but was a balm for my physical suffering, and provided consolation as I watched the other children frolic on the beach.
Our neighborhood library (the Emmet O’Neal in Birmingham) held a book-reading contest every summer. Cards tallying participants’ points were kept behind the check-out desk, and a poster hung above it announcing the top scoring children’s names. The conscientious librarians made sure that no one cheated by reading books that were below their skill level.
One summer I read through the library’s entire stock of Barbara Cartland romance novels…one a day. My parents must have been too distracted to censor at that point, because I was only eleven or twelve. I read like a girl on a mission. Which is exactly what I was. Because up there on the poster, one position above my name, was that of a boy who somehow out-read me every single year. I’ll call him Damian.
I did everything I could to beat Damian. I even took a correspondence course on speed-reading one year, just to prepare for that summer’s competition. But it did me no good. Damian won every single summer. I hated him for his superior reading speed. I suspected him of cheating. I spent bitter moments wondering if he was bedridden…if he ever went outside…if he was some kind of freak of nature that didn’t even need sleep.
In all of my summers in the book-reading competition, I never beat Damian. But I did read almost every novel in the entire library, even though some were way too difficult for me. I learned to speed-read while lying on my bedroom floor, with the dictionary open next to my book.
So for my good vocabulary and staggering number of books read during my childhood and adolescence, I have Damian and my neighborhood library to thank.
To hide the fact that I still loved picture books as a wise and world-weary adolescent, I would occasionally accompany my five-year-old brother to the children’s section of the Homewood Library and read out loud to him. (At a library-respecting whisper-level, of course.)
One day while he was valiantly trying to escape my literary ministrations I was approached by a woman who asked me if I babysat. “I’m twelve,” I responded. “You look much older,” she gasped. I nodded. Already 5’6”, I got that a lot. “Well, I noticed how good you were with your brother. Can I ask your mother if you could babysit for us?”
And that is how I got the job that carried me through my teenage years until I left for university. Babysitting for the Freemans paid for the books I mail-ordered through the Literary Guild. It provided fodder for a short-story that I wrote in college about getting stuck while sliding down their laundry shoot. (Which is what you get when you hire a twelve-year-old to babysit. I managed to climb out before the parents got home.) And it allowed me to meet some of the only people I knew who not only weren’t in our church, but were part of a different belief-system, thus providing me with a fresh worldview.
If it weren’t for the unique climate of a library, one where a frazzled mother could approach a girl she saw reading to her brother, I would never have been offered that chance to broaden my cultural horizon.
I received an email from my U.K. editor Little, Brown yesterday. It was a plea from The Reading Agency, a charity that has a special partnership with public libraries and a simply-stated mission: “to inspire more people to read more”.
British local authorities must make a decision in a few weeks (February 2011) as to what public services to cut in order to save 29% of their budget. Libraries risk being downsized or even closed. People are being asked to urge their authorities to think about the importance of libraries as they decide on the cuts.
The Reading Agency says, “…local authority decision-makers need to be reminded of the important evidence base for libraries’ educational importance. Their work with readers builds people’s literacy levels, educational attainment and employability. It builds confidence, self esteem and well being.” To which I say, “Amen, sister! Preach it!”
For those in the U.K. who feel strongly about libraries, you’re urged to go to http://alangibbons.net and www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk.
If you’re not in the U.K., please pass this message along to your British library-loving friends.
In the letter Miranda McKearney, the Director of the Reading Agency, asked authors to blog about what libraries mean to them. This post is my response.
Libraries have served many roles in my life, all of them dynamic and positive. The Bookmobile was my search engine. The Destin library was my hospital. The neighborhood library was my college-level vocabulary course. The Homewood Library was my employment office.
Wherever you are, U.K. or elsewhere, I encourage you to think about the role libraries have played in your life. Get involved in your local library. Go there to read a picture book. Or hire a babysitter. And let everyone know how much you value this incredible gift. Free books. For everyone, no matter what age or socio-economic level. It’s an institution to be cherished. And protected.