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.
My 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.
I 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.”
I 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.