The Sneaky Librarian by Adriana Brad Schanen
My parents fled Communist Romania in the early 1970s, settled in a gritty neighborhood near downtown Chicago and worked hard to build a new life for our family. And then I became, of all things, a figure skater.
I started skating in kindergarten, fell hard for the sport, and ended up missing a lot of elementary school to train and compete. Tightly scheduled and perpetually on the go, I developed a pragmatism, if not cynicism, toward my academic work. School was about following directions, memorizing, getting good grades so I could keep going back to the rink. Skating was about flying.
Reading was just another subject on my report card. The kinds of stories that engaged me – Ramona, Nancy Drew, Archie, the Sunday comics – didn’t count for much in school. I grew to believe the point of reading was to complete the assignment attached to it – the work sheets and reading comprehension questions, the dreaded book reports. I lumbered through language arts textbooks, restless, mentally elsewhere. I saw myself as an athlete.
But then, the summer after sixth grade, I quit skating. I’d been living in Wisconsin to train with new coaches that school year, which had cost my parents a small fortune and left me homesick and burnt out. After much discussion, we made the difficult decision that I would come home for good. It was late June when I returned to Chicago, and already sweltering out. I was no longer a competitive skater. I didn’t know what I was (besides a failure) or what to do with myself that summer. There’d be a week of camp in August, but until then, there wasn’t much to do while my parents worked – except play with my little brother or my Bunica, who took loving care of us but didn’t speak English.
At some point I decided to walk over to the public library a few blocks from our apartment. Not to get a book, but to get away from my pesky brother. The most exciting thing about the library, a tidy yellow-brick building on Altgeld Street in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, was that I was allowed to go there by myself.
As you entered the library, the kids’ books were on the right, the grown-up books on the left. I turned left. I spun a rack of romance paperbacks. I picked up a thick Dean Koontz horror novel from the new fiction shelf. I had just turned 12 and was small for my age.
There was a librarian working at a desk nearby. I glanced over there, waiting for her to order me over to the children’s area. She looked back at me, briskly, as if to say – I’m here if you need anything, but I won’t bother you if you don’t.
That’s when it hit me anew: freedom. I was surrounded by books here, but not required to read any particular one. Nobody was going to make me finish X number of pages or answer a bunch of inane/confusing reading incomprehension questions. I could read, just to read, however much or little I wanted, of anything I wanted…even magazines!
So I stuck around and wandered about. Only as I was leaving did that librarian finally speak to me. She didn’t chide me for peeking into Harlequins and horror novels and Glamour magazine. She merely asked if, on my way out, I could help her by returning a book to the children’s area, a book that had wandered over here by mistake.
But instead of returning the book, at the last minute I checked it out. Back home, atop the bunk bed I shared with my brother, I read about a bat who didn’t fit in, a bat who loved and wrote poetry, who found the courage to be who he truly was. It was an odd little book that I never would have picked up on my own, and I couldn’t put it down.
I walked back to the library the next day, and all summer. I found books that were baffling, scary, thought-provoking, funny, heart-wrenching. Books too young for me and too old for me – some of which ended up feeling just right for me. I discovered a sense of agency. The relief and giddiness of choice. I checked out books by Beverly Cleary and Stephen King, by Rosemary Wells and Robin Cook. I read Charlotte’s Web and Pippi Longstocking. I paged through countless terrible, silly bodice-ripper romances, looking for the inappropriate parts. I read The Secret Garden – here was a girl as sour and lonely as I felt – and The Baby-Sitters Club and The Giver and Flowers in the Attic (cringe – it was the early ‘80s). That summer before seventh grade, books finally came into focus for me. I don’t know if it was developmental, kismet, random, or what. I don’t know if that librarian gave me The Bat-Poet because she wanted my help or because she could see that I needed hers. (Of course I have my suspicions.) But it was an exciting time. It felt voluntary and personal – the opposite of school.
These days, I watch my own children write, illustrate and “publish” their own stories in school and at home (thank you, Lucy Calkins). They read books they’ve chosen late into the night. They see our local library as an extension of our home bookshelves. Sometimes, as they bound through those library doors, I think of that long-ago Chicago summer and that other library on Altgeld Street, and the sneaky librarian who got me started. Because I wasn’t forced to read, I read. It was a powerful fresh start, a glimmer that would brighten into the belief that I could choose not only my own books, but also, eventually, my own life.
Randall Jarrell’s The Bat-Poet makes a cameo in Adriana Brad Schanen’s debut early middle-grade novel Quinny & Hopper which was published in 2014 by Disney-Hyperion and selected as a 2015 TLA Bluebonnet book. It will be released in paperback April 2015. Connect with her at @adrianaschanen or visit adrianabradschanen.com.