Growing up, my house was always filled with books — many thick volumes with dark covers: Poems by Robert Frost, novels with names like “Jane Eyre” and “Gone with the Wind” and textbooks about European history. At 5 years of age, I associated these books with my mother, and with adulthood. My books were of the “Golden” variety, delightful little illustrated books that mom bought at the grocery store. I made her read “My Teddy Bear” so many times that I memorized it, telling everyone that “I know how to read!” That very same book now sits on a shelf in my own home, taped together along its spine, its pages worn after 60 years of being loved.
Though I enjoyed the books from our own home, my first trips to the local public and school libraries were transformative, turning me into an inquisitive, voracious reader. I have a strong memory of the first time I tried to check-out a book from the library. To be issued an official card and with it the ability to take books home, one had to be able to write her own name — not a nick name, like “Peggy,” but rather my legal name, “Margaret Dills.” Mastering those 13 letters, in the correct order, proved daunting, but after several days of practice, I succeeded in writing it correctly. The librarian, who would now be called “transgender,” but at the time was referred to as “a little bit different,” happily issued me my own coveted library card. Forevermore, that librarian was a trusted friend.
My library story pales in comparison to that of award-winning actress Viola Davis, who was recently interviewed by David Greene on National Public Radio. I was 5 when my mother drove me to the library, where I was rewarded with a library card. At 5 years of age, Davis lived in a condemned building in Rhode Island, sleeping with her sister on the top bunk to avoid the rats on the floor below. She found a way to escape from that misery. Every afternoon, she would leave her kindergarten classroom at the end of the day and walk to the public library. There, one of the kind librarians would save part of her lunch for Viola to eat. With a full stomach, Davis headed for the children’s section, curled up with a book, and was transported to other worlds. “Reading was the escape,” Davis says. “Reading was an escape into an imaginary world where none of those things existed — where I could recreate myself and I could recreate a life where I played a better role. And it’s that place, in reading, it was that place that sort of saved me — going to the library every day after school when I was [in] kindergarten, so 5 years old … by myself.”
One of Davis’s happiest library memories was reading Don Freeman’s “Corduroy,” the story of a stuffed bear and his African-American friend, Lisa, who search for Corduroy’s lost button. Fifty years after it was written, Davis frequently shares “Corduroy” with her 8-year old daughter, and is writing her own sequel to that beloved picture book.
My 4-year old niece was recently introduced to the public library near where she lives in Happy Valley (how many children can say they live in a place with such a charming name?). On the morning of her trip to the library, she dressed herself in her finest — pink cowboy boots, a leopard print purse, a frilly dress and, most important, her Wonder Woman cape. As she entered the library, the librarian on duty exclaimed, “Oh, we are so thankful to have a superhero visit our library today!” My niece beamed a radiant smile, then headed for the children’s library, where she selected a stack of books to take home. I’m not sure which thing she considered the most magical — being acknowledged as a superhero, or being able to borrow stories for free. As she left the library for home, the librarian thanked her for helping make the world a safer place.
I stopped by our own children’s library a few days ago, looking for the 1964 edition of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, with illustrations by Joseph Schindelman. My copy, received as a Christmas present the same year the book was published, has gone missing. There, in the library stacks filled with other wonderful stories, was a copy of that same book, its pages yellowing, its spine a bit loose, some pages ripped and repaired. It has been well read, and well loved. I was searching for a particular passage, in which the nasty little Veruca Salt argues that square candies can’t be square and look round. Mr. Wonka disagrees, and proves it by unlocking the room where the square candies were stored. “…Suddenly … at the sound of the door opening, all the rows and rows of little square candies look quickly round to see who was coming in. The tiny faces actually turned toward the door and stared at Mr. Wonka. ‘There you are!’ he cried triumphantly. ‘They’re looking round! There’s no argument about it! They are square candies that look round!’”
Over 50-years later, I still marvel at this clever passage, and thank books and the libraries where they live for introducing me to fine writing, and for protecting all the stories we must not forget.