Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Know the Past, Find the Future

So a little less than a month ago we thought it would be fun to host a writing contest. The prompt? Libraries. Write anything -- fact or fiction -- about libraries. This was sparked by the release of Know the Past, Find the Future -- a book Penguin released to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the New York Public Library (a pretty big one). Winners received a copy of the book and their winning submissions can be read here:


"Libraries" (by Craig)

Who needs’em ~
Got my iPod
Got my iPad
And my iPhone
Epic ringtone
Got my fast car
Got my own star
Gonna go far
Dig it? We are.

What’s a book, man?
In the trash can!
Turnin’ pages?!
Seems like ages
Since mom read me
Stories fed me
Curled up nice
And… thinkin’ twice
I’m goin’ down there
To the place where
Stories live and
Words like quicksand
Take you under
Words like thunder
Rock the soul and
Like a good band
Live forever ~
Forget them?

Libraries rock, man!


"In The Library with Maurice" (by Sandra)

My mother’s face was red and she was breathing heavily. I wasn’t quite sure if it was the intense heat or her rising anger. She remained silent as we boarded our boat-car, lips pursed into their characteristic thin, crooked line; I noticed that every button on her white cotton shirt had found its hole, all the way up to her neck, which had started to hang a little over the top of her collar. She was barely over forty, but the avalanche had started early. At ten, I didn’t fear my forty-something face. I should have.

She was struggling to start the car. Dad was at work. It was over a hundred degrees; we lived in the middle of nowhere, and the clunky air conditioner in the living room window had just died again. With her right foot, my mother mercilessly pummeled the old Dodge, another cast off from my father’s parents, fairly grunting with frustration and anger. Turn the key. Pump the throttle. Turn. Pump. If Dad had been home, he would have been outside in a jiffy, shouting at her at the top of his lungs to stop—she was flooding the engine. “Mrs. J, you’re flooding it! Stop! Stop!” Sometimes, my mother would do it just a few more times, just to make her point about the car, about everything. Then he would finally understand and hang his head. Loud and clear, Mrs. J. It was too late. At that point, we would have to wait for the car to return to a state of balance. Everyone would slowly disembark and dejectedly walk back into the house.

But this day, by some miracle, she got the engine to turn over. I was in the front seat, and my three younger siblings were in the back, probably mocking me, as usual. My mother broke her silence with a war whoop and we were off. Our tiny air-conditioned library, 20 non-air-conditioned minutes away, was waiting for us.

Once inside, we sighed with cool relief. We wandered over to the children’s section, where the tables were already too short for me, and my mother practically ran for the celebrity bios. The library couldn’t have been much bigger than our own tiny house, but it seemed like a mansion. Like Mom, I staked out my spot, away from my immature siblings, and found my own questionable material: Maurice Sendak. Before I was old enough to start sneak-reading my mother’s secondhand celebrity smut, Maurice opened a window in the room of my repressive childhood. My favorites were Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life, and In the Night Kitchen. I suspected that there was something subversive in the former, and something desperately titillating about the latter, but I was very sheltered, and couldn’t have explained my feelings. With a curious, heavy hunger, I poured over the pictures and messages in all of these books, even the popular Where The Wild Things Are, which also seemed a bit twisted for the squeaky-clean, don’t-question-authority, conservative fa├žade of my childhood home.

Once, I borrowed Higgelty, but I knew enough to avoid taking home In the Night Kitchen. As far as I know, my mother never saw it. In 1974, the book had been banned in several states; our librarian was either a hippie or a very distracted lady, like my mother. Maurice inspired me to question my world; his world had different rules. Sometimes, children just enjoyed the moment and didn’t worry about whether they were going to heaven or hell. Rules were broken or thrown away. Characters who questioned the meaning of life may have initially feared being eaten, but eventually everything worked out satisfactorily.

In some ways, I haven’t changed much. If someone had told my ten-year-old self that Maurice was gay (of course, he had not yet revealed his sexuality in the 70s), I wouldn’t have known what it meant, but if I had, I’m sure I would have smiled and said, “That’s why I like him. He doesn’t do what everybody tells him to do.”

Maurice has said that when he was a young man, he kept his sexuality secret in order to please his mother. He was sure that she would have been unhappy with him if she had known the truth. Certainly, when I was young, it seemed to me that my mother was not happy with any sexuality. As a result, all of my growing up work had to be done in secret. In my head. Without answers to many pressing questions. But also in the cool comfort of the library, at the children’s table, with the gentle guidance of an author who, like me, just couldn’t see the point in all the rules.

A special "thank you" goes out not only to those who sent us submissions, but also to everybody who loves books -- whether from libraries, local bookstores, or Aunt Edith's shelves. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff. I've been reading Sendak's books to my two-year old and she intuitively gets it. She loves In the Night Kitchen. He taps into something that speaks directly to children.