Good Stuff: In Praise of the Library, Librarians, and Summer Reading

It's no secret that I love going to the library. Libraries are more than my "happy places." They are my magical places. What churches and temples are for religious folks, libraries are for me. Growing up, whenever I felt unrooted, I could retreat to the library, surround myself in the safety of books, and heal. During a particularly rough year in elementary school, I was lucky to have a great relationship with my teacher—who was a school librarian assigned to teach our class thanks to some creative staffing—and with our regular school librarian. In the tumult of that year, I grasped on to books to provide stability. With my teacher and librarian's encouragement, I decided to attempt to read the entire biography section of our school library that year. I came nowhere near meeting that goal, especially since I kept getting distracted by those pesky novels luring me from the other side of the library*, but it was a wonderful escape.**

My love of libraries only grew as I did. When I took a month-long train trip around the country, one of my top 5 favorite memories was going to the Library of Congress and getting a card. The absolute best thing I did when we spent a summer in London was visiting the British Library and openly weeping like a lunatic over Jane Austen's writing desk and the handwritten manuscript of Jane Eyre. Whenever I needed to regroup—whether on the road, during my lunchbreaks in the city, or between classes on campus—I'd find a library, cocoon myself in books for a bit, and figure out my next move.***

And now, beautifully, wonderfully, that safety and thinkspace is all in the past because I've introduced my Smartlings to the library. Gone are the days of solitary, meditative wanders among the stacks, replaced by feverish graspings towards shelves as I follow my daughters on our usual trajectory: the holds section (to pick up books I've reserved for them), the sticker station (for stickers - duh), and the children's section for read me this, Read Me This, READMETHIS! Boom, boom, boom. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not quietly heal yourself through bookish wanders. I'm glad to share the library with the girls, I really am. I'm proud of their careful and responsible use of its resources and thrilled with what joy they feel wandering the shelves giddy with the possibility of taking home as many books as they want. And I miss the slow perusal and self-directed wanders among words and ideas. I don't get the same library time as I used to, and I'm both happy and sad about that.

But the time I do get is still valuable in a different way. Whereas my previous time was unfettered, now it is strictly limited to the discrete time between our strictly triangulated route, and this is yielding some interesting results. Because there's no real time to peruse, consider, and put back books in between demands from The Daughters, I wind up shoving anything that looks mildly interesting into our book bag. So I'm not second-guessing or even questioning a lot of our choices; there is no editing of a day's selection once it's in the book bag. This broad-catch method is serving up some wonderful surprises and leading to fantastic new discoveries.

(Image Source)

For instance, I found a copy of Jacqueline Woodson's This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration face-out on a shelf in the children's section of our library and put it into the bag without even looking at it. I'd read and liked her young adult novel From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun back when I was in graduate school, I am interested in the Great Migration, and I didn't know she'd done a picture book. Done. In the bag. Mine (for 3 weeks, at least).

People, it is gorgeous. So gorgeous that, much to my younger Smartling's great confusion (the elder Smartling is used to this by now), I started crying when I finished reading it. It's a beautiful story of family across the generations, across the country, across the span of history, and the shared object of a jump rope that binds them all. You should read it. Right now. Get going. I'll wait.

With a lump still in my throat from our first reading, I told my librarian friend Amy Martin how much I loved it. She repaid my recommendation with one of her own - for Woodson's autobiographical book of poems Brown Girl Dreaming.

Amy did me a solid with this recommendation. Let me pass that solid on to you, dear Readers. (Image Source)

While ostensibly written for young adults from the the point of view of a young Jacqueline Woodson, there is nothing childish about this book. It is a gorgeous, painful, confusing, loving, tumultuous recollection of growing up in both the 1960's Jim Crow south and 1970's New York. Brown Girl Dreaming is also the tale of Woodson's growth as a reader and a writer, and it contains one of the best examinations of acquiring literacy that I've ever read.**** It's gorgeous, and I can't recommend it enough. (In fact, I might have to put a hold on it so I can reread it this summer.)

It was in looking for Brown Girl Dreaming on the shelves, winding my way through the W's, when I stumbled upon the next great library surprise of the summer, Rita Williams-Garcia's Gaither Sisters trilogy.

And, should I be embarrassed about this?, again it was the cover of the first book that caught my eye. Face-out in the W's of the children's novels was One Crazy Summer, the first of the Gaither Sisters stories, in which 3 young girls go to visit the mother who abandoned them for a life of poetry, politics, and the Black Panther Party in 1960's Oakland. That setting alone would have hooked me if the cover didn't, and into the bag it went. Later that same week, compulsively, feverishly I finished the second two books, P.S., Be Eleven (my personal favorite), and Gone Crazy in Alabama. These books are just phenomenal. The characters, particularly the sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, and their mother Cecile, are so richly drawn that I really mourned their loss as I finished the trilogy. And the story, unlike many books for children, never shies away from complication. These characters are full of contradictions, just like real people. And the conclusion of each book, as well as the series in total, reveal new questions and uncertainties even as they resolve others. The story moves forward and becomes richer as it closes, but it never cleanly ends. Just like real life, peopled with real humans.

And so, no, I no longer get to meander through the library like a literary flaneur. And, yes, my current borrowing habits resemble random, but surgical, strikes more than anything else. But look at what treasure these strikes have yielded. I'm so grateful for this summer's bounty of fantastic reading, and I'm so grateful to the library - savior of my youth, protector of my heart - that brought these magical stories to me.

*I'm lookin' at you, Island of the Blue Dolphins. I think I read it twice that year? Maybe 3 times?

**And I met Elizabeth Blackwell, Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Nellie Bly, and all my other best friends.

***And also use the free, clean public restroom. Who are we kidding here?

****You like memoirs about learning how to read? NERD. When you're done with Brown Girl Dreaming, read this next.