Everyday I Write the Book

Books have been a constant in my life. My earliest memory of discovering a book on my own happened when I was 5 or 6. We were visiting my cousins in Raynham, Mass. when I slipped into my youngest cousin’s bedroom to get away from the noise and delirium of eight children in the family room. I was sitting on his bed and scanning the room when my eyes lighted on his book shelves. I went over and after browsing for a bit I grabbed Babar, then went back to his bed to read it. The memory of looking through that book is indelibly etched on my mind. I can see myself so clearly – lying down with my legs up on the headboard, totally entranced by the sun-drenched book perched on my belly. Every page was a revelation, and from that moment on I was hooked.

I don’t remember exactly what I read next as a little kid, but it wasn’t long before I had discovered Roald Dahl. Matilda was smart like me, The BFG was extremely kind, and Willy Wonka’s world was endlessly fascinating. Next I dove into The Wizard of Oz books – I inhaled all 15 of them. I liked Baum’s Oz much more than the Hollywood version – it was a real place, and eventually Dorothy went back and ruled the kingdom along with Ozma. I liked that she earned her place based on merit rather than by simply being pretty and marrying a prince. Baum was a bit ahead of his time in this regard, I think.

My mother was an avid reader, and every Saturday she let my brother Michael and me ride our bikes to Cedarbrae Public Library. It was a large, airy space with huge windows all around. You got to the children’s section in the basement via a spiral metal staircase – so cool! The books were housed on shelves around the perimeter of the room, and in the centre was a large circular area filled with beanbag chairs. Kids of all shapes and sizes would sprawl out on this marvellous mound and read at their leisure. Hanging out in the library was almost as good as being able to take three different books home every week. 

Mum also bought me a new book at Coles once a month. I was always drawn to books with strong female protagonists such as the Oz series and Island of the Blue Dolphins. My absolute favourite heroine was the title character in Harriet the Spy. Harriet is not only very smart, she is also extremely disciplined and mature. She has special gear and a particular spying route she follows on a daily basis. She speaks her mind and has good friends despite her sometimes tactless honesty. Harriet reminded me very much of myself, and helped me feel okay about being blunt and opinionated. I still love Harriet to this day.

My tastes changed as I got older, and by the time I was in grade 6 I had fallen in love with mysteries. I devoured all of Agatha Christie’s novels, admiring Poirot’s cool certainty and adoring Miss Marple’s ditsyness. Next came all of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I liked because they painted a realistic picture of Victorian England and because of Holmes’s shear brilliance (or should I say Conan Doyle’s?) I was so fascinated with late 19th Century Britain that I immediately immersed myself in the works of Charles Dickens. I loved the way things always tied up so neatly at the end of his novels, and his character names alone were worth the price of admission. Names like Mr. Fezziwig, Dick Swivelled and Luke Honeythunder – just fantastic.

By high school I had moved on to Kurt Vonnegut, still one of my all-time favourites. His books are simultaneously poignant and hilarious – an amazing feat for any author. I was introduced to Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood by my English teachers, and loved Shakespeare’s work from my first reading of Romeo and Juliet in grade 9. There were some books I had to read which I didn’t like. I found A Separate Peace incredibly boring, and Wuthering Heights didn’t contain a single character I liked or cared about in the least. All the other girls were gaga for Heathcliff, but to me he seemed a self-involved and cruel dick. Sure he is intense and brooding, but he hangs Isabella’s dog for crying out loud!

It’s no surprise that I spent most of my working life in libraries, given my childhood love affair with books. I started as a library clerk at Locke Library in Toronto’s north end when I was 20. The head of the branch was a rigid, unpleasant woman named Helen MacNeil. Miss MacNeil had never been married but some years previously had delivered a child out of wedlock whom she immediately gave up for adoption. I mention this only because I thought maybe this experience explained her bitterness and cruelty. She delighted in intimidating young pages (students who work part-time after school shelving books), and tried to pit her employees against each other for her own amusement. She was just a misery all the way around.

I have a lot of difficulty with authority at the best of times, but if my boss is in any way tyrannical I become completely intransigent. I know my rights and I will not be moved! I had a colleague at Locke named Carol. This was 1981 so hippies were long gone, but Carol never got the memo. She regularly wore loose fitting long skirts, woven tie-dyed shirts, and a fringed leather vest. Sometimes she even wore a headband. Being a hippy made Carol deeply and unshakeably wary of authority, so she and I got along very well. I remember one time our immediate supervisor, a lovely lady from Trinidad name Daphne, took Carol and me into a room. Evidently Miss MacNeil had been treating Daphne badly in response to our non-compliance, and Daphne asked if we could please be nicer for her sake. Carol and I both liked and respected Daphne, so we bit the bullet and behaved better for as long as we could stand it. Eventually Miss MacNeil made a naive new clerk cry, and that’s when Carol and I both reneged on our promise to Daphne and fell back into our old, defiant ways. 

Locke Library is at the corner of Yonge and Lawrence, a well established monarchist stronghold in Toronto. The local Monarchist Society held their meetings in the branch and housed their documents there as well. One of the library technicians at Locke was Sylvia Thewlis – an immigrant from somewhere in the north of England. She had an accent which in her home country would have be considered working class, but Canadians have a less discerning ear and the ladies in the Monarchist Society thought Sylvia was just the bee’s knees. She lorded her stature with the society over all of us lowly colonials and was an absolute toady to Miss MacNeil. She spied and tattled on us, and overall was an absolutely despicable woman. 

I was desperate to get out of Locke because of Sylvia and Miss MacNeil, and eventually managed to land a job at the Yorkville branch. I made some good friends at Yorkville, loved the location, and found the clientele much more interesting. There was one guy who was always waiting when we opened the doors at 10:00. He would ask for a large piece of clear tape and the bathroom key, then disappear into the men’s for about 10 minutes. We often speculated on exactly what he was doing in there, but none of us was brave enough to ask him what the tape was for. We also had a women who came in all the time who was so profoundly mentally ill that she regularly twisted large chunks of hair off her head. She wasn’t loud or bothersome, but I felt very sorry for her.

The most heartbreaking regular we had was an old blind man who often came in to use the facilities and then would just sit for hours on the front steps. One day, after several months of him doing this, a middle aged woman came in. She hesitantly approached the desk and asked in a halting voice if we had ever seen an old blind man hanging around. At just that moment her quarry entered the building and made his way over to ask for the gent’s key. The woman stared at him the whole time and moved out of his way when he got to the desk. She silently watched with tears in her eyes as he went to the bathroom and then again as he made his way out of the building. Once he was gone she told us that he was her father and had simply walked away from his life and family after her mother had died some months previously. He had warned them not to look for him; that he knew what he was doing and just wanted to be left alone. She came to the branch several times after that but always respected his wishes and never once approached him – she just needed to make sure he was okay. What a good daughter.

My husband and I went travelling for several months after I left Yorkville, and I got a job at the film library in the Albert Campbell branch in Scarborough when we came back to Toronto. I was pregnant with my son by then so only stayed in the job for about 7 months, but I really enjoyed it. Those were the days when public libraries lent out 16mm films and equipment to schools and other organizations on request. I liked researching titles and putting together groups of films to meet the needs of our clientele, and working with the films generally. It was a nice change from always working with books. By the time I left I was supervisor, so I got some useful scheduling and management experience while I was there as well. I regularly screened newly acquired films with the staff to keep us all abreast of the collection and allow us to make educated recommendations to customers. This was exactly the time when Pixar came into existence, and their first short film was called Tin Toy. We were all blown away by the animation and I knew they were going to be big, which begs the question of why didn’t I invest in the company, dammit!

My next library job came three years later, after we had moved from Toronto to the small village of Millbrook. Peterborough is a small city located about twenty minutes from Millbrook, and I landed a job spending half of my time on the adult reference desk and the other half in the children’s department at Peterborough’s main branch. It was a dream job for me. I loved working reference because it could be really challenging to find the exact information a patron requested, and consequently extremely satisfying when you finally laid your hands on it. One time a guy came in with a query about the respective populations of Canada and America. I found the information for him in an almanac, and as we looked up from the page he turned to me and said, “Well, you just cost me a hundred bucks.” Another time a rather distressed teenage boy came to the desk saying he’d spent ages at the computer looking for a book and simply couldn’t find it. I went over to the terminal with him and asked the name of the book, to which he replied “How to Kill a Mockingbird.” I guess he thought it was some kind of manual.  

The only duty I didn’t like at Peterborough Library was having to run toddler time. I was okay doing story time with older kids, but I didn’t have an affinity for the really little ones. I always felt a bit foolish pretending to enjoy singing and reading in front of them. Every session ended with the babies just lying there like lumps, leaving me singing Where is Thumbkin? to a bunch of strung-out, sleep deprived young women. Much more to my taste was arranging for guest speakers to give talks in the library. Dennis Lee signed posters for his then latest poetry collection The Ice Cream Shoppe, and Barbara Reid laid out the nuts and bolts of illustrating with plasticine. Both of them were excellent presenters and very nice people.

I left Peterborough when I was eight months pregnant with my daughter. When she was a year old I landed the job as librarian of the maximum security prison on the edge of my village. My library work there was minimal as most of my time was taken up with reading, censoring and organizing incoming prisoner mail. I’ve written in the past about my time in this job and the many extremely tense situations which I endured. Needless to say I was overjoyed when I could finally afford to leave it and go back to university for my Bachelor of Education.

The last 14 years of my career were spent as the teacher/librarian of an elementary school in Peterborough. I was happy to finally be in charge of a collection which I could weed and build according to my own perception of what was needed. I loved my space, as it included a story pit consisting of two wide circular steps leading down to the area where I sat in my big, comfy chair and read to the children. It was essentially a stage recessed into the library floor, and its design allowed the kids to see me and the pictures in the book I was reading without having to shift around or go up on their knees. As long as everyone stayed seated, everyone could see. This arrangement also allowed me to see all of them, so I could make eye contact as I read and easily spot any misbehaviour which needed correcting.

Reading to the kids was my absolute favourite part of the job. I loved changing my voice – pace, volume and pitch – to enhance the impact of a story. I also did lots of accents, and although none of them was terribly good, they were all good enough for the children. There were many occasions when the kids inadvertently made me aware that I was having an effect on my audience, but I’ll mention just two here for the sake of brevity. The first occurred when I was reading a rather spooky book to the grade 5s. At one point I looked up to see that the three girls sitting directly in front of me all had their hands up to their faces and were staring at me with wide eyes through splayed fingers – a technique usually reserved for watching scary movies. The second happened when I was reading Matilda to the grade 3s. I had just read the section where Matilda loses her temper with Miss Trunchbull after being falsely accused of putting a newt in the water jug. Two girls were walking in front of me as we left the story pit, and one turned to the other and said “I didn’t know Matilda could yell that loud.” 

I feel fortunate to have spent my professional life surrounded by books, and extremely gratified to have inspired and fostered a love of reading in so many children. Books can educate and entertain. They can introduce us to magical characters and locations that could never be, and help us understand people and places that existed in times which will never come again. They are passports to whole worlds, and illuminate the human condition. While all of these things are true, the thing I like best about books is their constancy. They have been my life-long companions, and I love them dearly.

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