It’s a special date on a UK library worker’s calendar when the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards shortlists are released. For me this is because (a) I lovelovelove all things list, and (b) I get to play with promotional materials – posters, bookmarks, stickers … all my favourite things. And this year, the two medals celebrate their 80th and 60th anniversaries respectively, so we got some extra interesting stuff, my favourite being some promotional postcards. There’s a whole bunch of different ones, but this is the only one I’m interested in:
I know these things are for kids; I have been promoting these things to kids; but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to snaffle one of these for myself and fill it in at home, and feel no shame in doing so.
A fairly smart part of my brain was already thinking about how I’d like to blog about this and that I could write about the best library book I ever borrowed being the first one, the one that opened the door for all the others. The part of my brain that always has to go one better suggested that really it’s always the library book I’m reading right now, because as long as I’m reading a library book that means that libraries are still going, which can only be a good thing. And behind these two, the favourite part of my brain was waving a huge placard on which was pasted a very familiar, very precious (to me) book cover, and it was obvious to me there’s only one truthful answer I can give …
I grew up in a fairly small English village. The library was (and still is) housed in a one-storey late 60s/early 70s building, low and square, with big windows at the front and back. Inside it was kind of an ‘L’ shape around the entrance and the staff desk and when we first joined it was presided over by a very strict, archetypal lady librarian of whom I was absolutely terrified. The rule was that children remained (quietly!!) in the children’s area. If you tried to pass the desk into the vast and tantalising unknown of the adult area she became a quivering tower of rage.
My brother and I were content to potter about in the junior section. It was where all the good stuff was. I discovered Asterix and found a very cool Usborne book on Greek myths and legends that I borrowed a number of times; I worked my way through Roald Dahl, and met Roger Llancellyn Green’s Robin Hood and King Arthur and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch; I tried Enid Blyton, but she and I didn’t see eye to eye, so I made friends with Monica Furlong and Tamora Pierce instead; I was able to try whatever I wanted without worry or cost, (I actually made an exhaustive list of everything I ever remember reading a couple of years back, and then searched out pictures of the book covers for every single one – and yes, I know Goodreads would have been quicker, but I didn’t know about it back then, and I was enjoying myself anyway). The library became not a place but many places, all places, to me and that feeling you get when you find just the right kind of book, a book written just for you, kept me coming back again and again. I’ve never done drugs (assuming chocolate is not yet considered a drug) and I blame libraries! (Ha! I should totally get that printed up on a Tee-shirt).
At first Mom would take us to the library on weekends and in the holidays, but when I was eleven I started catching the train to secondary school and on my way home I would duck into the library on my own. A teen section had appeared by then (it was probably always there, but I didn’t notice it until it became interesting) and a new librarian too, who was a lot more relaxed about a young person’s movements around the shelves. And one evening after school a few years later, when it was very quiet, I remember (heart beating, palms sweating) walking past the staff desk and into the adult section. I live in fear of breaking rules (I blame libraries), but I wasn’t stopped or shouted at or paid any attention to at all. It was wonderful. I kind of scurried half way down the fiction bookshelves and hid in M to P. And when the sky didn’t fall in I started pulling out anything that looked like it might have magic in it. There’s a lovely subconscious thing that part of the brain does when you’re browsing bookshelves: while present you is looking for something interesting, past you and future you are casting about for old friends and sometimes you’ll find just as you start to move away that you’ll reach for something and it’ll be exactly what you were looking for. That evening, when I was beginning to think adults didn’t read anything good at all, my eye snagged on the word ‘dragon’. I pulled out two small paperbacks together, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger with beautiful wraparound artwork featuring the most delicate, elegant dragons I’d ever seen*.
I don’t remember anything about taking my haul to the desk, although I’m sure I was nervous about doing that too. I only remember that I started reading Dragonsong as I walked home, and that I was immediately in love. Smacked in the face with love for this world of dragons and fire-lizards, the dreadful Thread and the sanctuary of the Harper Hall. Absolutely head over heels for Menolly and Piemur and Masterharper Robinton. There are those who might think I’m being dramatic and hyperbolic and there are those few who will know exactly what I mean when I say it was like coming home, (I didn’t have many friends as a kid). Better, it was like finding home just when I thought I’d never find it. Anne McCaffrey became a sacred name and I hunted out anything and everything she’d written. The library satisfied many of my demands, and her books became a perennial gifting period request. I read her over and over again. Because of her the adult section wasn’t forbidding or boring, instead it was where I went on to discover Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony, Mary Stewart and David Eddings, Frank Herbert and Michael Swanwick. And on and on and on right up to now without pause or deviation.
I am reading a couple of great library books right now. I have a stack more by the sofa waiting to be read. That they’re there means libraries are still going, and that can only be a good thing. The very first library book I ever read opened up that world to me. I wouldn’t have got to here without starting there; in that way all my library books past and present echo back and forth to each other. But there was also a moment – for me as for everyone who loves libraries – when the library presented me with a gift, a book, written just for me at that moment in time, and I learnt that it wasn’t just a building, or a place, but a friend.
*I’ve just been hunting the web for the name of the artist (because I totally judged these books by their covers). The most excellent Internet Speculative Fiction Database which catalogues all things SFF bookish, including uncredited cover art, tells me that the artist was David Roe (you can find him by Googling ‘David Fairbrother-Roe’, in case you decide to do so). Thank you Mr Roe for your artwork, it will remain forever imprinted on my memory.