Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Humane Christmas to You, Too

Misha, Hiberian Husky ready for a home
(Photo by Dogtown Artworks)

Last Spring, I highlighted the dignified photographs of shelter animals from Tuscola, Illinois that my brother and sister-in-law had begun taking as volunteers.

Like a holiday refrain, and like the animals at the shelter near where you live, the animals at the Douglas County Animal Control and Shelter keep arriving.

Since there's already a public campaign warning people against adopting bunnies at Easter since the gifts are usually dumped, I'm not suggesting that you should go adopt a dog without wanting a dog, but even visiting the shelter this holiday and giving the animals a walk or a pat on the head would be a lovely gift.  Some shelters, like the Austin Humane Society, take online donations that would help go toward veterinary care, food, care. . . and often, the prevention of euthanasia.

To learn more about the photographs of shelter animals done by the Pringle photographers, please see: Inside Their Eyes: Shelter-Dog Portraits

Friday, September 28, 2012

In Review: The Summer Library Series

The first time I tried to check out a book from the library, that is, a book with no pictures, I was in first grade.  The book was A Vote for Love.  Evidently, I had been roaming on the other side of the children's section and found the metal racks where the teenage romance novels were kept.  When I took the book to the circulation desk, the librarian eyed the book then eyed me, and wanted to know if I realized the book had no pictures.  I was terribly insulted.  Yes, I knew it had no pictures.  Obviously, it has no pictures.  Maybe she even dared to ask me to get my mother's permission.

. . .

Forgive me.  I want to go on, but only because I need another library story to read.  It is Friday, after all.  And dedicated reader, you've been following What She Might Think, so you know what every Friday has meant all summer: a visiting poet or fiction writer has appeared to share a new, original essay on his or her childhood experience at the library. More than 1,000 readers know what Friday means here at What She Might Think, for that's how many readers came to read library essays this short summer.

But the wind is busy pushing summer backward in order to allow autumn to do what autumn has always done best: signal the end of warm, good things.  The Summer Library Series is over.

Editing the series has been, for me, one of those experiences that, while it's happening you both know you don't want it to end and that it absolutely will.  The essays themselves will not stay on What She Might Think forever.  It is, after all, each writer's work, and this website is no library archive.  Every writer wrote out of interest in the project and, I would say, a generous understanding of generosity.  Because of that, we must give them back their work.  Even the grasshopper knew that the ants' generosity had its limits.  So it is not just the end of summer, but nearly the end of our time to read the essays, too.

But now is now, and so reflections are here for only now, and they're artful, beautiful, strange, beating things:

Children reading in New York Public Library, circa 1920
Once upon a time, in a library, Owen Egerton smuggled horror novels into the children's section and "wished to God [he] could read!"  Matthew Brennan's mother was a painter, and her paintings hung in a library long gone.  Jack Kaulfus rode her bike almost every day one summer in Texas to air-conditioning, to a library, to a man who never questioned why she was choosing the books that she did, only her thoughts about them.  Dan Powell waited for a van of books to stop so that he could climb up the stairs to one of the most traveled vehicles that came through Colwich. Laura Ellen Scott's desk was empty at school because she was busy walking four miles to a library where there were enough books that she never encountered a nurse romance if she didn't want to.  The library discarded what came to be TJ Beitelman's favorite book, and he took care of it so that he could return it to the library, not knowing that they wouldn't take it back. John Kenny's library was a toyshop. Juliet E. McKenna just read and read read and read. Heather Anastasiu's town took place at her library. David Hadbawnik became David Hadbawnik over the course of reading in libraries while in Van Nuys, California, a little girl named Kathryn L. Pringle, fell in love with a statue outside her library and then decided to become an archaeologist.  Steinbeck killed Stacey Swann's pony in Sealy, Texas.  And then the library ended on a Saturday in Cincinnati for Stona Fitch.    

The series is over, but autumn is lovely, with the leaves how they change, and the air on your cheeks.  It is just the weather for a long walk that leads to a library. All our library authors are there, too, waiting for you in the shelves.

Warm Regards,
Erin Pringle-Toungate



Friday, September 21, 2012

Summer Library Series: Library Days by Stona Fitch

Every Friday this summer authors have been sharing their childhood experiences at the library, and we've now arrived at the final Friday of the Summer Library Series here at What She Might Think--not to mention the final Friday of summer. 

This week's author is novelist Stona Fitch who went to the Cincinnati Public Library until one day in fifth grade. In fiction, it's sometimes said that a way to start a story is to bring a a stranger into town, as that's a way to introduce conflict, tension, and suspense in a piece.  And it is.  But when the stranger appears in real life . . .  that's the day that ends more than a library. 


by Stona Fitch
Working my way down the aisles, 
I picked out novels like a crow, 
attracted by shiny covers and big type. 

Cincinnati Public Library, photograph by OZinOH ,
used under CC license
The self-study math program my fifth-grade teacher gave me fit in a carton that I hauled around like ant with an enormous crumb. The laminated lessons included a test every ten cards. But tucked in the back were the answer cards, so honest students could grade their own tests. I soon discovered that skipping ahead to the answer cards and pretending to take the tests saved a lot of time. In short order, I moved on to 10th-grade level, so far ahead that I could spend class time daydreaming.

Hauling around the math carton gave me the illusion of intellect—the middle-school equivalent of carrying around the two-volume set of Musil’s Man Without Qualities. That carton said I was smart, not just a scrawny dreamer in white corduroys, a web belt, and a blue button-down shirt.

On winter weekends, the carton earned me rides downtown to the main library, clearly the only edifice in southern Ohio large and scholarly enough to let me pursue my interest in mathematics. Every Saturday, my father would drop me off at the library while he went to work at the paper plant down by the river, an arrangement designed to keep me out of trouble.

The Cincinnati Public Library squatted on a full block of Vine Street, a brick heap of the International Style that looked like a joint project of I.M. Pei and the Aztecs. The airy, cement-walled reading room allowed it to stay extra cold during the energy crisis, now in full bloom. Students and eccentrics clustered on long expanses of tables and desks—everyone bundled in sweaters and down jackets, giving the library a gulag-ish vibe. We should have been carrying picks and shovels instead of books.

At the library, I ditched my math box and prowled through the fiction stacks, sampling books the same way my sister abused a box of chocolates, jamming her little finger into each soft middle to see what was inside then putting them back in the box, hole side down.

Working my way down the aisles, I picked out novels like a crow, attracted by shiny covers and big type. Hours flew by. A hunt for Nazis (The Odessa File) segued to depressed guy in Pennsylvania (Rabbit Redux) then on to an interplanetary catastrophe (Cataclysm!). These choices weren’t intentional—these titles just happened to be at eye-level.

One Saturday in early December, I had to leave the fiction section to go to the men’s room downstairs, a smoky haven for creeps. I peed and washed my hands and found myself alone in the dingy bathroom except for someone grunting and rustling around in one of the stalls. The stall door flew open and a tall man rushed across the bathroom. He wore a blue pin-stripped suit and a white shirt and looked exactly like a bank manager, except his fly was open and he was stroking himself with intense devotion. His watery face was a rictus of ecstatic pain or its reverse.

I turned to run but he grabbed my gray sweater and pulled me down toward him. My clunky black orthopedic shoes slipped on the tiled floor as I tried to get away. He had a firm hold of me but I managed to wriggle away, freeing my spindly arms from the sweater, which slipped past my face in a blur of gray wool. I slid into the wall next to the hand-dryer, stunned, my concave chest heaving.

Our brief fight left the banker with nothing but my wooly husk, which would suffice, apparently. He balled it up and mashed it into his cock over and over.

Photograph by Joe Thorn, used under a CC license
I struggled to put the scene before me in words to convince myself it was actually happening. A banker was fucking my sweater in the men’s room of the Cincinnati Public Library!

After a moment he gave a gruff yelp. Then he held my used sweater toward me like a gift.

No thanks. I shook my head and ran, slowing only to grab my math box on the way out.

My library days were over.


Stona Fitch lives and writes in Concord, Massachusetts and is the author of five novels, including Give + Take (2010), Printer's Devil (2009), and Senseless (2001).  "Library Days" is an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, Funny As Hell. He is also the founder of generosity-based publisher Concord Free Press, which gives away its books, asking only that readers donate money to a charity or someone in need. Readers are encourgaed to pass the book on to another reader after they're finished.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Summer Library Series: Then Steinbeck Killed My Pony by Stacey Swann

Welcome back to this Friday's installment of the Summer Library Series wherein an author reflects about his or her childhood experience at the library.  This week's author is fiction writer Stacey Swann who grew up attending the Gordon Memorial Library in Sealy, Texas.


by Stacey Swann

I refused to finish the book or to forgive the librarian.

From unknown children's book, please contact me if you know its name

You know the stereotype: the shy child, always reading, happiest when tucked away in the library, more comfortable in the solitary world of books than making friends. But I wonder if that stereotype might be missing something. Maybe my own childhood love of books was less about how they allowed me to embrace my shyness and more about how they let me rebel against the shyness I was saddled with. To be, as I bonded with and became those characters, definitely not shy.

When I was six, the Sealy, Texas public library moved from a cramped space across the street from the Methodist church to a large, modern building across the street from the public pool (in towns as small as Sealy, every building comes with locational context). Built through a bequest from the late Dr. Virgil Gordon and his wife Josephine, I suspect it was a fancier library than most small Texas towns could boast in 1980.

My mother brought my sister and I there often throughout our childhood. Despite not having been there in more than twenty years, I can still remember the glass display case by the water fountain, the large wood-lined meeting room, and the shelves and shelves of books. I owned my best loved books—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series—but the library satisfied my need to read every single Encyclopedia Brown book, and that alone made me adore the place.

Those early heroes were well-loved because I could see myself in them. When Tolkien begins The Hobbit, he introduces us to Bilbo by saying that the Baggins clan “never had any adventures or did anything unexpected . . . This is story about how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.” And Encyclopedia Brown “wanted to be helpful. But he was afraid that people wouldn’t like him if he answered their questions too quickly and sounded too smart.” I could identify with these characters even when they went on to do things totally outside my own comfort zone. Those books straddled the line between safe and scary.

     In the fourth grade, my school librarian—probably due to my love of The Black Stallion—suggested I check out The Red Pony by John Steinbeck. I doubt she had read the book herself. This was not a “safe” book for a shy, horse-loving nine year old. The title pony is killed off in the first chapter. Even decades later, I can’t shake this image: “When he arrived, it was all over. The first buzzard sat on the pony’s head and its beak had just risen dripping with dark eye fluid.” Our protagonist goes on to strangle the buzzard until it vomits on him, then beats it to death with a rock until its head is “a red pulp.” I refused to finish the book or to forgive the librarian.

In retrospect, though, that librarian, that book, likely pushed me in a more interesting, more challenging direction. By sixth grade, I had more than exhausted the Gordon Library’s children and young adult section. Instead, I ripped through the books my parents checked out. (They didn’t mind if my sister and I read them, as long as we didn’t take them from the living room or move their bookmarks.)  I happily consumed Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, and Colleen McCullough, but I most vividly remember Stephen King.

A mere two or three years after The Red Pony incident, I was transfixed by his story collection Skeleton Crew. I haven’t read it since, yet the details of “The Jaunt,” “Survivor Type,” and “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” are fresh for me. Before I entered high school, I had finished The Bachman Books, It, The Eyes of the Dragon, and Misery. I had moved from shy characters in extraordinary circumstances to countless variations of personality placed in violent and outrageous circumstances.

While I’ve never fully shed my shyness, it did seem to retreat through my junior high years. I even joined the Debate team in high school. After all, I reasoned, even if I did embarrass myself at a speech tournament, that was nothing compared to eating your own hands and feet in order to stay alive. (Seriously, check out “Survivor Type. ” King himself said, "As far as short stories are concerned, I like the grisly ones the best. However the story 'Survivor Type' goes a little bit too far, even for me.") 

"Girl Reading" by Leah Kelley,
used with photographer's permission
In writing this essay, I stumbled on the news that my library, like so many across the country, is in financial trouble. Its future is even more complicated because it's technically a private library, and neither the city nor the county say they can give more than a fraction of its operating budget. Regardless, the library is an amazingly important space, even besides all the good it does the community in the expected ways. It’s a vast place where we can still stumble accidentally upon books, be exposed to things that might veer away into unsafe territory. Because it is those things, those unexpected and challenging encounters, that really make us who we are.


Stacey Swann
Stacey Swann lives, writes, and teaches in Austin, Texas. Her short stories have appeared in Epoch, Versal, The Saint Ann’s Review, Memorious, Freight Stories, and The Good Men Project. Once a contestant on the game show Jeopardy!, Swann was also the editor of American Short Fiction, a recipient of a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and a finalist for the Jesse Jones Fellowship. Swann is currently at work on a novel entitled Olympus, TX.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Summer Library Series: The Ontological Architect by kathryn l. pringle

map to van nuys public library, van nuys california
Welcome to the first Friday of September and the eleventh (!) week of the Summer Library Series here at What She Might Think, where all summer writers have visited and reflected on their childhood experiences at the library.  

This week's library author is poet kathryn l. pringle, who grew up digging through the shelves and the past, at the Van Nuys Public Library in Van Nuys, California.


picture of Mr. Pringle holding his baby girl and later poet, kathryn l. pringle
kathryn l. pringle and her father
by kathryn l. pringle

I needed cold, hard FACTS and I knew exactly where to get them: the Van Nuys Public Library.

Photograph of the pillared entrance into Van Nuhys Branch Library, Van Nuhys California
Van Nuys Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library,  
Photograph by Vahe Manoukianused with photographer's permission
When I asked my father, now 86 years old, what he could remember about me and the public library in Van Nuys, he thought for a moment and said, “When you were really, really little you loved The Little Engine that Could.”

My father would take my sister and me to the library often. I want to say he was an avid reader, but compared to my mother, who always had a book in her hands unless she was working or eating, he was just a little above average on this scale. We were, in fact, a family of readers and so economics came into play. A family on a budget equaled a family that frequented the public library. That, and I feel certain that my father didn’t want a house with books on every wall (which, ultimately we did have, because everyone knows once you love a book it must always be within reach).

Photograph of the large sculpture of the Native American Fernando
Fernando - Photograph by Vahe Manoukian 
used with photographer's permission
There was no such thing as a quick trip to the library (I maintain this is still true today). We had to park a little bit out of the way because the library was in this giant quad, filled with government buildings and replete with well-maintained plants, grassy areas, and my second-favorite statue (the first being the Amelia Earhart statue, of course): Fernando.

I both loved and feared Fernando. He stood so strong and fierce and half naked. He was maybe my second crush (after Amelia Earhart). So with the walk from the car, my lingering with Fernando, and my father’s usual answers about the courthouse (I’ll get to that in a minute), it took about twenty minutes for us to actually get INTO the library itself.

The library was our activity center. We didn’t do scouts or play sports or take music or dance lessons - we went to the library.

Once inside, the touching of every book in the children’s section was an absolute must. How, with those soft plastic dust covers and that library book smell - the smell that to this day I swear is the smell of potential energy - could anything else have come first?

Photograph of poet kathryn l. pringle as a child kneeling before a book
kathryn l. pringle
Then, my use of the library had been dictated by whim. Picture books and puzzle books were IT. But one day, quite suddenly, everything changed. The Van Nuys Public Library and its place as the most important institution on Earth revealed itself to me when, at the ripe old age of eight years old, I decided to become an archaeologist. Being the diligent, overachieving student that I was, I therefore had to begin my studies immediately. My subscription to Archaeology magazine, with its large print and too-easy maze games leading through ancient tombs, had been disappointing. I was serious and needed serious books. I needed cold, hard FACTS and I knew exactly where to get them: the Van Nuys Public Library.

At eight years old I had finally realized that the library was this amazing RESOURCE. It was this place that was filled with critical information and it was all mine for the taking. And I took the hell out of it. (Incidentally, it was about this age that I also realized the Van Nuys Public Library sat in the same quad and directly across from Van Nuys County Courthouse and Los Angeles Superior Court--as well as Van Nuys City Hall, the Los Angeles Sheriff Department, and the Los Angeles County Registrar--and I began suspecting that all people in the vicinity NOT entering the library were criminals. . .  thus, the many questions for my father to field on the way into the library.)

Monument for van nuys public library
Photograph by Vahe Manoukian used with photographer's permission
I began with books on Ancient Egypt and branched out in every possible direction. Sure, there was the occasional books by Dumas, Twain, Blume, Poe. . . but mostly there was ancient history and bones. By junior high I was still obsessed. I was so dedicated to pursuing archaeology that my nickname was “Digger.” I even carved a replica of an ancient Egyptian barge out of balsa wood, and it was so cool the school librarian asked if she could put it on display in the school library.

Ultimately, however, I didn’t become an archaeologist. I branched off into a related field, a field that I had always been leaning toward but hadn’t realized. I became a writer--a cultural anthropologist or an ontological architect of sorts. And it all still begins with a visit to the public library. Every book I write starts there with massive amounts of research. Not much has changed since I was eight.


picture of kathryn l. pringle writing in her office
kathryn l. pringle
kathryn l. pringle is a poet living in Oakland, Ca. Her book fault tree recently won Omindawn’s 1st/2nd book prize (selected by CD Wright). She is also the author of Right New Biology (Heretical Texts/Factory School), The Stills (Duration Press), and Temper and Felicity are lovers (TAXT). 

Her poems can be found in journals such as the Denver Quarterly, Fence, Phoebe, and horse less review. Her work can also be found in the anthologies Conversations at the Wartime Cafe: A Decade of War (WODV Press), I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Les Figues), and forthcoming in The Sonnets: Rewriting Shakespeare (Nightboat Books). 

Check out to find out whether your library has books by kathryn l. pringle.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Summer Library Series: From Branch to Main and Back by David Hadbawnik

It's the end of the second month but not the end of the summer, and so the Summer Library Series continues here at What She Might Think. Every Friday, authors have been sharing their childhood experiences at the public library.  This week's author is poet David Hadbawnik whose life as a reader and writer has unfolded in libraries across the country.


by David Hadbawnik

The aisles were an isle of solitude, a place to get away from my 
self and get in touch with a deeper Self. 

Like so many other nascent readers, I have my mother to thank for first taking me to the library. We were quite young, my sister and I, when we rode in the car to Warren Public Library, a few miles from our home in suburban Detroit. The small, nondescript building nevertheless had all the charms of the local branch, most notably a generous children’s section, with a dedicated librarian who taught us how to use it, and tiny tables with tiny chairs for our little bodies. And at that time, of course, everything was searched by card catalogue; I still remember the pleasure and mystery of sliding open those long, narrow drawers, leafing through the cards 'til I found the author I wanted, inevitably finding something else along the way.

The first books I discovered were Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey—though of course, I wasn’treading Greek, let alone an “adult” translation, but a version for young adults. From that time, I was hooked, and a trip to the library meant a further excursion into the world of Judy Blume, or The Great Brain, or Madeleine L'Engle and her great series starting with A Wrinkle in Time. I was a sci-fi and fantasy nut, but I also craved anything with a good story in it, anything that was honest and painful and true.

Most of  all—this will ring a bell with just about every lifelong reader and writer—the library was a place to be alone. With books. Aisle upon aisle of good-smelling books, with names and titles blazing out from their spines. The aisles were an isle of solitude, a place to get away from my self and get in touch with a deeper Self. Just running my finger along the spines was like touching a tuning fork that made my own spine vibrate.

Not that I had a difficult or “troubled” childhood—far from it; mine was a normal suburban household, middle class, stable, solid. If anything, it was too normal, too quiet. The library was a place to find out about things like wet dreams, bloody noses, what happened to kids who were left on their own or abused; what it felt like to fall in love so hard it hurt to the core of one’s being; suffering and triumph, magic and despair. As I came out of the confusion of puberty and middle school, the library again became a sanctuary as I discovered the books and authors that would inspire me to pursue journalism and creative writing myself—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, a return to classical and medieval folklore and legend.

San Francisco Main Library, photograph by David Yuused under CC license
In fact, I must credit the library with my eventually “putting it all together” as a mature writer, though I was scarcely aware of achieving creative equilibrium at the time. My haunting of libraries in great cities—first Detroit, during my undergraduate years at Wayne State; later Chicago, New York, and most of all San Francisco—has always been a way of finding my bearings, getting back in touch with the rhythm of solitude and language. Being in a main library, with its many levels and millions of books and separate intensities of hundreds of people, somehow feels like being in the very heart of a city, whose dangers and noises and romance continue to thrum just outside that stillness. When I first moved to San Francisco, I spent many hours in the library, browsing, working, dreaming. It was there I got serious about scribbling in the little notebooks I’d always carried around with me, which eventually formed the raw material of my first published work. And it was there I found the books that showed me the final bit of the way, such as Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World and Franz Kafka’s Notebooks.

Some of my love of the library was tarnished a bit when I eventually worked there, taking a job as a page at a couple of branches in San Francisco. I spent hours pushing around that metal cart, shelving books, dealing with unruly patrons, and wiping my hands off from the grime on the books in the children’s section, the same section I’d cut my teeth in many years ago. But sometimes I’d find the sweet spot of that old rhythm. Alone in an aisle, I’d light on a new book in an unfamiliar section, and have that old feeling once again.

David Hadbawnik

David Hadbawnik lives and writes in Buffalo, NY where he runs Habenicht Press, the literary journal Kadar Koli, and the Buffalo Poets Theatre. Hadbawnik is the author of these books of poetry SF Spleen (Skanky Possum Press, 2006), Ovid in Exile (Interbirth Books, 2007), Translations from Creeley (Sardines Press, 2008), and Fieldwork: Notes, Songs, and Poems 1997-2010 (BlazeVox, 2011).

To find books by Hadbawnik at your local library, check out, or click here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Summer Library Series: Library as Locus by Heather Anastasiu

This week's edition of the Summer Library Series comes from Heather Anastasiu who grew up attending the Buda, Texas public library and, like many children of small-town libraries, found herself leaving the children's section early to mingle among the adult books.  With their scent of past and page, and the columns of date-due stamps, the physicality of the books themselves led her into imaginative explorations.  


by Heather Anastasiu

I’d  . . . try to imagine all the other people 
who’d held the same book in their hands.

Public Library, Buda, Texas
The Buda Public Library stands out as a landmark of my childhood for reasons more than just my love for books. It was this great building right in the center of Main Street, within walking distance of my elementary school and my church. I’d often walk the couple blocks to the library and have my mom pick me up there if I had to stay late after school or for church choir practice. There was a gazebo off to the side that I’d sit in while I read or journaled or just sat thinking about things while I waited. Annual outdoor town fairs were held in the strip of land between Main Street and the railroad tracks, with the library as the locus. I sang carols at Christmas with my choir there and played the piccolo in my marching band as we’d parade down Main Street right past the library.

Photo by Calsidyrose, 
used under CC license
Then, of course, there was the glorious insides of the building. Growing up, especially in the long summers, I often spent more time with books than I did with people. I can remember walking through the few stacks they had and running my fingers over the spines of the books on the shelves, one by one. They didn’t have a very big kids book section, so I was reading all the Mary Higgins Clark and Robin Cook and Danielle Steel novels they had.

I liked how cold it was inside the library, a safe haven from the Texas summer. I liked the way the books smelled. That library gave me a great love for the physicality of books—the worn spines, the sometimes coffee-stained pages, the feel of the paper between my fingers. I’d pull out the little check-out cards in front of the book and look at the dates stamped on it and try to imagine all the other people who’d held the same book in their hands.

That love for the feel and smell of books stays with me still. In fact, when I got a finished copy of my debut novel in the mail last week, one of the first things I did was crack it open and inhale.


Heather Anastasiu

Heather Anastasiu lives with her husband and son in Minneapolis, Minnesota where she is at work on a fantasy trilogy for young adults. The first novel in the trilogy, Glitch (St. Martins-Griffin, 2012), debuted this month.  Anastasiu is currently on her online book tour. 

Check out to find out whether your local library has works by Anastasiu.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Summer Library Series: All Sorts of Freedom by Juliet E. McKenna

Last week's library post came from Dublin writer and editor John Kenny, and this week What She Might Think is staying abroad though one country over with English fantasy writer Juliet McKenna.

McKenna was not only a frequent visitor of the library but also a voracious reader to boot and, thankfully, one with an excellent memory of what she read.  Please enjoy McKenna's library reflection.

by Juliet E. McKenna

I’d tell my mum I was going to the library 
and she felt no need to accompany me.
Photograph by Mike Smith, used under CC license
This is the local branch public library in Parkstone where I would go on Saturday mornings, or after school on a weekday. Strictly speaking it’s in Ashley Cross, adjacent to Lower Parkstone and some way from Upper Parkstone which is closer to Branksome. These are all now suburbs of Poole, a harbour town itself largely subsumed into Bournemouth on England’s south coast.

Once upon a time, these villages each had their own amenities. As a kid I didn’t know that this building was originally a fire station. I just knew it was old, half-timbered, with uneven floors and unexpected steps and nooks inside. The heavy double door in the other face of that tower is framed by elegantly carved stone. For a child with a vivid imagination first inspired and thereafter nurtured by books, what better library?

In the mid-Seventies, some village mentality endured. Most local shops were family businesses and whether through ignorance or innocence, by age ten, children like me went out and about pretty much unsupervised. I’d tell my mum I was going to the library and she felt no need to accompany me. She knew I would use the pedestrian crossings for the busiest roads and it was traffic, not child-snatchers, which concerned parents. So I could go whenever I liked and browse for as long as I wanted.

Enid Blyton is one of 
the most famous children's
authors in England. It is a rare
adult who didn't read Blyton as 
a child.
What I read was up to me. This wasn’t the school library with its teacher-approved selection or English class limiting me to the latest books in the reading scheme. I could read Enid Blyton’s undemanding and implausible tales of the Famous Five and Secret Seven or classic children’s literature like Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, depending on how I felt. I could tackle adult classics in abridged versions of Dickens, Dumas and other authors not beginning with D, or I would read new books by Leon Garfield and Diana Wynne Jones with gleaming plastic covering their dust jackets and crisp, clean pages within. They’d sit alongside decades-old boarding-school stories by authors long since forgotten, with fraying cloth binding and loose stitching. I read those as well.

I could re-read a book for the twentieth time for the comfort of familiarity. I could read something I was supposed to have long outgrown, like BB’s books about a badger and a hedgehog living on a canal boat and striving to outwit a gang of rascally cats. If my mood was looking forward to the whole mysterious business of growing up, I could read Monica Edwards’ books about overlapping groups of teenagers living in Romney Marsh and in Surrey; contemporary stories involving far more plausible, and thus more convincingly hazardous escapades than anything the Adventurous Four got up to. This was long before anyone thought of labelling books as ‘YA’ and putting them on their own shelves.

I might come home with some of R J Unstead’s interesting and engagingly illustrated books on the history of Britain and beyond (okay, mostly the British Empire). I could scare myself at bedtime with the Pan Book of Witches or the Pan Book of Giants, only two of many collections of folklore and myth specifically made accessible to children. I might read boys’ adventure stories, set in and around World War II or the ‘juvenile’ science fiction of Heinlein and Asimov. I didn’t care that they were all from a male point of view. Whatever I read was up to me.

Well, up to a point. The Dorset County Library system had two types of tickets to hold the record slips from the books, held behind the desk as the loan was date-stamped and issued. Adult tickets and child tickets were colour-coded like the book slips to make sure that children didn’t read anything unsuitable. We could have adult tickets when we went to secondary school at the age of eleven. Only by the time I was ten, I had read and re-read every book in the children’s section. The nice library ladies knew that; we were on first name terms after all. That’s to say, they called me Juliet while I called them Mrs Brown and Mrs Green.

I could venture 
into the adult shelves, 
grab anything with 

                Gollancz yellow jacket.
In my final year of primary school, we came to a gentlewoman’s agreement. Heinlein and Asimov had books in the children’s section, and Tolkien had written The Hobbit as well as The Lord of the Rings so Science Fiction and Fantasy were clearly safe. I could venture into the adult shelves, grab anything with a Gollancz yellow jacket and sundry other genre titles, and go home to read John Wyndham and similar classics.

I also read Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, in which a dying billionaire’s brain is transplanted into a young woman’s body. To quote Wikipedia “Much of the book is devoted to a description of Joan's exploration of emotional and sexual love from the point of view of her new gender.” I’ll bet the nice lady librarians had no idea about that when they date-stamped the book. Perhaps I was too young for such ‘adult content’ but bear in mind that all I had was the words on the page. There’s only so far words can take you without the visual images to go with them which I most assuredly lacked. It was a more innocent age with far less overtly sexualized behaviour on view in popular culture. And such books can be vital stepping stones on the path from ignorance which has at least as many dangers as children grow up.

The library offered me freedom to entertain and to educate myself, at my own pace, at my own whim. To scare myself, to comfort myself, to discover the limits of my own understanding of adult life (with so many more complications than merely sex) and to decide for myself how and when I wanted to challenge such boundaries in my reading. All sorts of freedom within the safe confines of the original virtual reality: the world of books and imagination.

Juliet McKenna, photo by Ian Whates, used with
photographer's permission
Juliet E. McKenna lives in West Oxfordshire with her husband and children.  She is a prolific author of fantasy novels, such as The Tales of Einarinn series, The Aldabreshin Compass series, and the trilogies The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and The Hadrumal Crisis. When she isn't writing fiction, she is often speaking about writing and reading at science-fiction and fantasy conventions across Europe. 

To find books by Juliet E. McKenna at your library, use, click here, or ask your librarian!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Summer Library Series: My Regrettable Non-relationship with Libraries by John Kenny

All summer writers have been sharing their childhood experiences at the library. It is sometimes assumed that today's writer was yesterday's reader reading under a library's green lamp and a librarian's green stare. This was not the case for this week's writer, Dublin writer and editor John Kenny, whose first library was Smiths Toyshop. 


by John Kenny

To this day, I’ve never borrowed a book from a library.

Reading on the Roof by Raul Lieberwirth
The situation is most likely very different today for children and teenagers who will one day become writers, but it’s a time honoured tradition that writers of my generation, and those that came before, were bitten by the reading bug in their local libraries.

Anyone dipping into the background of their favourite writer will almost invariably discover a story of impoverished resources when it came to buying books, in fact, a distinct lack of variety of books available for the buying, that resulted in a veritable plundering by the future writer of their local library.

It’s the old story of the birth of a voracious reader who works through all the classics, devouring them at an alarming rate, at all hours, including under the bedclothes at night with a flashlight (admittedly, the kind of classics involved here may not always have been of the literary variety).

I envy this story (including the under the bedclothes bit – could never get my hands on the appropriate reading material). I wish I could relate that I was a voracious reader as a youth and young man, that I’d read all the classics by the time I’d left school. But such was not the case.

This was due to two factors: my early obsession with comics and my schooling. Like most kids in Ireland (and the U.K.), my initial exposure to comics was limited to the weekly titles that came out of the U.K.: The Hotspur, The Victor, and the like. These featured, largely, the adventures of Second World War British soldiers and sporting heroes. All very well and good, and I still have fond memories of those titles, but I reckon I would have probably grown out of my interest in comics at an appropriate age if it hadn’t been for the discovery of a little treasure trove of U.S. Marvel and DC comics that nestled right at the back of Smiths Toyshop on Wexford Street, near Dublin’s city centre, where I lived from the late ’60s to the mid-’70s.

I was particularly drawn to the Marvel titles and was blown away by the artwork and the idea of full colour throughout. These titles never came into Dublin on any kind of consistent basis. I found out years later that they were stacked on pallets and used as ballast on ships travelling across the Atlantic; anyone could buy these pallets of comics for a pittance if they knew about it and had a truck they could drive down to the docks.

So I ended up using my imagination to fill in the blanks in the storylines when every other issue of various titles failed to turn up in Smiths Toyshop. It made the issues that did appear all the more precious. And the scarcity of these comics meant only a relative handful of kids in my area even knew of their existence. This resulted in a tiny group of aficionados, who would occasionally meet, almost secretly, to discuss burning topics like who would win a battle between Thor and the Hulk, which of Captain Marvel’s costumes was the best, and what were the merits of Jack Kirby’s art versus those of Jim Steranko.

John Kenny, age 7
In fact, I knew only two other kids in my area who read Marvel comics and all three of us never met together in the one place at the same time. So I was largely on my own in daydreaming about the fantastical adventures of all those colourful superheroes. And as my parents left me pretty much entirely to my own devices and I didn’t get on with my brother, I drifted off on a cloud of self-imposed exile from the planet Earth.

Even then, though, I may have moved naturally from comics to books in a more usual time-frame if it hadn’t been for second factor in my delayed embracing of literature: the Christian Brothers School I attended on Synge Street (and subsequent C.B.S. schools in the suburbs, when I moved out of the city).

Christian Brothers Strap by beppo1953, 
Creative Commons License  NoncommercialShare Alike  
Yes, I went through the meat grinder that was a C.B.S. education in the ’60s and ’70s, when corporal punishment was all the rage and the Christian Brothers were supplied with a standard issue ‘leather’, a mass produced seven or eight inch length of leather that had old pennies sewn into their several layers. ‘Six of the best’ on each outstretched hand would have you numb for ten or fifteen minutes before the excruciating pain kicked in. This is to say nothing of the Christian Brothers who liked to inflict more inventive tortures involving rulers, chalk, canes, and their bare hands. Luckily, I arrived into the system a mere year or two after they had stopped forcing left-handed boys to use their right hands for schoolwork. Anyway, as I say to my two daughters, who stare at me in disbelief when I relate this approach to education, it never did me any harm (he says with a nervous tic).

Christian Brothers Strap by beppo1953,
Creative Commons License  
NoncommercialShare Alike 
Now, despite this atmosphere of fear (who knows, maybe because of it), I may still have discovered the joys of literature in a more timely fashion. But the powers that be (or were) that dictated the reading list for English must have been born in a shed in the middle of a bog during a thunderstorm and deemed fit never to stick their noses out beyond the churned muck of their front yard. All joy, all humour, all understanding of what it is to be human, must have been extracted violently from their very bones as they sucked in their first breath.

Because the books chosen for the syllabus included titles like Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Lord of the Flies. Now don’t get me wrong; as an adult, with the benefit of hindsight, I can recognise these books as works of real literature. But to a 12 year old boy they were nothing short of the most boring tomes imaginable. I discovered after I’d completed the Inter and Leaving Certs (the two big exams in Ireland before third level education) that I could have, off my own bat, read and answered questions on 1984, Catcher in the Rye and other titles that sounded to me infinitely more interesting than what we had been subjected to. But no, the Christian Brothers were resolutely silent on this alternative option.

The upshot of all this was a profound disinterest in literature. My schooling had succeeded in turning me off reading. By the time I was 16 or 17, I had pronounced anything that had the label ‘literature’ attached to it to be intrinsically boring. This resulted in a protracted love affair with comics that lasted well into my twenties.

My first independently motivated dipping of the toes into the world of literature occurred when I started collecting science fiction paperbacks. This was after I had left school and started work (university was not an option ever discussed in my household). And when I say I collected SF books, that’s literally what I mean. I didn’t read them; I just loved the cover art by Chris Foss, Peter Jones and others. So my collection of books grew while I continued to read comics.

Of course, I did eventually start reading the SF books, slowly at first, and thus began my belated journey into literature. And, as with all things indulged in with any degree of growing enthusiasm, my tastes have expanded over the years to include a wide range of literature.

Libraries unfortunately never featured in my childhood or in my young adult life, but now that I’m a writer, I find myself using my local library a lot. The irony is, it’s to write in, not read. To this day, I’ve never borrowed a book from a library.


John Kenny lives in Dublin, Ireland and is a freelance writer, teacher and editor.  Additionally, he has served since 1993 as co-editor of Albedo One, Ireland's well-known science-fiction and fantasy magazine.  His most recent stories have appeared in Jupiter, Transtories, and The World SF Blog. Kenny is also the writer of a number of useful articles about writing and editing, over at his site,