If You Give a Kid a Library Card, Oh the Places They’ll Go

Before I could read or write, I knew how a library card worked—and I desperately wanted one of my own. The librarian said that I could have one–as soon as I learned to print my name. I got right to work on that, and I can remember receiving the application and laboriously filling it out. I was barely tall enough to reach over her desk to give it to her, barely able myself to read what I’d written. But she gave me a card bearing my name—not my mom’s–which I literally wore out in months.

My lifelong love of books and reading started early. In our house, reading was spontaneous as much as it was routine. My mother consistently dropped what she was doing whenever I held up a book. Our bi-weekly grocery list always included a new Little Golden Book to add to my collection. If she forgot to buy it, I’d cry until my father sent her back to the store.

To keep my voracious appetite for stories somewhat sated, we regularly headed for the local library. My love of reading no doubt endeared me to our local children’s librarian. And she certainly endeared herself to me, encouraging me (“Yes, you can read this!”), empowering me (“You can choose your own books!”), and broadening my taste (“If you liked this, then you might like this”—so NOT an invention of Amazon.com). I worked my way through all the biographies, devoured the shelf of Newbery winners, and thrilled when the librarian set aside a new book she knew I’d like, making me feel special. My childhood library felt like home.

I began herding my children into our local library as soon as they were able to toddle. Libraries had changed greatly since my childhood, of course, with the added comforts of bean bag chairs and cozy corners filled with pillows. But the essential experience was largely the same, and my kids came to love the Saturday mornings we spent among the stacks. As it did for me as a child, the library offered my children access to more books than I could afford to buy. Many of these became favorites, checked out again and again, their trademark phrases becoming permanent parts of our family’s lexicon. 

Someone’s having a “Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Day.”

A person’s a person, no matter how small.

I love you to the moon and back.

And it was our librarian who introduced my son to Ruth Krauss’s classic Big and Little (later reissued and re-titled And I Love You). I would not have guessed that my rough-and-tumble, car-crazy little boy would love this poetic book so tenderly, committing it to memory and naming his favorite stuffed black bear “Big Dark Street,” a phrase from the book’s reassuring conclusion that “big dark streets love little street lamps.”

Libraries have been such an integral part of my family life, that I was startled, recently, to talk with others who don’t feel the same way. I have a friend whose third-grader has never seen the inside of a public library. She is well educated and a person of considerable means, and her family buys the books they decide they want to read.  

I asked a middle-schooler I know if she used the library for homework help or research. She looked at me blankly. “We have wi-fi at home,” she said.  

But she doesn’t have a librarian skilled at helping her develop judgment about which sources are credible and which are not. I am sad that my friend’s third-grader didn’t get introduced to Big and Little, or another book he’d love- -likely one that his mother would never have selected for him.

So I wondered: Is the time-honored custom of taking our children to libraries falling by the wayside?

Informally, I surveyed friends who are parents—and grandparents – of young children. One mom told me that her preschooler selects his own library books each week and sleeps with them. A friend talked about how her granddaughter chooses a library visit over a trip to the park or the local ice cream stand. A volunteer at our local library reports that Storytime for Toddlers is alive and well—resplendent with wide eyes, giggles, and wiggles.

What a relief to hear that, for many families, libraries still rock.

To children’s librarians everywhere, “We love you to the moon and back.”

 

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families.  She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.