Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Children's books - an enduring addiction

My mother is a librarian. When I was in my last year at UC Santa Cruz, finishing my double major in Philosophy and German Literature (very practical, yes?), my mom suggested (and I can just imagine how she mentally rehearsed this so as to sound just the right helpful yet nonchalant note) that I consider going to library school after I graduated. "Even if you don't want to become a librarian, that degree will tide you over until you decide what you really want to do."

So canny! She knew I'd be hooked, not by library school itself but by the job. While attending library school, I worked as a "student librarian" at the Los Angeles Public Library, a now-defunct position that allowed me to be page, clerk, and assistant librarian all in one. I attended meetings, worked at the circulation and reference desks, put away thousands of books, and presented my first storytimes.

And somehow, I knew without even thinking about it that I would become a children's librarian. It wasn't the storytimes. It wasn't even the kids (I was remarkably indifferent to kids at the time, being barely grown-up myself). It was the books. Children's books.

As a child, books were my salvation. Not from my circumstances - my family was loving, my community was eccentric and wonderful, my friends were close - but from... my own brain, I suppose. From the beginning, books were a way not only to immerse myself in other worlds, but to escape from a time from the ceaseless churning and worry and analysis of my own mind. Reading was also a way to tune out other people. Ever since I can remember, I've only been able to handle being with my fellow humans (even my most beloved family and friends) for a certain amount of time before I need to get away and soothe my frazzled nerves. Books were and are my drug of choice. I took books with me out to eat with my family, on trips to my grandparents, and even to Disneyland. I was told to "get your nose out of that book" more times than I can count - even my book-loving parents felt that a child should try chatting at the dinner table once in a while.

My childhood relationship with books was so strong, so necessary, so much a part of who I was, that it seems to have created a permanent love for children's literature. At about age 12, I leaped from children's books to adult SF and fantasy and then on to "the classics." At age 22, I began reading children's literature again. I haven't stopped. Most of the books I read are for adults (I'm an addict - I read everything), but if I'm not currently reading a children's book, there are a pile of them in the wings.

Children's books are books that are stripped bare of extraneous stuff - plot fluff, long descriptions, existential meanderings. The focus is on characters - the things they do, the way they think, and the people they encounter. When I read a children's book (and I'm talking about the good ones here), I'm sucked in immediately, the same way I was when I was a child. What is it that is so enthralling? Is it being allowed to experience childhood again, as portrayed by gifted writers who seem to have retained an intimate knowledge of their 9-year-old or 11-year-old selves? Is it that pure, stripped-down quality of the plot and writing? Is it that note of hope at the end? Is it the joy of sharing thousands of books with my own kids and the kids at the library? Or is it just that I'm permanently stuck at age 12? Or is it age 7? I think I fluctuate between the two...

Children's books are some of the best books around. They provide more intense, world-changing, mind-expanding pleasure and thought per word than any other kind of book. Is it the form? Is it the audience? Is it the writers? I have no idea. I just know that it is so.
(Yep, those photos are of me reading, circa 1972 or 1973. My husband says he gets that "don't bother me, I'm reading" look from me on a daily basis)


  1. This is your mother speaking.

    There have been many days when I can't believe my good fortune to have found a career that rewards me for reading, knowing, studying, and teaching children's literature. We talked about this in class yesterday, and I realized that reading the good stuff was one of the most reliable lifelong pleasures I've experienced. Oh sure. There's chocolate, sex, fine food, sublime music, the company of friends and family. But somehow the power of literature is even stronger and more consistent than any of those.

    See "The Reader." It will break your heart.

  2. Wow -you spoke to my heart here, Eva! That's how I feel about children's books, too - but you put it into words for me.

    I studied german literature when I was at university - and it was probably the antithesis of everything I love about kidlit. It is like comparing a fragrant, ripe mango with stodgy cold porridge. I'll leave you to guess which is which!

  3. Okay, "The Reader" is next on my list. (I liked the book...)

    Heh! Although I have to say that those Romantic German writers could get pretty juicy...

  4. In 1972 or 1973 it was hard to take a picture of you when you DIDN'T have a book in your lap. Of course, I loved some of the period details in the snapshots: that insanely primitive record player (not even a Hi fi really), the ash try, that weird wooden knot sculpture, that row of Thomas Mann books on the shelf behind you.

  5. What a fantastic and beautiful post.

  6. This is such a great post. Having rediscovered children's books with my daughter, I'm not sure I'll ever read *just* grownup books again. As for library school ... I will get there someday! Maybe as an example to my daughter about the virtue of college!

  7. I could really relate to this post. I was a very bookish child, too. Though I did not have any librarians or teachers in my family and probably a less happy childhood.

    I fell into library work in high school as volunteer library aid (to get out of study halls.) I was paid to be the student aide one summer. That's when I decided library school was for me.

    Origanally, though, I was a Business major and thought to be a special librarian. I became disillusioned and unhappy as a business major. Friends at the time saw something in me that made them think "children's librarian." I stumbled across Carolyn Feller Bauer's Handbook for Storytellers and I thought, this sounds like fun.

    Like you, it was the books I loved first, then the kids, and I'm still working on the parents and the teachers.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. What I love about blogging (and about reading all my fellow kidlit bloggers) is that we solitary readers get to connect with like-minded souls. Kids who read might also love to know that there are plenty of kids and grown-ups who share their hunger for books.

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Although I'm not a librarian, I probably should have become one after graduating from college. Nowadays, I'm a writer (the next-best-thing?), and so I still get to live with wonderful words.

    My son and I have embarked on a fun project recently to visit and review as many L.A. public libraries as possible. I suppose I just can't stay away from a good set of stacks.

  10. Candace, I love your blog! Your tour of LA-area libraries is inspired (and inspiring). As an LAPL librarian, I'm proud. (I'm no longer at a branch, though I used to be at Robertson, Venice, and many others). Congrats on your upcoming book!

  11. The pictures, especially the one with "the look," are precious. Fun, personal post. Thanks.

  12. Eva, your post was really riveting for me because I have had such a similar experience with books, especially children's books--the idea that my brain was churning and books were a place of clarity and peace, for example. Plus the compact way children's books are written: it reminds me a little of the best poetry. Thank you for this!

  13. I was an alcoholic for 12 years and i was powerless over that and after 12 years now i am sober.This eva's book addiction is also the same so be ware of addiction.Thank you! and keep smiling.(*_*)