At Home Between the Pages by Dan Gemeinhart
When I think of my childhood, two themes immediately rise to the top: movement and books.
We moved a lot when I was growing up. In the beginning it was because my dad was in the military; later, just because we were following (or looking for) jobs. From when I was born in a military hospital in Germany until I entered middle school, we moved nearly every year. I was used to putting all my stuff into boxes, then taking it all out of boxes again in a new house, in a new town, with a new school. Each move brought a different bedroom, a different neighborhood, a different teacher, different friends. My family was strong and constant, but the rest of the world swirled and shifted around us.
I was a quiet kid, shy and introverted. It’s not easy always being the new kid. Walking into a classroom full of strange faces and being the only kid that wasn’t there yesterday is tough. Amidst all that change and transition, though, I found a warm and reliable refuge: books. Ah, books.
Every school I attended had a library. Thank God. A room that’s full of shelves that are full of books that are full of stories. Stories that are diverse and unique and extraordinary and varied – but are beautifully the same no matter where you read them. Whether I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in Spokane, or Montana, or Kansas, Narnia was always in the same place. I could go there whenever I wanted, from wherever I was. Stories always know where true north lies in our interior geography.
I remember vividly when my mom presented me with my very first chapter book to read on my own: The Beast in Mrs. Rooney’s Room by Patricia Reilly Giff, part of the Polk Street School series. I was in First Grade, living in Montana, and I threw myself on my bed and devoured it in one sitting. Not long after that, the boxes came out. We were moving again. We’d only been there a year and a half but I had close friends and a school I loved and I did not want to go.
Kids, though, rarely get choices. Away we went. My first day at the new school, I was sad and lonely. No one invited me to sit with them at lunch (in fact, another vivid memory: they scooted away from me when I sat down). And then we went to the library. All those books lined up, waiting. And right there on the shelf were the Polk Street School books. Those same crazy kids having goofy misadventures in Mrs. Rooney’s room. They were right there waiting for me. My spinning compass fell still.
Stillness is underrated. Life is loud, and for a lot of kids the chaos that surrounds them isn’t all that great. Fighting parents, jeering bullies, police sirens, moving boxes, absent fathers. In a rushed and hectic world, books stand still. They, in fact, require stillness. Stories ground you in stillness right where you sit, but at the same time take you safely away to other worlds.
Books are faraway places that we can hold in our hands; they are distant adventures, yet they’re right there in our hearts.
As teachers, as librarians, as parents, we get to share so much with children. Knowledge. Humor. Wisdom, maybe. And we get to share books with them. Stories. Books that may grow to mean a great deal to them. Books that might answer questions they’ve been holding too long in their hearts, or make them ask questions they never have before. Books that may make them feel things that are utterly new and yet achingly familiar. Books that make them think, books that make them feel. Or maybe books that do nothing but make them laugh…and is there absolutely anything wrong with that? Is there really too much kid laughter in the world?
It’s a wonderful gift, being able to share books with kids.
I am so sorry about your dog, Lupe. Here…try this book, Love that Dog. I think you’ll love it.
I know sometimes you feel trapped and alone, Jason. Why don’t you read The One and Only Ivan…I hope it’ll mean as much to you as it does to me.
Michael, you sure seem kind of down today. Know what I think you need? A little Captain Underpants therapy.
A new student arrived at my school this year. She was quiet, she was unsure, she was very far from the home she’d known.
In her first day at the library, I was showing her around a little bit, her uncertain eyes scanning the library shelves. Then her breath caught. She reached up and softly, lovingly touched the spine of a book.
“Oh,” she whispered. “Charlotte’s Web! I read this at my old school. I love it. You have it here, too?”
And then, for the first time since she’d arrived, she smiled.
I knew, exactly and personally, how she felt.
That book was not just a story about a pig and spider. It was a little piece of home – a little piece of home that she will be able to find wherever she goes. If she moves again, and again, and finds herself again and again in a new home and a new town like I did, she’ll always be able to walk into whatever new school she arrives at and find that book on the library shelves. It’ll always be there for her. An old friend. And there’s nothing a new kid needs more than an old friend. That’s the truth.
And now, in addition to being a teacher-librarian, I have the privilege of being a writer. A writer of a book for kids, a book that will actually find a home on library shelves in different schools, in different towns, in different states. And that feels amazing. Because in so many ways, I’m still that new kid, that quiet kid looking for a piece of home on those library shelves. And now, in some places, my book will be there.
And somewhere, maybe, some new kid on their first day at a scary new school might see my book and smile and say, “Hey. I read that book at my old school. They have it here, too.”
And that kid will know what I learned as a kid, and what I bet everyone reading this knows:
Books are not just things. They are worlds that we can always come home to.
Dan Gemeinhart is an elementary teacher-librarian. He lives with his wife and three young daughters in Cashmere, WA. The Honest Truth, his debut middle grade novel, comes out this month from Scholastic Press. You can connect with him on Facebook, on his website (www.dangemeinhart.com), and on Twitter (@dangemeinhart).