"A library implies an act of faith" Victor Hugo
For the past two years I have been part of a group of volunteers helping to keep a public school library open. Philly public school budgets do not allow for full time librarians in most schools, so we are trying to provide the wonders of a library experience for this one school. We read to the kids, help them check out books, weed and re-stock the library, do projects, and try to help the kids experience the joy and sense of discovery libraries can bring. It is great fun, and it has had an unexpected bonus for me. It has allowed me to see close up the wonderful changes the decades have brought to the world of children’s books since my elementary school days. When I was in elementary school there were few books in school libraries and even in the public libraries where I could read about and see people who looked like me. In the 1950’s and the early 1960’s libraries were mostly filled with books about middle class and upper class white people and their lives. A lot of American life was simply not presented. Fortunately, that has changed dramatically, and in the school library I am regularly encountering books with people from a wide variety of ethnic groups, different colors and nationalities, women, and more. There were a whole slew of people not reflected in the books we read in the 1950’s, and I am glad to see how it is all changing. So going to the school library is as much about discovering new things for me as I hope it is for the kids; I am learning as much as, if not more than, they are.
One of my all-time heroes is Benjamin Banneker, a free 18th century black mathematician, astronomer, clockmaker and more who surveyed the marsh that became Washington, DC. I have been fascinated by him for decades. I’ve read several books about him, seen Bob Smith, a wonderful actor and storyteller, give a living history portrayal of him, and visited the wonderful museum built on his MD homestead last year. Recently at the public school library I came across a gorgeous picture and story book, Molly Bannaky, written and illustrated by Chris Soentpiet. I had known that Banneker’s grandmother had been an indentured servant who somehow survived her 7 year indenture, married a slave, and with her husband. turned a small plot land into a 100 acre homestead. But this wonderfully illustrated book about her brings that story to life in a moving and beautiful way, making it clear just how quietly remarkable the family was. There are illustrations showing what it was like to plant and to harvest crops and raise animals and work the land. They are well done and they somehow also convey the sense of togetherness working a farm in the Maryland of the 1700’s demanded. That is beautifully and subtly conveyed. I also loved the ending of the book where she is teaching her young grandson to read. The point is simply made that there is another chapter coming in the life of this remarkable family, and Molly’s literacy is the key that made it possible. Reading Molly Bannaky was a great experience for me. It gave me a greater appreciation of who and what was behind a great person’s life, and I also had the pleasure of sharing my love of Benjamin Banneker with the kids.
I also recently read Patricia McKissacks’ Goin’ Someplace Special, which was based on her memories of growing up in the racially segregated Nashville, TN of the early 1960’s. Richly illustrated by Jerry Pinckney, it is a combination coming of age, memoir, historical, and journey motif book that reminds us of the quiet but important power of family, neighbors, self-worth, and dignity that so many had to demonstrate for so long in the face of so much pain, hatred and danger. The language and the illustrations conveyed so much of both the pain and the strength of the main character’s travels. The book mesmerized me. I cried when I read it for the first time myself, and I cried again when I read it to a rapt class of third graders. It was moving and meaningful to all of us, and we were all taken to a different place and time. I also learned something wonderfully surprising I had not known before about the history of segregation in Nashville that I would not have known had I not read this book. It was another special moment of learning for me, and again, I was able to share it with kids.
Volunteering at the library has been a wonderful experience for me. It has helped bring moments of joy and new experiences to the students, it has helped the teachers with their plans, and it has brought good feeling all around. It has also put me in touch with so many delightful, moving and powerful books that continue to add to my knowledge and fulfill my curiosity. I love the fact that school libraries are and can be places for new learning, mental door openings, and surprises. That is what they were for me so many moons ago, and I am glad to be continuing that tradition.
(recent public school budgets have meant that libraries and librarians in many districts are facing severe cutbacks. Please find out what you can do to support your local public school library, and public libraries as well)