In case you’re curious how my 2020 is going, this is the kind of story that sums it up nicely.
Last month, a Bronx librarian found I Can Write the World. She loved it so much she wrote a really lovely blog about it. And then she asked if I could come to her library and that’s what I’m doing on February 24th in the afternoon: Letting young people interview me about the somehow adult Bronx girl who now writes things that some people read who only dreamed of this life.
What Lauren did not know, I don’t think, is how deeply I love the New York Public Library.
I have several distinct memories of growing up and surviving my childhood because of the sanctuaries that are New York Public Library branches. Thank God things were never so hard that our homelessness led us to try to sleep in them, like so many homeless people do. But my mother loved books and paper and knowledge, and libraries, of course, are perfect if you love all of those things. So I viewed them as sacred spaces, just like church and school.
That’s why there’s a big chunk of my short story, “Fly,” that includes a semi-autobiographical chase scene that leads Kelly to safety because the bully who wants to beat her up doesn’t have a library card. I distinctly remember losing library books in multiple evictions, back when the library card was maroon and white, and feeling this overwhelming sense of shame for messing up the whole flow of things. Information and self-edifying knowledge and escape to another world were these free escape hatches and I devoured them as if they were food; a different kind of nurture.
During a class trip when I was in sixth grade, right before the last of a long string of upheavals at home, I’ll never forget my relief when at the end of our visit to the West Farms branch, the librarian looked up at me when I shared my name and she saw the amount of fines. I felt bad because whatever the significant amount was, I definitely would not be able to pay. Those were books, too, that could have helped some else. “Miss, I was homeless, so I couldn’t bring those books back, I’m so sorry,” I said, tearing up. Seeing that I was anxious and afraid, she just smiled this really gentle smile at me and deleted the fines and gave me a brand new library card. I feel like it happened all in one movement like that. Such a small kindness had such a gigantic impact that I still tear up all these years later. And that was in the 1980s!
Often when people say something is an honor, it feels like the right thing to say and the most gracious. But I mean it deeply when I say I’m honored that I’ll get to engage with kids from my hometown in a couple of weeks. It’s a sweet moment and one that is deeply meaningful. And really, truly, an honor.
Also: Next time you see a librarian, thank them for their quiet heroism. They rock.