Laura and Libraries

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By David and Rylin Rodgers

Before our daughter Laura started school, her favorite time of the week was Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning meant Book Buddies, a weekly story time program at a local library for kids ages four through six. In addition to hearing great stories read aloud by an expert storyteller, Laura and the other children got to make a craft each week, color a page of their own book creation, and play a rhyming game which allowed them to transform the stories they heard into silly stories of their own.

We are a family of readers; even Laura’s name comes from her mother’s favorite childhood books (Laura Elizabeth Ingalls came up in our very first conversation on our very first date, ah the romance of books). Our house so overflows with books that we annually load at least two laundry baskets with “extras” to donate, in order to make room for the many new additions to our collections — especially Laura’s — that continue to arrive. And while books have always been a big part of Laura’s life, we could never have imagined where they have taken our ten-year old little girl.

Having been born with mitochondrial myopathy, a degenerative muscle disease, Laura’s early life was a litany of doctor’s appointments and daily treatments which kept her from many of the activities which are part of most children’s routines. Books, however, and regular visits to the libraries which provided them, were constants in her childhood. We became professional story-time attendees, visiting as many as five different libraries within a reasonable drive of our home in a given week. Laura loved having us read aloud during breathing treatments, or looking at picture books when more strenuous activity was not an option. And she adored simply wandering through the rows of book shelves and imagining the adventures waiting within each cover. Today Laura barely remembers many of those wonderful stories which we still have memorized — the wit of Sandra Boynton, the musical poetry of Margaret Wise Brown, the comforting characters of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh — but they were the foundations of her early literacy.

Even as Laura began to read independently, libraries provided an unending supply of “worlds to hide in” (as she recently put it). Audiobooks filled our weekly drives into the city for doctor’s appointments, as well as the cross-country trips to visit grandparents far away and even the daily hour round-trip to school. Libraries made those listening experiences possible where cost otherwise would have been prohibitive. Among Laura’s early favorites for listening was the Harry Potter series, which was reaching the peak of its popularity as she became a reader. Jim Dale’s artistic genius — if you haven’t listened to these, you should —inspired Laura to read the books for herself, which she had done, the entire series, by the start of her second grade year. Thanks to J.K. Rowling, Laura and other children of the Harry Potter era learned not to fear reading very long books.

Having conquered not only the Harry Potter series, but also the complete Anne of Green Gables collection and the Little House books, Laura began to look for a new challenge to supplement her school-assigned reading. From a casual conversation on a car ride home from school came Laura’s goal of reading every Newbery medal-winning book before the end of her elementary school career. We thought Laura might be setting her goal a little high, but it would be a good experience and expose her to some great children’s literature along the way. As it turned out Laura completed her goal of reading all 87 Newberys, including the two winners named since her goal was set, with several months to spare. Now she’s on to other reading goals, and always in search of the next great children’s book and author.

As the end of the Newbery quest came into sight, we encouraged Laura to begin writing about what she read. She created a blog for posting her “reviews,” with her grandparents as the sole audience. From that humble beginning Laura has been introduced to a whole new world. The blog intended for her grandparents now garners dozens of hits per day, and Laura receives feedback from and shares insights with authors, librarians and fellow book lovers from around the globe. While many of her friends gush over Miley Cyrus, Laura squeals with delight over an email from Lois Lowry. Instead of Disney World, this summer her dream-come-true vacation was attending the ALA Annual Conference for the presentation of the 2010 Newbery Award.

With the help of some amazing wish granting fairies at the American Library Association, Laura spent five jam-packed days, as she says, “with my people.” Meeting her true heroes — the authors whose stories she escapes into — left her smiling from ear to ear. Sitting in sessions where great books were critiqued and reviewed fed her love for reading, and conversing with all the behind-the-scenes players of the literary world expanded her ideas and dream about the writing process. Watching our once shy daughter in her element, happily chatting up anyone and everyone, was an experience beyond words. And seeing her practically float with joy through the Newbery/Caldecott Gala in her “purple poof dress” was like reading the happiest fairy tale ever, and it’s a story that began at our local library.

Laura’s love of reading that those local libraries nurtured during her pre-school years has blossomed into an insatiable passion that we could never adequately feed without their resources. From weekly story time to summer history camp, from duct tape craft classes to after-school writing clubs, from Jim Dale audiobooks to out-of-print Newbery winners from the 1920’s, and now to the ALA Annual in Washington, D.C., libraries have been a vital part of our daughter’s growth as a reader, a learner and a young woman. Perhaps the saddest irony of Laura’s story is that she lives in an area not served by a public library. And as budgets continue to tighten, even existing public libraries face difficult times. Laura recently met Newbery winner Lois Lowry at an Indianapolis library branch which is slated for closing due to budget shortfalls. How many other young readers like Laura might never have the chance to pursue their reading dreams without access to quality public libraries?

David and Rylin Rodgers live in Lebanon, Indiana where David is a high school teacher and Rylin works on family center care issues.

Read Laura’s guest post and watch an interview with her on the blog of the ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children.