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Up All Night: A Dramatic Child Gets Her First Library Card

Vanessa Diaz

Managing Editor

Book Riot Managing Editor Vanessa Diaz is a writer and former bookseller from San Diego, CA whose Spanish is even faster than her English. When not reading or writing, she enjoys dreaming up travel itineraries and drinking entirely too much tea. She is a regular co-host on the All the Books podcast who especially loves mysteries, gothic lit, mythology/folklore, and all things witchy. Vanessa can be found on Instagram at @BuenosDiazSD or taking pictures of pretty trees in Portland, OR, where she now resides.

Flatiron Books, publisher of Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

Wealth. Power. Murder. Magic. Alex Stern is back and the Ivy League is going straight to hell in the sequel to the smash bestseller Ninth House by #1 New York Times bestselling author and creator of the Grishaverse Leigh Bardugo.

I still remember the day I learned what a library is. I was in kindergarten and my teacher asked me if I liked books since I visibly perked up when it was time to practice reading each day in class. I told Ms. Helen that I did indeed love books. My favorite thing was books! “I thought so,” she said. “Then you’re really going to like our field trip next week.” That is when she explained what a library was and that we’d be going to one in a week’s time.

This information blew my tiny little mind. I talked my poor mother’s ear off from the time she picked me up from school till bedtime that day, so baffled and amazed by the concept of a place one could go to borrow books! for free! and in large quantities! all the time! I could not wait to go to this magical place and asked about it every day. “Is today the day? How about today?”

Then the day before the field trip, the teacher asked us to get out a pencil and some paper. The activity at hand: learn how to write our names. Why? Because we were going to be applying for library cards the next day and would need to sign our names on these magical squares of plastic once approved. My little overthinking self was instantly terrified. I convinced myself that if my signature wasn’t up to scratch, my application for a library card would be rejected. Did anyone say as much? No. Did I believe this with my entire soul anyway? You betcha.

So I gave this writing thing my all but was completely dissatisfied with my work. I remember actually telling my teacher I would do better as I packed up my things to go home in spite of the fact that she’d called my chicken scratch a good job. Thinking back on the look she gave me, she was definitely calling me a sweet summer child in her head. I was kind of a dramatic kid.

I went home and obsessed over this stupid signature, asking my mom to fill out my application (“Are you sure you did it right?”) then help me practice writing my name so many times that she had to pry my pencil away from me before dinner. I bugged my dad to help me after we ate, and he did, but also had to tell me to relax when it was time for bed. Was I satisfied? Of course not. I made a plan. I grabbed my dad’s flashlight from the hall closet and tucked it under my pillow along with some pencils and paper, pretending to go to sleep after my parents tucked me in for the night. I laid there patiently with my eyes closed until I was sure I could hear the sound of my dad’s snoring. With the coast clear, I pulled the covers over my head, turned on the flashlight, and got back to practicing writing my name over and over and over in secret. Side note: this is one of the few times I’ve been grateful for my Mexican parents not giving me one or several middle names, but I digress.

I don’t know how long my clandestine practice actually lasted: I thought I’d practiced all night when it was probably only minutes before I succumbed to sleep. All I know is that I woke up in a fresh panic, one that vibrated through my little body all through breakfast and the drive to school and then the short walk from school to our local library. I would be rejected, I was sure of this. My choppy little signature looked nothing like the smooth loops and lines of my mom’s! For shame! My hands were shaking when I handed in my application, to the point where the very friendly librarian asked me if I was okay. When she glanced it over, approved it, and handed me my brand new library card to sign, I took my sweet ass time writing my name with a little bead of sweat trickling down my forehead (I am not exaggerating). The librarian took a glance at my work, nodded, and told me I was all set. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Surely this was a mistake! I remember putting the card in my pocket and walking away feeling like I’d just gotten away with something huge. Like I said: a dramatic kid.

You probably already know what came next. You know how that little plastic card opened up a world of wonder. Having access to books and information and all of the services that come with a library card were as life-changing for me as they are for library users the world over. Books didn’t just feed my soul but helped me improve my language skills, boosted my vocabulary, helped make sense of tough subjects, and stoked my curiosity for learning. Maybe not right away, but eventually I would even get see parts of myself represented in books (and it did take a long time — looking at you, publishing). Books have been a constant for most of my life, and libraries have made it possible for me to access them to my heart’s desire.

I wrote this post for two reasons. The first was a desire to recapture some of the glee I felt when that librarian handed me that library card so many years ago. Books allow me to have the job that I do, a fact I’m eternally grateful for, but the truth is that when the thing you love becomes a part of your job, some of the shine and wonder wear off pretty quickly. It takes careful effort and intention to keep that spark alive, and it’s work I’m privileged to be able to do. Sometimes I just need to take a step back to remember why I love books so much in the first place.

The second reason is a response to this unprecedented wave of book banning and censorship we’re seeing now. Books and specifically libraries are that damn important or the effort to censor them wouldn’t be so fanatical. To be clear: it shouldn’t take acts of censorship and attacks on library professionals to appreciate their importance. They’ve been doing this work since the dawn of librarianship. I just can’t help but feel defensive of these institutions that have done so much for me personally. That little kid who stayed up all night (or an extra 20 minutes) to sign her name on that library card owes them the world.

Related Reading

How to Support Libraries in Times of Increased Censorship