Libraryless

I come from a place with no libraries.  Don’t worry though; this is not a sad story.

I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, a really large metropolitan city with a population close to 6 million.  I was born a member of the Nerdy Book Club.  I was a very early reader which actually made my K -1st grade experiences something close to a nightmare; I was forced to follow the basal readers used to teach kids how to read in Spanish. So, even though I was a fluent reader, I had to sit in class for hours at a time repeating phoneme sounds and reading sentences over an over again with messages as deep as “My mom loves me. I love my mom” (“mi mamá me mima, yo mimo a mi mamá.”)  It’s a wonder I didn’t develop a huge aversion to books.  And for that I have to thank my parents.

As the daughter of two Spanish Literature college professors, I was surrounded by books. Always. My brother and I shared a room even though there were enough bedrooms for each one of us, because one of them had been converted into a library.  The only problem was that our home library was filled with the classics of literature and philosophy, not children’s books (maybe that’s why I ended up reading The Metamorphosis by Kafka in fifth grade –needless to say I totally missed the point and had horrible nightmares where I would turn into a roach right in the middle of class).

So, as I said, we had no libraries back home. No place to go to check out books and get book recommendations from sweet librarians on the latest and best books out there.  The librarian image was something we had from American films, never experienced first hand.  My school had a library but we were not allowed to check the books out. I’m serious. Not that we would want to either! They were all old – really old books, and nothing in the area of children’s, middle grade or young adult.  I guess it was meant to be more like a research library, full of outdated atlases and encyclopedias.

Then, how did we do it? How did my brother, my best friend and I, manage to become complete book nerds?  Let me backtrack for a second and tell you that my parents, even though they were professors, didn’t make much money. We were middle class with just enough money to get by.  The best part though, was my parents’ motto: “In food and books, we’ll spend every single cent.”  So every Sunday, after Mass we would drive to the Ateneo, a really bohemian area of the city, known for its museums, theater and a fantastic bookstore.  My brother and I would run through the bookstore’s doors, heading straight to the back of it where the children’s books were kept.  Tintin and Asterix were always waiting for us, as were Jules Verne, Tolkien and complete collections sent from the best children’s lit publishers inSpain.  It would take us hours -no exaggeration here- to decide upon which book to bring up to our parents (good thing it also took them hours to browse).

My parents had made a deal with us: they would buy the book we chose but we would only get a new one once it had been read (and re-read) and discussed.  We had a three person rotation going on: I would read it, pass it to my brother and then to our best friend who lived upstairs.  Among the three of us, we managed to have enough books to go around with the added perk of having our own mini book club.

The beauty of growing up with two other Nerdy Book Club members (they live abroad, so this is already an international club) was never having to explain why you would rather stay indoors than going out to play.  One of my dearest childhood memories involves the three of us sitting in the stairwell between our two floors, alternating steps, all reading at the same time.  It was from the adventures we read in those books that most of our games came from. Our favorite was creating our own elaborate scavenger hunts for each other, with clues hidden all over our building complex…it was our own literary puzzle to figure out. We imagined we were The Little Prince visiting different planets or Tintin solving new mysteries.  Sometimes we had to dig in our yard after finding the spot on a map. It was our own Treasure Island.

So see, you can be a Nerdy Book Club member even with no libraries around. It would have been easier though! And now that I live in New York, in beautiful Peekskill, I have the pleasure of visiting a real library as many times a week as I wish. And yes, some of the librarians there are just like we had pictured them years ago.

 

Natalia Ortega-Brown has been a 5th grade teacher for last ten years in the Bronx, NY. She cries every June and falls in love with a new class every September. She’s known as a book pusher and a math dork.  She’s on Twitter @NataliaOrtega and writes about pictures books at www.picturebooklog.blogspot.com