April 06

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Books: My Connecting Thread by Christine McDonnell

I can’t imagine my life without books. I am a reader, writer, teacher, librarian, bookbinder, and bookseller— books connect them all.

In grade school in the 1950s, at the beginning of every year we were given school books to bring home and cover with brown paper from grocery bags. My best friend and I always read the year’s reader cover to cover that first afternoon. Then I had to endure hearing each classmate read one sentence, one student at a time, row by row. With over fifty kids in my parochial school class I had plenty of time before it was my turn. I always had a real book hidden in place behind the assigned reader.

In third grade I was reading Toby Tyler; Six Weeks with the Circus, the book tucked behind schoolbooks. When Mr. Stubbs, the monkey, died, I hid my face behind the books and wiped my eyes with the cuff of my uniform blouse. That close call didn’t stop me from sneaking in books to read during those years in crowded classrooms.

After college I went right to library school and became a children’s librarian. The first children’s room I was in charge of was at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library, in the South Bronx. It was a venerable Carnegie library building. In the early 1970s the neighborhood was called Fort Apache.

The children’s room occupied the whole second floor, with huge windows on three sides that pivoted, letting in the sun and wind all summer. Round radiators with marble tops warmed the room in winter.

The Mott Haven neighborhood was alive with children. They came trooping up the stairs and fanned out into the space and light of that gracious room. The senior clerk, a warm and talented neighborhood woman named Caroline Williams, took me in hand and I happily followed her lead.

“We need some diapers up here,” Caroline told me. So we had diapers.

“We can get free lunches for these kids in the summertime,” she instructed. So we had lunches provided by a city program.

My favorite memory of Caroline Williams was the time she said, “I’m calling up some families we haven’t seen in awhile, telling them we’ve got a new librarian now.”

Soon children arrived with armloads and boxes of books, all overdue of course. Mrs. Williams kept piling them on a book cart, thanking the kids for finding them. We never asked where the books had been, or questioned their condition. We welcomed those children and they joined the crowd of regulars.

I have so many memories of the Mott Haven library:

—showing a luminous new print of “The Red Balloon” to a room filled with three hundred children. We gasped together at the brilliant colors, and the image of the boy carried by the balloons above the harsh Parisian neighborhood.

—learning to make puppets with Pura Belpre and watching her bring Perez and Martina to life with the smallest gesture of a puppet’s head or hand.

—snowy winter afternoons when children sat near the huge round radiators, the snow on their coats turning to steam.

— two young men approaching me an an empty subway platform. Rather than asking for my wallet, one said, “Are there any films this week, lady?” They recognized me from the library!

I received an education at the Mott Haven branch library, tutored by Caroline Williams and the children. Keep the doors open, keep the children coming, make everyone welcome. Share the sun, the breezes, the warm, round radiators. And of course the books!

It’s not surprising that I would make a librarian the hero of a book. In When the Babies Came to Stay, four babies arrive mysteriously on a small island with notes attached to their blankets asking for safety. What to do with them? The librarian “who usually knew the answers to questions” raises them in her home above the library. When the children bring her questions asked by other village children—why do you live in the library? why don’t you look alike? where are you really from?— the librarian has an answer: families don’t always look alike and where we’re going is more important than where we came from. When the Babies Came to Stay is a story about welcoming the stranger.

Make everyone welcome was a goal of Kip Tiernan, the subject of my book, Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and the founding of Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women. In the early 1970s, in Boston, Kip Tiernan noticed that women experiencing homelessness had to dress like men to get food and shelter. Shelters were only for men. Officials told her “homelessness isn’t a women’s problem.” But Kip saw women on the streets with nowhere to go. She dreamed of opening a shelter just for women “a sanctuary with flowers and music where women wouldn’t be reminded they were poor, a shelter with no chores, no questions, just good food and warm beds.”

I taught ESL at Rosie’s Place, the sanctuary that Kip opened, until the pandemic began. Since then I’ve been living in Vermont. I write every day, not always at the same time. Like reading, writing yields surprises, unexpected twists in plot or new characters appearing. When I read I try not to look at the ending and in writing I find it best not to jump ahead or force a conclusion. Just show up and see what happens. Don’t judge. When a friend was struggling to finish his thesis his advisor told him, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” That’s what I tell myself. Revision is a different process.

I’m always reading, often several books at a time: ARCs from the bookstore; books from the library; books recommended by friends; books discovered by writers in my critique group…. I can’t imagine a life without books or a life without writing. How dull that would be!

IMG_0437Christine McDonnell is the author of many books for young readers, including When the Babies Came to Stay, illustrated by Jeanette Bradley, and Goyangi Means Cat, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. She is a longtime teacher and librarian and has taught English to immigrant women at Rosie’s Place.