“A house without books is like a room without windows.”
— Heinrich Mann
Summer is right around the corner. Among many closures that will affect our kids, what if schools and public libraries remain largely shuttered, too?
If they are, I’m wondering if school and municipalities will put books — real hands-on books — into kids’ hands, especially those who might not otherwise have access to them. (Better in their homes than collecting dust in vacant schools.)
Could they be given out along with free summer meals that schools and nonprofits provide over the summer months?
How about a curbside book distribution near schools, similar to what some public library systems are doing now?
Bookmobiles, scattered little libraries?
Speaking of public libraries, could they jumpstart bookmobiles for the summer? Remember those? What a thrill when the bookmobile lumbered through our neighborhood on lazy summer days!
And maybe neighborhoods could arrange their own book-share opportunities for its kids along the lines of the “Little Free Library.”
I remember the comforting feeling of being surrounded by books in our small apartment in north Minneapolis. Despite Mom’s obsession with maintaining a tidy home where everything had its place, books were the exception. They were scattered in every room: perched messily above the kitchen sink, lying next to the nightstands next to either side of my parents’ bed, stacked on the coffee table, shelved erratically in living room bookcases, piled next to the toilet. I liked it when one lay open-faced and at the ready, a sign that one of us had just been reading it or would be in a moment or two so “Don’t move it!”
Mom and Dad’s go-tos were romance fiction and anything mafia, respectively. But westerns, books about war, sports and Hollywood lay all about, too.
As I recall, there was no such thing as book clubs back then. Instead, I do remember eavesdropping on Mom’s telephone talks with her girlfriends about books they’d read, about why so-and-so did what to whom and “How’d you like it when they … ?” She seemed so concerned and earnest about the fictional characters. As though she knew them. You could tell she loved the stories she read.
Classics Illustrated comic books
When I was a budding reader, Mom introduced me to Classics Illustrated comic books, each one promoting on its cover “Stories by the world’s greatest authors.” These versions were 15 cent-ers with titles like “Hamlet,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Treasure Island,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Joan of Arc,” “Frankenstein” – colorful for sure, and way, way abridged, of course. But how was I to know?
Each week Mom took me to Piggly Wiggly grocer, where they mixed the Classics Illustrated with the Supermans, Veronicas and Tom and Jerrys on a rotating rack. She let me choose one Classic Illustrated each time. They, too, ended up scattered around the apartment with the grown-up books.
And with my books, as well. Two are vivid in my mind. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Elliot, had assigned us to read a book and prepare what she called an oral book report. “Read the book I’ve assigned to you. When it’s your turn, you’ll tell the class about it,” she explained. It seemed like a lot to expect of a kid, but you always did what Mrs. Elliot said – or else. I chose to report on “The Flying Squirrel.”
For many days I read and reread “The Flying Squirrel” at home and finally memorized it. Because that’s what I thought Mrs. Elliot meant by an “oral book report.”
“High in the treetops in the forest near a village ….” Proud of my accomplishment, I displayed it on the coffee table for days, maybe weeks.
‘The Ship That Flew,’ James Bond …
“The Ship That Flew,” by Hilda Lewis, was a novel I once chose randomly from the school library (and never returned). It’s about three siblings who discover a magical toy sailing ship in an antique store, which can whisk them off to any place and time. Having never traveled farther than Duluth, this story transported me, as well – to Egypt, England, France. I read and reread it for months, all the while fumfering to our school librarian about how I’d misplaced it but was searching for it with all my might. Of course, “The Ship That Flew” lay at the ready in our apartment, wherever I’d placed it for the moment.
I cherish it as much now as I did back then and hope my grandson enjoys it when he’s old enough to read.
After that came my own go-tos: One summer I binged on Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. When puberty kicked in I secretly read (and reread) parts of Mom’s saucy romance novels. Then came the Hardy Boys, who taught me pretty much everything I needed to know at the time, the Chip Hilton sports novels (I still have my copies of “Backcourt Ace” and “Comeback Cagers”) and later, Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury and my would-be companion for life — Mark Twain.
I’ll always believe that books, books and more books ought to be lying around every kid’s home, just a finger stretch away.
Richard Schwartz of Minneapolis is a retired teacher.
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