Recently I met a woman picking through stones on a California beach. She was looking for small flat rocks for an art project for her students. When I asked her what grade she taught she smiled broadly, third grade, she said, for seventeen years. I smiled back, letting her know that my third grade teacher was my all-time favorite. I’d even written a poem about her, “Thank You Mrs. Umbarger, Wherever You Are.” She loved that. We went on to talk about our mutual love of books, reading aloud to children, and how everyone loves to be read to, it seems, no matter what age.
Later that day, as I caught up on bills and emails in the Ventura public library, I couldn’t help but notice who also was there: a family with young children, including a toddler just learning how to walk; an older man who lived in the hills, who needed a copier and help with applications; veterans in another room plugged in to job search websites, and at least one homeless person whose shopping cart full of sleeping gear and plastic bags waited outside the back entrance. Like birds flocking round a fruitful tree, we were all seeking to meet our needs in a safe, welcoming space.
Libraries have become a dying breed in many small towns, with hours and staff cut to bare minimum survival mode. Yet in larger towns like mine back in Oregon, and many other places around the country, libraries are beacons of refuge in unsafe, uncertain times. You will find signs planted in many yards that read, “I Love Our Library” or “A Library Champion Lives Here.” Their message is clear: libraries are worth fighting for. Indeed, literacy itself is worth fighting for.
When I first ventured back to work after eleven years of mothering my four children, I volunteered for a year with our regional literacy council in a rural county in western North Carolina, where we lived at the time. That work led to a part-time job teaching GED classes through the local community college, mostly to young women who’d dropped out of high school to have babies. It was low pay, non-profit work, with girls who smoked liked chimneys, swore like sailors, and fed their kids French fries and Pepsi for breakfast. But they were also endeared themselves to me, in their own unique personalities and hardscrabble lives. Nearly every one of them went on to get their GED, which opened new pathways for better jobs and further education.
Unlike those girls I taught, I grew up in a house full of books and good magazines, with parents whose free time was often spent reading. They both read broadly, and modeled that habit for me and my siblings. If I went to a friend’s house and didn’t see bookshelves, or piles of reading material, it felt like something important was missing. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t waiting to be read to, or reading something myself.
One of the great delights of being a grandmother has been the chance to start the literacy tradition all over again with the next generation, just as I did when my own kids were little. It feels like a great, sumptuous gift that keeps circling back into my life and theirs, this love of books. And of course, grandmas being grandmas, it’s an excuse to hunt down the perfect story for each one, tailored to their ages and interests. Just this month I sent to eastern Washington a “Book Bin Care Package”, a box of five books, one for each grandchild. Ezra Jack Keats’ colorful The Snowy Day, in board book form, went to the youngest, at two-plus. A sweet picture book about three squirrel children who try to get their too busy parents to come outside and go sledding went to the five year old. For the middle two, a girl and a boy who are both emerging readers, came Anne of Green Gables and Who Was Abraham Lincoln?, respectively.
My oldest granddaughter, at twelve, received a book I thought might be a problem for parental approval. But I knew she had the reading skills, and, I hoped, the maturity. Ashes in the Snow tells the story of a teenage girl in 1930’s Stalin era, whose father is sent to prison and the rest of the family to a brutal, freezing labor camp in Siberia. She’s also an artist (like my granddaughter) who finds a secret way to get messages to her father through her art. This young adult novel is based on true stories from survivors of that terrible time. I remember vividly the experience of reading Leon Uris’ Exodus when I was twelve, my first exposure to the horrors of Nazism. I couldn’t put it down, but it took me a good week to recover from what I’d read.
Books offer us windows into other worlds and other lives, even if sometimes those worlds can scare us to death—or show us breathtaking beauty. Both teach us valuable truths. Recent studies propose that reading fiction can increase our sense of empathy. Years ago I read that we are most clearly the person we’ll become as an adult, who we are at our core, at age seven or eight. The article went on to suggest we might find clues to our most fitting career or life’s calling by looking back to what we loved most during those years.
In addition to adoring my third grade teacher, I once read a book by Kate Seredy, called The Good Master. I know I raved about it to my parents, begged them to read it, told them it was the best book I’ve ever read. And I know I chose it from my public school’s library. Recently I found the title again on Powell’s website. I scanned the brief synopsis and read all the short reviews. One reviewer wrote: “this is such a beautiful book it should be required reading in every school, what a shame it’s not well-known.” Surely, it’s past time for me to re-read that book I once loved, and find myself again, my true self, in a great story.
Photo by Fery Indrawan, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Mary Van Denend.
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