Losing and Finding Yourself in the Library by Jessie Sima
As I write this, my debut picture book, Not Quite Narwhal, is on the brink of publication. There’s so much to be excited about and thankful for, and I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reflecting on what brought me here. The truth is, I didn’t grow up dreaming of being an author-illustrator or a storyteller of any kind, but when I think about what books meant to me early on and how my love of them has grown over time, it feels obvious that I should find myself here now. Not obvious that I would be able to make this into a career – such things are never a given – but that my interests would fit together in a way that made picture books my favorite medium.
Many of my earliest book related memories were made with my grandpa. He retired right around the time I was born, which freed him up to spend the kind of time with me that he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. While my older brothers were in school and my parents were at work, he and I would often set out on a journey to the public library. I grew up in a small town, and the walk to the library felt like the start of an adventure. Once we arrived, we would spend hours at a time there, reading (sometimes the same books over and over again), playing (with their awesome Fisher Price Zoo), and aimlessly browsing shelf after shelf of books. My grandpa and I would wander through the aisles together (not confining ourselves specifically to the children’s section) and pick out anything that caught our eyes. He’d point out one of his favorites, like Alice in Wonderland. I’d pull down a book with an interesting animal on the cover. A narwhal, perhaps.
I was introduced to many memorable, even life-changing books during that time (The Stinky Cheese Man and The Last Unicorn come to mind), but I can’t emphasize enough the effect that just being given the permission to explore in the library had on me. No one told me which books I should read or check out. My grandpa never insisted that a book was “too young” or “too old” for me. He never referred to anything as a “girl book” or a “boy book.” I was just allowed to look, and to decide for myself what kinds of books were exciting, and which made me feel like I was understood. I even had my own library card, and that felt like a special kind of independence all on its own.
That’s part of the magic of libraries, they are spaces that are more than the sum of their individual books. There, surrounding the books you know you’re looking for, are some that you’ve never heard of, but that are perfect for you. It’s a sense of possibility. Like there are hidden gems buried between covers, and pages, and maybe some dust. That’s the feeling I took with me into adulthood, and it’s the reason I still wander through library aisles, even when I have books at home. Even when I’m not looking for anything in particular.
I’m lucky enough to live right next door to a library now, and I look forward to the moment when I can walk inside and find Not Quite Narwhal on the shelves. I hope some curious kids will find it (maybe pulling it off the shelf because of the interesting animal on the cover) and take a chance on what’s inside. But whatever book they happen to pick up, I hope it is of their own choosing, and that they find a story that makes them feel understood.
Jessie Sima is an author/illustrator living and working in New York City. She grew up in a small town in Southern New Jersey, unaware that she was a storyteller. Once she figured it out, she told her family and friends. They took it quite well. Not Quite Narwhal (Simon & Schuster BFYR) is her debut picture book. You can find Jessie online at www.jessiesima.com.