Check Out My Friends
Growing up as a serious reader, my first friends were literally characters
I am lucky-number-seven and have just entered into both the first grade and what will become a lifelong contract with myself: In exchange for the many hours I am required to sit in front of a computer learning how to type, I will be rewarded with a book.
I sigh, clamping my jaw to keep myself from asking the Computer Lab chaperone — again — how much longer until story time. I glance up at the clock on the wall. I’m still not entirely confident I know how to tell how much time has passed, but I like staring at it, anyway. All the clocks in our school are identical. As we’re shuffled from one classroom to the next — to the gym, to the art and music rooms, even to the bathrooms — the same clock hanging in the same position in each new location gives off an illusion of consistency. It stills me in space, if not time.
My elementary school is more modern and architecturally interesting than you might expect once you learn I hail from Maine. Perhaps, at first, you’d imagine a one-room schoolhouse. We had those. But my elementary school was an emblem of well-spent taxpayer money. An investment in the future, a better one. A promise that parents in the community probably took to heart when they sent their kids off to learn in the very same classroom, with the very same teacher, that they had not quite a lifetime ago.
The school had two stories. The “little kid” grades, pre-K through the second grade, were downstairs, along with the offices and shared spaces like the gym and cafeteria. Upstairs, there were a few offices and the “big kid” classrooms: third-fifth grade.
The only place that lived in the space between, bridging little and big, young and old, then and now, here and there, was the library. In terms of the building’s layout, the space was somewhat of a focal point, as it should be. When you stepped through the front doors into the school’s lobby, you were greeted with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked into the library. Well, if you could see past the spiral staircase.
Which was as magical as it sounds. It still is, to me, even now.
If you were to walk through the lobby and duck into the library, which was around a somewhat inexplicably tight and dark corner, you’d first have to bypass the adjacent room known as the Computer Lab, which also possessed a certain cave-like quality.
Then there was a small office for the librarian and the desk for checking out books. Mrs. Morse was always chicly dressed; she spoke with an animated lilt that seemed almost too bodacious for the sacred, silent space of the library. And she always wore that particular-to-adult-women fragrance I’ll remember forever but never know the name of.
The library’s overall aesthetic was warm and lovely: mauve and burgundy carpeting with some cobalt blue accents, wood paneling, and these enormous — again, floor-to-ceiling — windows that overlooked a courtyard, beyond which lay the playground (and equipment that shared a color scheme with the school). In front of those windows was a small set of carpeted bleachers that we would sit on during story time in an almost round-the-hearth fashion.
I preferred to sit on the floor. Not so I could sprawl or snooze, but because after Mrs. Morse finished reading to us she would begin to pick us off one by one, freeing us to go look at books. The quietest, most well-behaved story time sitter would be among the first granted permission to peruse.
I would stare at her with such need, such silent desperation, that I don’t think she felt she had a choice but to point a slender finger at me fairly quickly. Fearing perhaps that I would run out of air if she waited too long.
That’s how it felt, too, whether in the computer lab or seated in front of those big, warm windows. A shortness of breath. And that’s how I read; as though my life depended on it. Maybe it did.
The hows and whys of the world fascinated me, and I sought books that would help me understand them.
Even at that age, I was not particularly interested in fiction or stories. I liked nonfiction, or fiction that resembled it. The Magic School Bus was a well-loved series, as were the American Girl books, or the Royal Diaries, or Dear America. I liked tales that were based on true stories, inspired by actual events that I could continue to learn about because they existed beyond the realm of a single storybook.
The present, not to mention the future, troubled me deeply. These were fluid, moving targets. History seemed like a still photo, while I was living in a movie. The future, meanwhile, was more like a silent film: I could see how things might happen but without some of the necessary details that would have put me at ease. Not to mention the ever-present threat of a script being rewritten or roles being recast.
I felt calmed by what I perceived history to be: a linear, organized passage of time. Besides, so many things had already happened that I felt I’d never run out of interesting people, places, and events to read about. The past had everything, and I yearned to know it all.
Almost from the start, I was beholden to reference books and encyclopedias. An accepted practice in adult life, but an incongruous and impractical trait in a first grader. My flimsy plastic Skydancer backpack couldn’t accommodate the densely bound volumes, so I accepted abridged versions.
I devoured the Eyewitness series, Janice Vancleave’s “science for every kid” collection, and Seymour Simon’s gorgeous books about the universe.
The hows and whys of the world fascinated me, and I sought books that would help me understand them. I would later learn that fiction, too, has its way of answering such queries. But as a little girl who never felt that she had enough time, I inhaled information. Hoarded it. Insulated myself with it. And honestly, found the most pure, private joy in it.
I was a child raised hungry; never enough food, never enough love. But I found satiety and strength in knowledge. Both the quest for it and the acquisition of it became a fundamental part of who I am, defining my experience of living. The wonder and joy of reading didn’t just stimulate my appetite and nourish me in my formative years. It has, at many turns, kept me alive.
I’m never truly satisfied, though. There’s always a hunger. Once I realized there were other libraries in the world and that they had some of the same books, but also many more, I knew I’d never live long enough to read my fill.
I became aware of these limitations back in that Maine schoolhouse with the unforgettable library, always knowing that above my head was an entire world of books I had never seen. The library’s second level, reserved for the fourth and fifth graders, was a tantalizing Schrödinger’s box I wanted to disappear into, never to be seen again.
It was law of the land that the upstairs was for Big Kids Only, but playground lore stated that sometimes younger kids could go upstairs if they were “advanced” readers. I was, if I were anything, an advanced reader. But I was also distraught at the thought of asking and being rejected. So I kept my mouth shut and continued to haul around my copy of the 1997 Guinness Book of World Records like a security blanket while staring longingly at that spiral staircase.
The day of my ascent was a most unexpected reckoning. A small handful of us were plucked from our favorite corners and ceremoniously plopped down in front of those winding stairs. I still remember the dizzying sensation of climbing them, my hand sliding along the cool bannister, the world disappearing beneath my feet and then, as though waking up from a hazy, too-warm nap, emerging into a new one. Like breaking through the atmosphere.
I had been forewarned by Mrs. Morse that although the grown-up reference books and encyclopedias were upstairs, I could not check them out of the library. I could, however, look at them as long as I pleased while I was there. If memory serves, by the time I graduated fifth grade I’d made it up to about “R,” savoring every entry like a taste plate. Most of the other kids were drawn to the chapter books. I was a bit dismayed to realize they were nearly all fiction. It wasn’t that I was completely opposed to reading fiction — some of the books did look pretty interesting, especially the ones with kids who turned into animals — but it mostly felt like they were written in a language I didn’t speak.
Fiction addressed an appetite I hadn’t yet figured out how to satisfy: companionship.
In particular, the stories told from multiple perspectives unsettled me. Reading them required a shift, or adaptation, reminded me too much of how it felt to constantly keep an eye on all the adults in my life who were prone to sudden acts of violence and disappointment. Still, my curiosity and physical and metaphorical malnourishment got the better of me. I approached the stacks with my fragile willingness and some cautiously optimistic bravery that, 20 years later, it would do me good to recapture.
But on that particular day, as I entered into the realm of upper-story books, my appetite for fiction was whet. While information — vitamins, if you will — fed some hungers in me, fiction addressed an appetite I hadn’t yet figured out how to satisfy: companionship.
I remember, then, grasping the depth of that need. Of that loneliness. I began to experience vertigo, as I had climbing the stairs earlier, except now it was coming from a disoriented place inside of me. Many of those places are still, 20 years on, trying to sort themselves out. In the years between, I befriended the girls from the pages of many books: Jo March. Anne Shirley. Scout Finch. Coraline Jones. Sarah Crewe. Madeline. Nancy Drew. Harriet the Spy. Girls like me who saw too much of the world and stuck around anyway.
When our time was up and my fellow chosen-ones tumbled back down over the stairs, arms full of advanced reading, I leaned over the railing and watched as they scattered back into the world we’d left behind. As they showed off their picture-less books to our classmates, it hit me: for the first time in my young life, I was going to leave the library empty-handed. Empty.
I felt Mrs. Morse’s presence next to me before she spoke. I couldn’t look at her. I felt my face flush with what might have been shame. At the very least, a deep disappointment.
“I can’t believe you didn’t find a single book,” she said softly. No hint of accusation in her voice, just bewilderment, a tinge of worry.
I shrugged, trying to think of something to say. I probably uttered my usual refrain: “I’ve already read it,” trying to provide an explanation but not feeling entirely sure I even understood what had come over me.
Whether Mrs. Morse noticed or understood the turmoil that had welled up in me in that moment, I don’t know. But what she did next assures me that, at the very least, she sensed that I no longer felt at home in the one place I had always felt welcome and safe. Her patience in making sure that was restored before we left the upper echelon, that heavenly space, is one of the greatest kindnesses anyone has ever given me.
She walked me over to a corner where a collection of books was lined up on one of those spinning, wire display racks. She set it spinning like a roulette, then stopped it suddenly, plucking a book from it like a ripe plum.
“I think you’ll like this one,” she said as she proffered it to me.
Several decades and many encyclopedias of my very own later, I would write and publish my first book. The first time I held it, it felt so heavy in my hands. Included in the collection of chapter epigraphs was a quote from a book I’d read as a little girl. It had been handed to me in power, both a sword and a shield, by a wise librarian on the very first day I’d set foot in the kingdom of fictionland.
That book had done for me what I hoped my book might do for others: it understood me and promised me that I was not alone. It was a story about a little girl named Matilda, who hoped her love of books might save her from a life where she was unloved. In the end, she found her magic was her power. And she used it to save herself.