Last week I got to go to the Public Librarian Association conference in Indianapolis and talk to some librarians at breakfast. I chose—strangely—to talk about libraries:
When I was young, my mom took me to the library just about every week. For the first few years of my life, my library, the Walker in Minneapolis, was housed in its original 1911 building. It was an iconic, Platonic library—a neoclassical temple, complete with ionic columns.
That building is now a Lifetime Fitness.
In 1981 a new library opened, a modern library, free of those energy-sucking windows and floors that are above ground. No matter that water would seep through the ceiling and eventually they’d realize that having patrons reading directly under the weight of the cars in the parking lot might be hazardous—this library would be energy-efficient, and a handy shelter in the case of global thermo nuclear war. People called it a bunker.
And I loved it. A bunker of books. This library was underground, protected, a secret Hobbit-hole. Everyone knows that underground, there is magic.
My mom took me to the new Walker Library just about every week. I still remember running my finger along the spines on the back wall, looking for the Edward Eager books. I read them all. I found Betsy Byars, Willo Davis Roberts, Lois Duncan, Judy Blume. I’d check out a stack of books every time, and my mom says I’d disappear into my room on Friday and come out Monday morning with them all read.
From first through third grade, I went to a Montessori school where I learned everything I know today, including the names of Greek columns. I loved putting purple triangle magnets on pronouns, arranging styrofoam planets, making rubbings of fossils. At home, I made a big timeline of the Presidents, for fun. And then I made a First Ladies one.
In fourth grade I was switched to a private school, where there were desks, and worksheets and kids who didn’t care about the First Ladies at all. (My parents still feel bad about this.) The rules of being a nine-year-old, of desks in straight lines, of learning by sitting, where kids teased and friends weren’t always nice to each other, were bewildering to me. I didn’t understand anymore.
But books, I understood. I was safe inside them, and they gave me maps to navigate the strange world around me. I read even more then, on the school bus, in the car, at any available moment. I was that kid, everybody said, always with her nose in a book.
In fifth grade, we had a chart, and every time you read a book you’d get a balloon sticker and whoever read the most got a prize. Every Monday you’d bring in your books for the week and the teacher would interview you about them. Naturally my line of balloons stretched way beyond everyone else’s, and the fifth grade teacher would say, “Well, we know who’s in first, still” and the class would laugh.
Once when I bought in my big stack of library books, the teacher looked at them and said to the entire class with a scoff, “I couldn’t have read all these books in one week.”
I had read them all. But she didn’t believe me.
And yes, I am still mad.
The librarians never did that. They fed me all the books I could consume. They never made me feel like it was weird that I read so much.
The library was a bunker. It was safe.
People ask authors what they have in common with their characters. While you might see in Breadcrumbs that Hazel has a stick-in-the-mud fifth grade teacher who doesn’t appreciate her imaginative student (See, I told them all they’d be sorry), I don’t consciously use my own experience to inform my protagonists. My experience is boring. Still, all of them—red-headed adventurer Charlotte in the Shadow Thieves, Minneapolis fifth-grader Hazel in Breadcrumbs, and the orphaned magician’s assistant Oscar in The Real Boy—are readers.
My characters need books. For Hazel, books feed and nurture her hungry imagination, an imagination no one else feeds, let alone sees as a virtue. They show her a better world—even if it is an imaginary one. And they assure her that there is a place in the world for imaginative girls. For awkward Oscar, who spends most of his time grinding herbs in the magician’s cellar, and whose only friends are cats, books show him the wonders of the world as it is, the wide one outside his cellar that he believes he doesn’t belong in. The pages of books promise him knowledge, understanding, mastery. Both kids need books to help them navigate and understand, to feed their hungry, growing selves, and to tuck themselves into at night.
My protagonists need books—yes, because I needed them so badly at that age. But also because all kids do.
This is the age where the world gets a little bigger every day, when your mind is still taking in everything it can, when adults stop shielding the hard things from you. Books are a small place to explore a big world. They are personal—for the first time, they are yours—and they are profound. They reflect and assure, they project and excite. And kids love them for it. They love them with their whole being.
People ask me why I write middle grade. And there are many reasons: grown-ups are boring, they don’t like magic, their heads are filled with the way stories are supposed to work and they tell you you can’t do it that way. Kids don’t do that.
And, I write for middle grade because I am made up entirely of the books I read at that age. Because the books then filled me with warmth and wonder. I write for middle grade because I cannot imagine doing anything else. And because since I spent all that time reading it’s the only thing I know how to do.
But mostly, I write for MG because nobody loves a book like a kid loves a book. They need them, and you can tell that by the way they take them into their whole being, absorb them like the blob. It is a privilege to be a part of that, and constant pressure to be worthy of that.
A librarian asked me recently how public librarians could best advocate for middle grade readers. He said that in his conversations they work a lot on storytime and being a fun place for little kids to come, and they work a lot on creating a space teenagers want to go to. And somewhere between those spaces wanders the middle grade reader.
How do you advocate for middle grade readers? I can’t help but go back to that bunker library, the librarians handing me book after book saying, “You’ll like this one.” They saw me.
That was advocacy.
Librarians are advocates because they know books are lived experiences at that age. They know those kids who come in clutching something you’ve just given them, eyes shining, saying “Give me another book like this,” isn’t necessary asking for more Greek god books, more fairy tales, but they are asking for a book that lets them feel that way again. And when you give them one, you tell them it’s okay to feel that way. You tell them you understand.
We talk so much about certain kinds of readers in this business—reluctant readers and teen readers and boy readers and reluctant teen boy readers. But we don’t talk much about tending to the voracious reader, the middle grade girl wandering the stacks with so many books she can’t hold them all—she’s reading, she’s fine, we don’t have to worry about her.
It’s the librarian who notices that kid, honors her for being a reader, tells that kid, “Here, you matter.”
My bunker librarians gave me a wide variety of books that became part of my lived experience, that helped teach me to be a person in the big big world. They gave me all kinds of books and in doing so told me that I was big enough for them.
That was advocacy too.
The parents that come in looking for boy books and girl books and who tell their kids that that book with a POC on the cover isn’t for them—they are trying to appeal to their kids by giving them something small and familiar. They are conscribing their experience. But kids’ minds and hearts are not small, they are hungry and growing all the time and books feed these minds and hearts with new experiences to live and new characters to empathize with.
To advocate for a MG reader is to honor the child that he is, and that he can be. To honor the hunger for knowledge and experience. To tell him nothing is closed to him. To tell him he can, and should, travel to places that don’t exist, and empathize with people wholly unlike him. To push him, because we know he can be pushed. To advocate is to tell him we see him, whether this is his first book or his hundredth, and he is big enough to contain multitudes.
My seven-year-old boy is not much like the kid I was—he actually likes going outside, and if he could play tag all day every day he would be happy. He doesn’t like school, and has never made recreational timelines.
But Dash is a voracious reader. Every week the school librarian feeds him a new book —he comes home with graphic novels about lunch ladies and space girls; amulets and amoebas; and mice of all kinds— warrior, missile, and baby. He reads his books in layers, skimming quickly to make sure the bad guys don’t win, then more slowly, then more slowly again. He has performed unprecedented exegesis on Sonic the Hedgehog comics.
Dash has Aspergers and school is bewildering for him, every day. People are confusing and overwhelming, there are rules he doesn’t understand, the world assaults him, he’s so exhausted from a morning in first grade he usually falls asleep on the beanbags after lunch. But at night, he sits on his bed and reads for as long as he can. He runs into my room to ask me what a word means, why a character is reacting the way she is, or what a real hedgehog looks like. I let him read far too late into the night, I don’t have the heart to tell him to go to sleep. Books are his companions, his mentors, his friends.
Last spring he won the school read-a-thon. And for the first time in school he got attention not for keeping his hands to himself, not for sitting still, but for excelling at something, something that, on this day, mattered. When his aide took him through the hallway later, a class of second graders said, “Are you Dash? Hey, you’re a great reader. Great job!”
Now the new Walker Library is the old new Walker Library. A new new Walker Library will open this spring. It’s made of windows and light, and you will be able to read there without worrying a car will fall on your head. It is designed to be a community center, yes. I’m sure it will have wonderful programs, great story time, an alluring teen section. But it will still be a bunker, a safe haven, a place where the kid that no one has to worry about, the one wandering around the middle grade shelves trailing books behind her, is treated like she’s doing something important. Where the librarians tell her, in every action: You’re doing something that matters. You’re a great reader. Great job.
History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.
History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.
But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.
This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”