Myself on the Shelf by Robb Pearlman
The library was an eleven-minute walk from my house. I know this because I just Googlemapped it and the Internet doesn’t lie about my childhood. Much. But to my kindergarten-aged self, it felt like an eleven-hour walk. Eleven days in the summer, which was when my mother and I walked it most often. Eleven months if you count carrying the bags overflowing with books to and from home. So basically it took well over a year to walk to and from the library. But I didn’t mind. Much.
Back then (like now), I was what you’d call “indoorsy;” and also back then, Brooklyn summers (like Brooklyn winters now) were blisteringly hot. Rather than frolic in the park, I much preferred whiling away the hours of my summer vacations lounging on the floor directly in front of the air conditioner, pouring over anything and everything I could read. Mom and Dad knew that the best way to keep my brain occupied and my skin as pale as possible was to visit the library for a constant influx of new reading material. Or re-reading material if I found something I really liked, which I usually did. Hence the Appalachian Trail-like treks to and from the library.
It may have been because I had (and still have) little upper body strength, but I remember the library door as being really difficult to open. Of course, it may also have been because I was so excited to be there I was pushing instead of pulling—it doesn’t really matter—the point is that once I was able, with my mother’s help, to open the door, I was blown back not just by the blast of arctic air conditioning bursting forth into the sweltering summer streets, but by the sheer volume of readable things kept fresh by the florescent lights, and tidy by the fastidious librarians. It was always an overwhelming experience. I was so proud of my brand new library card that I walked around with it, like an ID card, eager to explore the spines lined up neatly on the shelves. For some reason, I headed straight to the Hardy Boys books. Maybe it was because they all looked so nice together- all of their blue spines faced out, like a giant Lego block sitting on a shelf. Though I was an advanced reader, Mom suggested I try something a little easier, perhaps something in the picture book section. But I insisted, so Mom and the librarian bargained with me: if I could read a few pages aloud from the book I could borrow it, and any other Hardy Boys book. I agreed, and began my oration. Unfortunately the boys encountered a “motorcycle” in the first or second paragraph and I was stumped. My dream of taking Frank and Joe home was deferred to another day.
Persuaded to find a book that was a bit more appropriate to my (ahem…advanced-for-my-age) reading level, I found myself in the picture book section, and found where I wanted to be. The way the words and the pictures worked together- helping each other tell the story; each making their individual points without drawing attention away from the other; designed and presented to form a whole that was so much more than the sum of its parts. It was there I first saw The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Caps for Sale, The Cat in the Hat. In retrospect, I may have been placed in front of the Dewey Decimal-organized books about millinery. Nevertheless, it was there, in the picture book section of the library where I first saw shelved, in a collection of enormous quantity and variety, the names of men and women from all over the world who wrote all of those books. The names themselves sounded magical: Dr. Seuss, Esphyr Slobodkina, Crockett Johnson. Each was an incantation that, when spoken, could conjure up a book—a world—of their own. How amazing. How lucky was I?
And today, when I go into a library, I still push when I should pull, which is embarrassing. And to the thrill of my kindergarten self, I can not only read all of the Hardy Boys, which is nice, but I get to see my name on a shelf, too. How amazing. How lucky am I?
Robb Pearlman is the author of Groundhog’s Day Off, Leaf Dance and Passover is Here!, as well as many adult books including Fun with Kirk and Spock, 101 Ways to Kill a Zombie, Spoiler Alert!, and Nerd Haiku. He is currently an Associate Publisher at Rizzoli, where he edits pop culture and children’s interest books. He lives in northern New Jersey. Visit him online at www.robbpearlman.com and on Twitter at @msmazeppa.