I must admit that I am a book person more than a library person, and by that I mean I am compelled to own books instead of borrow them.
But I vividly recall my junior high library, where I found a book with Mark Twain’s signature reproduced and decided at that young age a person’s signature matters—creating then what has endured as my own swirling signature that is a very important icon of my Self (especially as a writer).
As a literacy educator, I also know that access to books at school and home is a foundational part of any child’s literacy—one we have ignored for reading programs and punitive legislation masked as reading policy (see Stephen Krashen).
As a public school teacher, I also witnessed—and resisted—book banning attempts from parents as well as the school’s librarian.
My doctoral work, writing a biography of educator and former NCTE president Lou LaBrant, helped solidify my appreciation for the key role of librarians as scholars and teachers; LaBrant co-authored several scholarly works with a librarian, Frieda M. Heller.
So here for School Library Month 2015, let me repost my presentation from NCTE 2014.
Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*
“It is 1956, and I am thirteen years old,” begins Louise DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo. The opening scene reveals DeSalvo’s teenage angst and her desire to flee:
I have begun my adolescence with a vengeance. I am not shaping up to be the young woman I am supposed to be. I am not docile. I am not sweet. I am certainly not quiet. And, as my father tells me dozens of times, I am not agreeable. If he says something is true, I am sure to respond that it is most certainly not true, and that I have the evidence to prove it. I look up at the ceiling and tap my foot when my father and I argue, and this makes him furious.
In the middle of one of our fights, the tears hot on my cheeks, I run out of the house, feeling that I am choking, feeling that if I don’t escape, I will pass out. It is nighttime. It is winter. I have no place to go. But I keep running.
There are welcoming lights a few blocks away. It is the local library. I run up the stairs. I run up to the reading room, sink into one of its comforting, engulfing brown leather chairs, pull an encyclopedia down from the shelf, hold it in front of my face so that no one can see me, so that no one will bother me, and pretend to read so that I won’t be kicked out. It is warm and it is quiet. My shuddering cries stop. My rage subsides. (Prologue, p. xiii)
Libraries, librarians, and teachers return often throughout DeSalvo’s life story that reads as a slightly revised version of Tennessee Williams’s fictional “kindness of strangers”—this a retelling of the kindness of teachers, and of the library as sanctuary.
“There is more than one way to burn a book” (p. 209), Ray Bradbury warns in the “Coda” included in the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451—a comment that motivated a poem of mine, “The 451 App (22 August 2022),” a speculative poem about how the move to electronic books could lead to the dystopian end to books and reading.
Bradbury’s novel, of course, emphasizes the importance of books, and of reading, but Bradbury’s writing of the novel and life also present powerful messages about libraries.
Jonathan R. Eller explains, “Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time” (p. 168). Further, Bradbury drafted early versions and then Fahrenheit 451 itself in the UCLA Library, working at a dime-per-half-hour typewriter.
Bradbury explains as well in the audio introduction to Fahrenheit 451:
I’m a library-educated person; I’ve never made it to college. When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians, and book people, and booksellers. (p. 196)
It makes a great deal of sense and offers some literary symmetry, then, that Neil Gaiman wrote the Introduction to Bradbury’s 60th anniversary edition—Gaiman who is the source of a mostly satiric piece I wrote calling for Gaiman to replace Arne Duncan as the U.S. Secretary of Education.
Gaiman, like, Bradbury is an advocate of books, of reading, of libraries, and then of children choosing what they read:
It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur….
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them….
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant….
Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky….
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
While writing this, it was late in the year 2014. No dystopia like Bradbury envisioned had happened, and at least potentially, books now are more abundant than ever—both in print and electronically.
But a much more insidious dystopia does exist, one that is little different than decades before us and one that comes in the form of policy and what former NCTE president Lou LaBrant called “adult weariness” (p. 276).
Reading and books—and children—have long been the victims of prescribed reading lists, reading programs, and reading legislation. By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
Nearly 65 years later, Common Core, the related high-stakes tests, and rebranded concepts such as “close reading” are poised to have the same chilling effect Bradbury dramatized in Fahrenheit 451, and directly warned about, again: “There is more than one way to burn a book.”
From LaBrant to Stephen Krashen, literacy teachers and scholars have called repeatedly for access to books in the home, well-funded public libraries, and children having choice in what they read.
Instead, we close libraries (and public schools), we defund and underfund what libraries (and schools) remain, and we invest in reading programs and reading tests. That is a very real and painful dystopia.
Like DeSalvo, Gaiman recalls the library as a safe haven:
Nobody is giving you a safe space. I used to love libraries at school. Because school libraries had an enforced quiet policy, which meant they tended to be bully-free zones. They were places where you could do your homework, you could do stuff, whether it was reading books, or getting on with things that you wanted to get on with, and know that you were safe there. And people responded to your enthusiasms. If you like a certain writer, or a certain genre, librarians love that. They love pointing you at things that you’ll also like. And that gets magical.
Here, Gaiman answers his question from his Introduction to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Why do we need the things in books?” (p. xv).
Books as magic, libraries as sanctuaries—we must cast spells, then, to erase the dystopia before us in the form of yet more standards and test, yet more libraries closed, and then yet more children taught to hate the very things and the very places that have made life worth living for so many.
Books and libraries created Gaiman, spawned his belief: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”
Let’s hope so.
LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.
LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.
LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.
*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:
It’s a Book, Lane Smith