The Best Magic of All: The Power of Libraries

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So this isn’t so much about a specific element of science fiction or fantasy.  Nor is it about a specific book, author or theme.  It has more to do with how I became a reader and fan of these genres.  I think it’s safe to say that these days I’ve a fair knowledge of the field and a strong love of both science fiction and fantasy.  But that wasn’t always the case.  There was a time I didn’t know what these genres were, let alone know I’d be a fan.

Back in those days, while  I might have been exposed to a few fantasy texts, I wasn’t a particular reader of any genre.  My mother read me Charlotte’s Web and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  My teacher assigned us textbook reading with snippets from fantasy stories.  My father had a few dusty old science fiction novels that I scrounged from his shelves like Little Fuzzy.  But what made me a life long fan and skyrocketed my reading besides . . . was the library.

It’s doubtful my mother would have picked up a book about an alien disguised as a skunk . . .

I count myself as lucky.  Growing up we had our library just ten minutes from the house (I could ride my bike there when I got older).  My mother drove me to the library on a regular basis and allowed me to hang out and browse to my heart’s content.  I would sit amid the fiction shelves and pick up one book after another, reading the inside flap and  maybe a page or two, figuring out if I wanted to read more.  The library staff must have been particularly patient with this little bookworm.  I remember strategically moving through bookshelves so that I’d just “miss” my mother looking for me when it was time to go.   I still love remembering that time . . . the muted sounds of voices and hum of the lights overhead . . . the smell of books.

A library card opens the door to so much.  My mom might have tried to give me titles to read–but she wasn’t a fan of science fiction or fantasy.  And while I appreciate her efforts to expose me to The Bridge to Terabithia,  Little House on the Prairie and Island of the Blue Dolphins (all good books, mind you),  it was my own discoveries that were ultimately to color so much of my reading enjoyment.  I still love remembering those times sitting amid the stacks, a place where I could travel anywhere, anywhen and be anyone.  Magic was at my fingertips, outer space and the future just a word away.  Authors like Alfred Slote, Monica Hughes, H. M. Hoover, Pamela Service,  Tamora Pierce, and Diana Wynne Jones fell into my lap and opened doors in my mind that have never closed.   I’d stack my choices up (I was allowed ten at a time) and take them home.

Of course, I was lucky in another way too.  The early 80s were the heyday of children’s science fiction, a sort of golden age where so much of the writing was full of optimism and visions of the future.  The librarians who managed the collection for the children’s department bought a lovely range of materials, and I’m very grateful they did. I meshed with Science Fiction just when it was readily available and being written regularly.  A few years later I discovered they had a whole wall  of science fiction for adults and I thought I’d wandered into heaven.   I never had to spend long periods of time without something new to read.

Part of becoming a fan of a genre is having some way of accessing it, immersing oneself in it and getting familiar with the varied content.  It’s not easy for a kid to do this without something like a library (unless perhaps they have carte blanche with their parent’s credit card).  And–this is key–sometimes browsing is essential to discovery.  I read a lot of stuff that might never have been recommended to me on any list or by any adult.  I read freely the obscure, the popular, the well written and the absolute clunkers–and was welcome to draw my own opinions and love what I enjoyed.  To find something you love on your own is a triumph and a love you never forget.

I know there are fabulous recommendation sites out there, plenty of read-alikes and lots of options on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com for recommendations.  And while those can help, there are always kids who would rather not have anyone tell them what to read.  It’s like discovering something for yourself, a little treasure hunt of words. I’m firm in the belief that if we don’t let kids have the opportunity to choose their own reading, and experience reading pleasure, they’ll routinely see it only as an adult prescribed activity.  And that limits them.  Let’s open the doors wide to reading for our next generation!  Let’s share with them what we love, but let’s also  take them to the nearest public library, dust off that library card (or apply for one) and let them graze the books for themselves.  It really is the best magic of all.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on May 20, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Ruth Guerrier-Pierre

    You remind me of me and the relationship I had ( and still have but in a different way) with the library and books. I remember when I was a kid my heart would jump with excitement when it was time to go to the library. I’d go crazy if I read all the books on my to read pile and had nothing left. It was a powerful need that I had to feed.

    I agree with you in that the best thing that you could ever do is let your child discover what he or she likes and let them be. I remember reading different materials of various genre because I happen to read one book that I liked which lead me to different subjects.

    • It’s the best kind of addiction I can think of! ^_^ I still talk to a few old classmates from grade school and their description of me invariably includes “always had her nose in a book”

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