Our Reading Lives

Once a Library Kid, Always a Library Kid

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

We remember so little of our childhood. For me, the pieces comes in fits and spurts, not all of the details coherent or clear, and not all of them are true — parts are from your experience and parts are probably from stories you were told or stories you read and deeply identified with personally. But then there are memories so visceral that you know they were real.

For me, some of those best memories are tied to the library.

My town’s local library was not particularly great when I was young. It wasn’t bad, but it was small and didn’t have a great children’s collection. It wasn’t a super welcoming or inviting place. Fortunately, reciprocal borrowing agreements meant that we weren’t stuck with this as our only library; we could visit neighboring libraries and borrow books, so long as we returned them to that library (years later, that would change, too, where you could drop your books off at any system library and know they’d be returned to the proper place).

The neighboring town’s library was, in a word, my dream. It was big and spacious, with a wonderful children’s section. It was right when you walked through the double automatic doors, with a huge section of picture books, followed by easy and juvenile readers, followed by children’s nonfiction. Along the back wall, were a giant set of windows, a pair of odd reclined chairs made of metal, and my favorite shelves: the ones that contained each and every compendium of Garfield comics you could imagine.

Each week, when my mom or grandma would take me to that library, I’d dig through the Garfield comics, looking for a new collection to borrow. I left happy each week, since it seemed they always had new ones, even if they were only new-to-me since they’d been checked out to other readers before. I graduated from Garfield to Family Circus, located right in the juvenile fiction shelves. The same routine happened: each week, I’d pick out a new copy or two, breeze through it, then come back hungry for more.

They were always there waiting for me.

The library expanded when I was a little older, and the back windows and shelves beside them — as well as the weird chairs — were no longer where they once were. Instead, new shelves began to fill the back side of the library. These shelves began the library’s young adult collection. I remember being a high schooler and perusing them, pricked a bit by envy that, because I wasn’t technically a resident of that town, I couldn’t be part of their cool teen programs.

But that slight annoyance was assuaged by the books waiting there for me to pick up. My memory of picking up Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Patricia McCormick’s Cut are unshakeable; I remember finding them on those shelves, taking them home, and savoring each and every word within them. I’d picked up other titles, too, talking with my mom on the car ride home about Go Ask Alice (she’d read it when she was young, too).

High school progressed, and while YA was really coming-of-age in this era, it wasn’t quite what it was today. I read those books, but I was a big adult fiction reader, too. I’ll never forget blowing through the Oprah’s Book Club books, picked up from that library. The first Stephen King I ever read, Rose Madder, followed by a second, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and a third and a fourth and a fifth. I picked up Megan Mccafferty’s Sloppy Firsts, the first in the Jessica Darling series, after seeing my mom read it and thinking it sounded good; the series, to this day, remains one that holds a special spot in my heart because I literally grew up alongside Jessica through those books.

I remember picking up Michael Crichton books because of a boy. I don’t remember anything about the books, except that I wrote Mr. Crichton at one point for a school assignment, and he sent me back a form letter with a signed, glossy author photo.

This library, the one I grew up in, then became the place of my first library job in high school. I sorted and shelved books, faced the shelves, shelf read, hand-stamped date due stickers, and spent hours upon hours fixing up the children’s sections.

The same sections that I, as a child, certainly made into messes not much different than those in front of me.

I couldn’t tell you much about my time dancing as a child, or the time I did gymnastics, or the time I did basketball. I couldn’t tell you much about trips I took or places I went to — in part because as a kid, we couldn’t afford to really do those things — but what I can tell you is how much that library enriched my life.

And I can also tell you that no matter how many times I pass by a Garfield or Family Circus book, I’m instantly transported into that library, to those shelves, to those weird metal chairs, and to a place where I found an utter love for books and reading and libraries.