The only way in which I can approach this book is personally. That is not because I am a children's librarian and delighted that such a book exists. Rather, it is because I vividly remember my own very first visit to the local public library and receiving a library card.
This is a book with a purpose, as it says in the title, to celebrate books and reading. The purpose immediately establishes a certain expectancy. Eric Beddows's idyllic cover illustration creates an atmosphere. The library looks like the Carnegie library of my childhood: the rising staircase, solid, graceful pillars, stained glass¨forbidding and welcoming at once. The picture is idealized perhaps, but in a way that a library might look to us when we were young. When we cross the portal, we enter many new worlds. In turning the pages of this book we also arrive at new places.
When We went to the Library is a beautiful book. The scrolls at the top of the pillars are echoed in the curled design on the title page. This then turns into a repeated pattern, white on grey, for each short story's title page. The generous margins, providing lots of white space, and the large, clean typeface are inviting for early independent readers.
Editor (and former librarian) Debora Pearson's opening note is earnest. Critic extraordinaire Michele Landsberg's introduction waxes poetic. Their fervour could have been the kiss of death for such an anthology, but it is not. Inside the covers of this book are fresh and quirky stories. Nine authors (four of them librarians or former librarians) cover the gamut of mood and intention from comical to poignant.
The opening story, "Dear Mr. Winston", by Ken Roberts, is laugh-out-loud funny. In a letter of apology to her local librarian Mr. Winston, Cara explains why she just had to bring her snake into the library to identify it. Sarah Ellis treats us to a flight of fancy in "The Fall and Rise of the Cut-Out Family", about a family of paper dolls who learn about the power of words.
The mood shifts decidedly in "Carlotta's Search" by Budge Wilson. Nine-year-old Carlotta finds strength and some semblance of hope when her teacher helps her find information about leukemia. Storyteller and author Celia Barker Lottridge spins a yarn about a book that travels from hand-to-hand, like a treasured story until it comes back again to its original borrower. Another pet is lost in another library in Jean Little's "Mrs. Grinny Pig, Tiggle Wiggle and Henry". Names, nicknames, mocking names and finding favourite books culminate in understanding, friendship and an excellent school report.
A different kind of friendship emerges between a young boy and an old woman in Ken Setterington's "Rose's Wish", a story based on a true incident (Check out Joan Bodger's A Crack in the Teacup for the details!). Wishing to scatter her friend's ashes at the site of the new library, Emms enlists the help of Mark, who, along the way, learns how to tell a good story. The darkest story in the collection is "Fly Away" by Paul Yee. Young Chan's letters for Old Joe deceive Mei-ping who comes to British Columbia for the promise of a better life and books. In "Books Don't Cry" by Marc Talbert, library book theft and vandalism turn into acts of love as Tad Morgan wishes to give a book of his own authorship to his dying grandmother. A sense of mystery envelops the closing story in the collection, Tim Wynne-Jones's "The Mystery of the Cuddly Wuddly Bunny". What is real and what is in the imagination? How does one become a writer? Wynne-Jones invites us to ponder these questions and provides no facile answers.
This collection brings to mind Jerry Spinelli's collection of linked short stories, The Library Card, with its four uneven tales, wherein different young people find and use a lost library card which in turn changes their lives. When I Went to the Library is a much more subtle volume. Sometimes the library is in the background, sometimes it is upfront. But in each story some sort of quest begins or ends at the library or with books or stories. There are no obvious connections; we readers are allowed to make those ourselves. Each rereading uncovers new nuances, new discoveries.
For those of us who love books and reading and libraries, this is a splendid collection. We will want to share it with children who are not readers. But this is not a lesson-charged anthology. The real beauty of this book is that it offers us tantalizing, satisfying and memorable tales.
Theo Heras is a Children's Librarian at the Lilllian H. Smith Branch, Toronto Public Library and partner in Mary Contrary Associates