I collect them, write them, read them, and talk about them.
When I was 15 in Worland, Wyoming, I spent summer nights bike riding with my alter ego, Autumn, on County Lanes, conversing about books. Quintessential nerds, I know. Moonlight highlighted the fields of sugar beets, the taste of mosquito spray tangible in the air, and, the deep, philosophical discussions we had about books such as East of Eden by John Steinbeck nourished us, taking us to different worlds than the one we felt we were stuck in. Our conversations swirled around muddled concepts of good versus evil, cycles that can’t be broken, and the way Steinbeck wrote. It’s still one of my favorite stories, flavored heavily by the echo of my life at that time.
It’s no surprise then that I became an English teacher and teacher-Librarian. Now, I work in a high school library and connect people to those perfect book matches that lead to a love of stories. Voracious readers, like me, are easy. Those students come to the circulation desk with armfuls of books, eager to share and connect over characters, twists, and the beauty of words. The library is their haven. It’s the readers who, in 9th or 10th grade, haven’t found their perfect book who are a challenge. When I help them, I pepper them with questions…”Have you ever read a book you liked? Is there a book that was read to you that you liked? What did you like about it? The action? A character?” Any answer gives me a thread to grab and pull it. If a student says they liked Hatchet by Gary Paulsen because of wilderness survival element, I’ll recommend The Living by Matt de la Peña or Ashfall by Mike Mullin. Or, I’ll steer them toward a non-fiction survival story. I’m careful to assess reading skills. I’m careful to encourage them to read the first couple of chapters and, if the book doesn’t resonate with them, to come back. But, sometimes students can’t come up with one book that they have a connection with. So, I probe further, slip questions about favorite types of movies, hobbies, or interests into our conversation. Sometimes I can suggest a book that triggers a desire for more books. That was the case with Jaime. She had never read a book when she came to me in her 9th grade year. We found a perfect match. She came back in delighted that she had finished a book. When one of the other ladies I work with asked her if she could help, she said no, that she needed to talk to the blonde librarian as she pointed to me. I made a bookmark for her with her next potential books so she could check them out even if I wasn’t around. By the end of the year, she had read 4 books. I half-teased her that she would soon be reading all of the books in the library, but she responded back seriously with a comment that it was all because of me. I sent a postcard home to her house, telling her parents that I wished I had a whole building of Jaimes. I now look forward to seeing her excited face as she engages with books, her world changing because of them.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact books that opened the world for me, but I remember my older sister Chrissy laying in bed with Dick and Jane primers teaching me to read. Our fingers sliding under words, limbs tangling, and heads touching. I remember Mrs. Billie Merz reading Sounder by William H. Armstrong to our 5th grade class. Heads resting on our square, brown desks as her raspy voice filled the air with the plight of a poor family and their loyal dog, a world I didn’t recognize but one that I wanted to change. I remember in college being unable to set down As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. The brightness of the morning sun lighting goose bumps on my skin as I fell into the minds of characters, piecing together their stories as the trek continued, vultures, burdens, and dysfunctional chaos hindering but not stopping them. I remember Lanark by Alasdair Gray, his 20 year epic novel in the making, creating Glaswegian cultural shadows of my year as an exchange student at Strathclyde University.
Which stories reverberate with you?