How to Make (or Unmake) a Reader by Linda Urban

I’ve read my share of Nerdy Book Club author posts.  Some are about becoming a writer.  Lots are about becoming a reader.  Mine starts like one of the latter, but like many a tale, it takes a nasty twist.  You’ll see.

I read a ton as a small child.  My mother says I was reading at three.  I’m not sure that’s true, but I do know I read fluently before I went to school.  According to family legend, I read aloud at Storytime on the first day of kindergarten.    In second grade, inspired by class read-alouds and guided by our school librarian (my beloved Mr. Yelinsky), I plowed through every Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder book I could get my hands on.  In third and fourth grades, I met Fudge and Andrew “Freckle Juice” Marcus and Linda “Blubber” Fisher. One of those grades was coincident with the nation’s bicentennial, so I also devoured a wall full of Founding Fathers biographies.

Once, near the middle of fourth grade, my father came to pick me up at school for a dentist appointment.  No one could find me.  I went to one of those “open schools,” the kind with no walls between the classrooms, and I had simply gotten bored with math and wandered into the library.  After a long and frantic search, I was eventually discovered in a bathtub full of pillows, reading.

I’m certain that this was a contributing factor in my fifth grade transfer to Catholic school.  My new school had walls and doors and a tiny library located far away from the classrooms.  Its door was always locked and light rarely shone inside it.

If we had a librarian, I don’t remember her (or him?).  And the books . . . oh, the sad and pitiful books.  There were some Beverly Cleary and a few Judy Blumes, but mostly the books were stand-offish, cloth bound things without cover pictures or flap copy to skim.  Between their dull covers were equally dull, decades-old stories of teenagers who fretted about whether they had one cashmere sweater or two and which color lipstick they might wear to a party.  Should they marry after high school?  Or study to be a nurse?

Nerds, I stopped reading.

Not entirely, of course.  My parents always bought me a book for Christmas, and once in a while a paperback would pass from girl to girl through our classroom, quick and urgent as gossip.  My 7th grade teacher, Mr. Cipelewski*, read us Tuck Everlasting, which I adored.

But my identity as an avid reader died when I no longer had unfettered access to those long rows of library books and to the librarian who bought, shelved, and shared them with us.  By high school, I was out of the habit, which was fine because the fiction section of our high school library was nearly as outdated as that the one at the school I had just left.  I didn’t read much for fun in college either.  Or grad school.

It was not until my final year of grad school – the one where I was supposed to be working on my (ill-fated) dissertation – that I took a part time job at an independent bookstore and my passion was restored.  And then?  Look out, sister!  Once again I was deep amongst the shelves, and while there was no librarian around, I had my fellow booksellers, every one of them as eager to hook me on some great new tale as Mr. Yelinsky had been when he first handed me Henry and Ribsy.  I was insatiable.  I read two or three books a week.  And my thoughts were bigger, and my conversations more interesting, and eventually, after about eight years as a bookseller, I even got the idea that I might try my hand at writing.

Recently, I read Colby Sharp’s plea to get a librarian at his school.  He asked for documentation of the difference a librarian can make in reaching educational goals.  I can’t give documentation.  I can’t offer studies and sturdy research-based conclusions.   Everything I have to say on the subject is anecdotal.  But I’m a fiction writer.  I live by the anecdote.    So here’s my story:   I was a reader when I attended a school with a vibrant library and a dedicated librarian who kept the collection current, the students engaged, and the lights on so that readers always had a place to belong.  I stopped being a reader when that was no longer true.   If I hadn’t become a bookseller, I may never have become an avid reader again – and I surely would not have become a writer.   Not everyone wants to be a writer, of course.  But everyone deserves the opportunity to read and be inspired by the stories they read.  Everyone deserves a chance to imagine other worlds, to think about other ideas, and to imagine themselves in situations beyond their every day.

Books let us do that.

But only some books.  And they aren’t the same for every reader.  Having someone around who makes sure that the selection of books is relevant, diverse, and just-right-for-its-readers is the difference between a library and a storage facility.  It is a library that our children deserve.

Linda Urban is the author of Hound Dog True, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, and Mouse was Mad as well as the forthcoming The Center of Everything (Spring 2013). You can find her on Twitter as @lindaurbanbooks or on the web at http://www.lindaurbanbooks.com.