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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Where Lifelong Readers Begin

When my sec­ond grade teacher took our class­room to the school library, I thought I had dis­cov­ered the great­est place on earth. A room filled with books, more books than I had ever seen in one place. I remem­ber that room well. Sud­den­ly, mov­ing from my small home­town in Wis­con­sin to the over­whelm­ing big city of Min­neapo­lis didn’t seem as ter­ri­ble. The grade school at which I attend­ed kinder­garten and first grade did not have a library.

How dif­fer­ent would my life have been if I had stayed in that first school through sixth grade? Books are the mark­ers in my world. I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber the moments of dis­cov­er­ing the books that stand out as favorites, some of them start­ing me on omniv­o­rous hunts for sim­i­lar books.

Our school librar­i­an was essen­tial to my growth as a read­er. I knew how to use the card cat­a­log and, thanks to her, I could nav­i­gate the Dewey Dec­i­mal Sys­tem, but she knew the books bet­ter than any­one else in that build­ing. I could depend on her to help me find a new book to read. I don’t know if I would have picked a non­fic­tion book off the shelves if she hadn’t sug­gest­ed it.

Molly Pitcher: Girl PatriotMy pref­er­ence for biogra­phies began with Mol­ly Pitch­er: Girl Patri­ot, one of the books in Bobbs-Merrill’s Child­hood of Famous Amer­i­cans series. Mol­ly Pitch­er made me believe I could be any­thing I want­ed to be. She was a small-town girl in an extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tion and she was as brave as I hoped I would be.“The pret­ty lit­tle girl’s name was Mary, but every­one called her Mol­ly. This name suit­ed her bet­ter. She was live­ly, and she should have a live­ly name.”

Our librar­i­an helped me under­stand that authors wrote books. That had nev­er occurred to me. She helped me find oth­er books writ­ten by Augus­ta Steven­son. The next book I read was Clara Bar­ton: Founder of the Amer­i­can Red Cross. And then on to Eliz­a­beth Black­well: Girl Doc­tor. I was well on my way to becom­ing a nurse. [Note: This did not hap­pen. Nor have I ever rid­den a horse, even though I read every book about hors­es I could find at our ele­men­tary school library.]

Many titles in the Bobbs-Mer­rill series are avail­able in paper­back from Aladdin. I haven’t read them in forty-five years. I won­der if they still stand up?

The next series my librar­i­an sug­gest­ed was the Land­mark Books. These were so well-writ­ten. I remem­ber the his­to­ry I learned in these titles bet­ter than I remem­ber the his­to­ry I was taught in my class­room. Anoth­er read­ing pref­er­ence was firm­ly estab­lished in my read­ing life.

As an aside, I was fas­ci­nat­ed to read about the gen­e­sis of this series in Ben­nett Cerf’s book, At Ran­dom. He gives cred­it to his son Christo­pher. I hope you’ll bear with a rather lengthy quote from the book because I think this speaks so well about the respect Ran­dom House had for the minds of young read­ers. It also shows that his­to­ry and biog­ra­phy writ­ten for chil­dren are only fifty years old.

Paul Revere and the Minute MenI got the idea for them in the sum­mer of 1948, when Chris was sev­en and Jonathan was two. We were up on Cape Cod, between Province­town and Barn­sta­ble, in a house on the bay­side. I was sit­ting on the beach one day with Chris … and I asked Chris if he real­ized that where we were sit­ting was where the Pil­grims land­ed. Chris, who had learned dif­fer­ent­ly at school, said “You’re wrong, Dad. They land­ed on Ply­mouth Rock.” I said, “They did not land on Ply­mouth Rock. They land­ed right here at Province­town, and they stayed here for about two weeks.” I could see that Chris didn’t believe me, so I said, “We’re going down to the book­store and get you a book on it.”

The book­store in Province­town was run in the sum­mer by Paul and Bun­ny Smith, who also had one in Chapel Hill at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na in the win­ter­time. Theirs was a first-rate shop because they were real book peo­ple [I love that phrase.] When we walked in I said to Paul, “I want to see all the children’s books you’ve got about the Pil­grims.” Paul said, “We haven’t got any.” I said, “What do you mean? In Province­town you haven’t got books about the Pil­grims?” He said, “I haven’t got them for a very good rea­son. There aren’t any..” It was hard to believe, but it was true.

I began think­ing about it, and sud­den­ly it struck me that there should be a series of books, each one on some great episode in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. By the time we left Province­town, I had made a list of the first ten books and had a name for the series: Land­mark Books. I also decid­ed not to get authors of children’s books, but the most impor­tant authors in the coun­try.

When I dis­cussed this with Louise Boni­no [children’s book edi­tor at Ran­dom House], she was a lit­tle dubi­ous, and said, “In the first place, you won’t be able to get such peo­ple to write books for chil­dren. Sec­ond, I don’t know whether there’ll be enough demand for a whole book about Pil­grims or, say, a whole book about the first transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road.”

Our Independence and the ConstitutionI went from one author to anoth­er, and every one of them jumped at the chance. They thought it was a great idea. The key­stone of the whole thing was Dorothy Can­field Fish­er, who, in addi­tion to being a dis­tin­guished nov­el­ist, was a not­ed author­i­ty on chil­dren and a judge of the Book-of-the-Month Club. … I made a lunch date with Dorothy. I told her about my idea, and then I said, “My dream is Dorothy, that you would do one of these books for us.” She said, “Do one of these books? You’ve shown me your list of the first ten, and I want to do two of them!” I almost fell off my chair.

To this day, I read biogra­phies and his­to­ry books with antic­i­pa­tion, expect­ing to find the same inspi­ra­tion and under­stand­ing I did as a child. I’m grate­ful to my school librar­i­an for intro­duc­ing me to a life­long read­ing pref­er­ence. That’s what they do. School librar­i­ans con­nect kids to books. They help to estab­lish chil­dren on a sol­id bedrock of knowl­edge about books. They encour­age chil­dren to try dif­fer­ent books based on what they observe about their stu­dents. A com­put­er can’t do that. Vol­un­teers staffing a library have a dif­fi­cult time with­out the edu­ca­tion and back­ground school librar­i­ans bring to their jobs.

Would I be the per­son I am with­out my school librar­i­an? I don’t think so.

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