“If you want to be a writer, your first stop should be the library.”
Angela Shelf Madearis
I confess: I’m never without a book (or two or three) nearby. I love sniffing new books. The sound of a turning page calms my jangled nerves. The feel of a book in my hands is a comfort and a joy. I’m a true bibliophile. This past month I’ve probably touched almost a thousand books. No, they weren’t books sold at my book launch in May. If I sold that many copies of my titles, I’d pop open the champagne and indulge in a triple caramel cashew sundae! I’ve been organizing books for my mission of getting kids to read over the summer called Books to Grow On.
Churches in our community provide free bag lunches at various parks throughout the city to replace school lunches in the summer. When school is not in session, in addition to lunches, children lose their access to school libraries. If children don’t read in the summer, they experience summer reading loss, a gap that accumulates over their elementary years. By the end of fifth grade, they can fall behind as much as two years from their reading peers. In order to stem the loss, I collect gently used and new books and give them away along with the lunches. I’ve given away 15,000 books in the past eight years. I love books so much, I’d like kids to fall in love with books, too.
As I sort colorful books like Pete the Cat, The Dork Diaries and Captain Underpants, I’m reminded of the books I read as a child. We didn’t have many books in our home growing up, which is why I have difficulty parting with them now, much to the chagrin of my clutter hating husband. Paying bills and putting food on the table was a bigger priority than buying books. We lived out in the country, so even going to the library in town was not a part of our routine. The books we had in the house were gifts from well-meaning aunts, among them several little Golden books. I still remember my favorite, Home for a Bunny. The poor little homeless rabbit hopped from animal to animal, hoping for a place to live, but he never fit in. The universal tale of a misfit on a journey has been explored by many authors but none with the poignancy of Margaret Wise Brown’s writing and Garth Williams’ illustrations of the sad eyed bunny.
The other much-loved book belonged to my older sister—a sort of Reader’s Digest version of three children’s classics—Black Beauty, Peter Pan and Heidi. I cried after each hardship and cruelty that Black Beauty endured. I fretted when Heidi grew ill in the city and celebrated her return to her beloved grandfather and mountain home. I thrilled at the adventures of Peter and Wendy in Neverland, their battles with the pirates, and was torn between envy and sorrow when Peter chose to not to stay with Wendy, to never grow up. If a child has only three books to read and reread, I can’t imagine any better three than these.
My next love was Nancy Drew. Birthday and Christmas gift money was spent on Nancy. I pictured Nancy and myself tooling around in her roadster with the top down. Both of us were attractive and smart, cool as Hayley Mills and talented as Brenda Lee. Solving mysteries was second nature. I collected title after title. I was so disappointed to learn they were written by a man—akin to learning about Santa and the Easter Bunny. Nancy felt like a phony after that. I gave the collection to my nieces and moved on. I didn’t tell them Caroline Keene was a lie. They’d find out about betrayal soon enough. But my attachment to mysteries was so deeply ingrained that I now write them.
Did you ever lose yourself so totally in a book that you didn’t hear your mother call you? When she finally physically grabbed the book, I had to blink a few times to realize I wasn’t with Nancy escaping from a cabin fire after an explosion. I wish all the summer kids could experience the same total immersion in a story, the same entry into the world of an author’s imagination.
I’m realistic enough to know the magic of first love doesn’t happen to everyone. But my dream is to provide books so children have the opportunity to fall in love with a good book. Sometimes I succeed. A little girl, Lupito, came every week with her mother to eat lunch and get a book. Just out of kindergarten, I helped her find books she could almost read, because her mother didn’t speak English. Then I saw her at school in September. She ran up to me, threw her arms around me, so happy to see the Book Lady again. She exclaimed, “Guess what I have in my backpack? I have all the books you gave me. I’m going to show them to my teacher.” She was proud of her membership in the world of readers.
I love it when a child has a special request for a book, because then I know they’re on their way to the magic kingdom and I don’t mean Disney. They’ve found an author who touched them in some way and they want to feel that special connection again. They’ve gone beyond Paw Patrol and Bubble Guppies and entered the world of authors. Then they sit at the picnic table and read their new book while they eat their sandwich, oblivious to the commotion around them, ignoring the dash to the playground. I know they’re hooked. They are readers and maybe someday they may venture into writing, just like I did.
One of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, advised, “Read widely, read enthusiastically, be guided by instinct and not design. For if you read, you need not become a writer, but if you hope to become a writer, you must read.” I also believe one learns to write by reading, by developing a passion for words and the beauty of language, and by valuing yourself enough to believe you have something worthwhile to say. The desire to communicate will compel you to pick up a pen and write, for your favorite mentor author has already shown you how it’s done. The world is waiting to hear your voice. A good book delivers your passport to the world of literacy. So, hell yes, I’m a bibliophile and proud of it. I only hope my condition is contagious. How much better off we all would be if, instead of picking up an I-Pad or the tv remote or a Molotov Cocktail, people would just pick up a book, find a comfy spot, and lose themselves in a grand story?