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How the School Library Saved My Life

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I grew up reading—at the school library, on the bookmobile, at the comic book store, at home next to the heater under the piano. As a girl, I found pieces of myself in the characters of Ramona, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, Jo March, Harriet the Spy, Jane Eyre.

By the time I got out of college, like any bright-eyed 20-something, I was searching for myself. I had taken my share of psychology classes. Armed with my now-tattered volume of Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, I decided to take the Myers-Briggs personality test. Back then, before the age of the Internet, you had to find somebody to administer it.

I seem to remember quite a lot of questions about parties. It's Friday night. Would you rather attend a party or stay home and read a book?

Read a book.

At a party, do you get tired and leave early or are you the last one to leave?

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Leave early, so I can go home and read a book.

Would you rather spend time alone or host a dinner party?

Spend time alone so I can read a book.

You get the idea. I had to wait a week for the results. When I returned to the testing center, I sat across from a thin-faced, bespectacled woman in sensible shoes. I confess my palms were sweaty, and my heart was pounding a bit. After all, I was about to discover who I was.

The woman looked over my scores, peered at me over her glasses, and said: "I don't know what to tell you. You should have been a nun."

Call me "bookworm."

We live in a world full of noise, a world full of sparkle and glitter, an extroverted world, and I had just discovered that I was an off-the-charts introvert.

These days, I have only to close my eyes to go back to the chaos and noise of my 3rd grade playground. But when the crowds of the cafeteria and the pushes and shoves of the playground got to be too much, guess where an introvert like me could always go to be at home?

A small, nearly hidden, often-dusty corner of the school—the library.

Reading saved me. Not only did the library provide quiet and a safe haven, it also gave me a community of young Emily Dickinsons and Charles Schulzes who loved books as much as I did; a librarian who gave me the opportunity to feel a part of something by inviting me to stamp date-due cards and shelve books and create book displays; and a wider community of fictional friends in books.

The school library made me less lonely.

In Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, she points out that without introverts, we would not have van Gogh's sunflowers or the personal computer, Chopin's music or the theory of relativity. Imagine a world without the Cat in the Hat or Charlie Brown or Harry Potter.

These were born of an interior space where the introvert goes to find strength and creativity and inspiration, to know one's self, to find expression, to find voice.

"For many children, the school library is their only access to books. Without it, they are missing out on an entire universe of learning."

In our overscheduled world, this space can be hard to find. Cain speaks to the urgent need to create "restorative niches" in our overwhelmingly busy schools and workplaces.

The school library is just such an oasis.

We use the expression "to get lost" in a story. But in a story, I was found. That began, at my school library. It shaped who I was to become, who I am.

I created my book-series character Judy Moody out of the universe of the introvert, but I wanted her to be able to meet the world. The award-winning children’s author Katherine Paterson has said of being an introvert: "To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another."

I wanted Judy to be flawed and fearless, in her own way.

For some of us, the call of the wild is the call of the book. I will be forever grateful that the school library called me home.

As a young student and reader, then a librarian, then a writer and author, I've been connected with school libraries my whole life. I've visited school libraries that were nothing but a laundry basket of books on the school bus and those that have mahogany-shelved, green-glass-lamped reading rooms to rival New York Public's famous one.

I read recently that in my home state of California, it's possible to enter kindergarten and graduate from high school never having gone to a school that has a library.

This stopped me. How is that possible? I can't imagine a childhood without a school library. It breaks my heart that not every school has a library, and not every school library has a librarian.

After all, the school library is all about access to books. It's also about the librarian, one's best advocate for getting those books into the hands of children. For many children, the school library is their only access to books. Without it, they are missing out on an entire universe of learning and creativity and imagination, a world of story.

I remember taking a storytelling class when I was in library school in the mid-1980s. I remember someone telling a story about an indigenous people of southern Africa. The details may be fuzzy now, but the significance has stayed with me all these years.

They had a tradition of firelight storytelling every evening.

Then they were given a television.

They watched it the first night. But on the second night, they returned to the fireside to listen to the storyteller.

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They were asked why. Why go back to the storyteller, whose tales you have already heard, when the television had new ones every night?

Their reply: The storyteller knows us.

Similarly, I was visiting a local school a few days ago in honor of School Library Month. The library was dark, as in closed, when I first arrived. The librarian, you see, doubled as an aide in a 1st grade classroom.

Inside that small library, snug on a reading rug, surrounded by books, I asked a group of 2nd graders why they thought the school library was important. One child told me she wished the librarian were there every day.

"Why?" I asked.

"She knows me," answered the child. "I can tell her that I read Judy Moody, and she'll find me another really good book to read. And guess what—she doesn't even have to look it up on the computer!"

Magic.

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