Browsing with Mimi, Trina, and Beverly

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April 8, 2021 by libroshombre

            My daughter Mimi was eight the winter of 1997 when she received a letter from Trina Schart Hyman, the noted children’s book illustrator and author who completed the “Alaska Fairy Tale” mural in the children’s area of Noel Wien Library after Bill Berry’s untimely demise.  “Dear Mimi,” Trina wrote, “Thanks for your letter and for your drawings, especially the one of the cat.  Did you know that I have two cats?  One cat is named Silky Pockets, and one is named Petey.  I wanted to let you know that it makes me very happy to hear that you love my illustrations.  Here’s the answer to your question:  I have been illustrating books for many, many years.  My first book was published in 1961, and I’ve been drawing since I was a child, younger than you.  I hope you keep on reading and drawing.”

            It says a great deal when a major artist or author takes time to respond to young fans so personally, or even to old ones – don’t get me started on my eight-year correspondence with Patrick O’Brian, who tops my list of all-time favorite writers.  I also received several personal letters from Ms. Hyman, in her amazingly graceful handwriting, during my unsuccessful attempts as library director to lure her back to Fairbanks to visit the mural – she finally agreed, but her death in 2004 precluded it.  Still, getting to know her even marginally is one of many similar library-related memories. 

            David Petersen, author-illustrator of the award-winning Mouse Guard graphic novels, has made three trips to Fairbanks – for free – to visit Noel Wien Library and local schools for the Guys Read Gals Read program.  A big fan of that worthy, locally-grown program that encourages children to read for the fun of it, Mr. Petersen recently donated artwork for a link on the GuysGaslRead.org website homepage the connects students to the free videos of local volunteers reading the books (including the first Mouse Guard book) that have been donated to the public and elementary school libraries.  Many other prominent authors have spoken to children at our public library, such as John Erickson (who has written 70 “Hank the Cowdog” books, so far), the late Brian Jacques (author of the 22 “Redwall” books), and many others.  Nearly all of whom were kind, amusing, and eager and interested to be in Alaska.

I find no record for Beverly Cleary, who recently passed away at age 104, coming here, but the author of the immortal “Ramona Quimby” and “Henry Huggins” books for elementary-age readers visited the hearts of countless Alaska youngsters through her 40 books that gently and humorously dealt with the joys and pains of growing up from a child’s perspective.  As her NYTimes.com obituary said, Cleary “hoped that by creating relatable characters she would inspire in young readers a lifelong love of books.”  She herself came to reading late but was fortunate that her mother, a school teacher, loved books and regularly read to her growing up at Yamhill, their remote Oregon farming community.

Ms. Cleary’s family moved to Portland following the loss of their farm during an economic downturn, where chicken pox kept her out of first grade, and she didn’t grasp the fundamentals of reading until third grade.  “She recalled the moment it all came together: the rainy afternoon when she stumbled across Lucy Fitch Perkins’ children’s novel, ‘The Dutch Twins.’”  Her mother, who started and ran a small library above a store in Yamhill, kept plenty of age-appropriate books around, hoping her daughter would take interest, and this time, “I looked at the pictures, and then the words, and discovered I was reading.”  That’s the very reason the Guys Read Gals Read program presents quality graphic novels and donates hundreds of copies to school libraries every year.

She became an eager reader, and after working as a chambermaid to put herself through library school, became a children’s librarian at the Yakima, Washington Public Library.  There, she recalled, “A little boy faced me rather ferociously across the circulation desk and said, ‘Where are the books for kids like us?’” The Times article noted that “there were many volumes about precocious British tots, with nannies and pony carts, but none that would appeal to grubby neighborhood kids like the boy before her – or to the adventure-seeking girl she had once been … She frowned on the moralizing, didactic themes that dominated children’s literature in the first half of the 20th century and set out not to impart wisdom but instead to portray children at play, and to capture their dialogue and the ways they sometimes venture into an adult world beyond their comprehension,” such as when Ramona Quimby’s father, just like Cleary’s dad, loses his job, and his children try to comprehend what that means.   

My life in libraries was crammed with marvelous memories.  My hometown library didn’t allow children to roam outside the children’s room, so that’s where my fondest library recollection first appeared when I discovered that thousands of windows to understanding the big, wide world were in each of the thousands of books waiting for me on the library’s shelves.  In library parlance, this is  the joy of “browsing the shelves.” As Australian journalist Ramona Koval wrote, “True browsing means that we discover shelves and subjects that we could not have anticipated when we started.  And the books we read introduce us to other books, as if we are at a magnificent party of the mind, being ever welcomed by new friends to join in the conversation.”

Browsing our libraries’ bookshelves is something I’ve missed deeply since the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic shut library buildings across the land.  Oh, I’ve borrowed books and other library materials through the bookmobile in the parking lot, but they’re all things I sought, not delightful surprises.  So, I’m inordinately proud to learn that the Borough’s public libraries are  open once more for browsing, even if attendance is limited and for only 45 minutes.  The librarians are to be commended for the foresight and effort required to permit this simple, valuable thing: to again safely commune with our library.   

Now we can once more utilize our libraries’ amazingly rich resources to celebrate Ms. Cleary’s birthday, April 12, which is “Drop Everything and Read Day, (AKA D.E.A.R.) that’s intended to “remind families to make reading a priority activity in their lives.”  Taking the time to fully appreciate small pleasures is a worthy pursuit.  As local artist Yolanda Fejes recently recommended in an online posting titled “Self-help,” “How to stop time: kiss.  How to travel in time: read.  How to escape time: music.  How to feel time: write.  How to release time: breathe.”  And all that’s available at our lovely library

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