If you take the 2 or the 5 subway train into the South Bronx and get off at the Prospect Avenue stop and then head south past the store selling spare parts for vacuum cleaners and sewing machines, you will eventually run into a plain brick building painted white and flanked by two attached brownstones.
To get in you need to buzz through two locked doors, show ID to security guards, be checked against the access list, then sign in on a battered clipboard. After that, you head out of the lobby and swing a right down a corridor with walls painted a very vivid shade of green and open a door at the end of the hallway that leads to a very skinny set of stairs that lead into one of the brownstones. Once in the brownstone, big windows let in warm sunshine, and posters and artwork are taped to the brick walls. A trio of outdated computers are locked to a hexagonal table with thick cables. Go one floor up and you are greeted with a miraculous sight.
It is a library, a library so small it could easily fit within a studio apartment in Manhattan’s midtown. Wooden bookcases line the walls. Every shelf is heavy with children’s books. When I was twenty-five, I spent a year’s worth of Tuesday afternoons sitting in a child-sized wooden chair reading to kids and listening as they read to me.
I have spent a lot of my life in libraries. In third grade our school library was housed in a trailer, conveniently located next door to my classroom which was also in a trailer. The library was dark and narrow, but it had a really cool machine that dispensed the shiniest pencils I had ever seen for only five cents each. A few years later when I arrived at a new middle school and didn’t know a single soul, I hid out in the library for every recess and lunch for two weeks. I spent college studying in an overheated reading room on the top floor of a library built in Neoclassical opulence. Today I take my kids to our local Harlem library where we know all the librarians by name, and I do a lot of my writing in the stacks of a private library converted from a townhouse in the middle of Manhattan. My life has been spent in dozens of libraries, but the one that stood out the most was that little children’s library in the brownstone of the South Bronx.
You could say that the brownstone library was private—exclusive, even—because it was. Only kids who lived in the attached building were allowed inside, because the building was a family shelter. The kids who had access to the brownstone library were homeless.
The library was filled with books, books that were new or in excellent condition and donated by schools and police athletic leagues and kids who asked their relatives to give books to their local shelter in lieu of birthday gifts. The quality and quantity of excellent books made the library a magical little haven for the kids living there—these kids weren’t always used to having access to abundant, new things—and it gave them a break from the chaos and uncertainty of shelter life and housing specialists and case workers.
One day, Steve, a second grader, swaggered into the library and slouched into the seat across from me. Steve didn’t love to read. He struggled to sound out words, and oftentimes he was so focused on getting the words right that he got to the end of the page and had no idea what the story was about. To encourage him, I bribed him. “Every time I visit you,” I told him, “we need to read two books. One book I choose out; one book you choose out. If you read to me every Tuesday afternoon, I’ll take you to a Yankees game in May.”
Steve didn’t agree to this arrangement immediately. He tried to bargain it down to one book, but I was firm. He loved baseball, so he finally agreed when he realized I wasn’t budging. We read lots of books together that school year.
After meeting with Steve for three months, his reading skills improved. It was around then that he read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein for the first time. The book was my choice, not his; he preferred sports books or books with only a few words per page. At the end of the book, Steve slammed the cover closed and glared at me.
“That boy said he be too good to be climbin’ up tree trunks and go dissin’ the tree like that, running around with girls. And now he goes and picks all them apples off the branches, stealing all the good stuff. Yo, that’s messed up. If I be the tree, shoot! I’d be like, forget you, boy. And you know what? I ain’t gonna call him boy no longer. I’m callin’ him old man! He looks like an old man!”
Steve, who had endless patience with his younger twin brothers and charm enough to make even the crusty security guard stationed at the front desk smile, was close to tears.
“The tree gave everything,” he accused me. “The tree gave up his whole life, and now he’s just a stump. I’m never be treatin’ nobody like that. Never.”
The Giving Tree, through Steve’s eyes, made me mad too. I thought about all the ways adults had let him down, all of the disappointments he had experienced, and all the broken promises he had listened to. When I got home that night, I threw my copy of the book in the trash.
By the end of May, Steve earned those Yankees tickets. I still remember him looking out onto the baseball field for the first time from our nosebleed seats. “It’s like a dream,” he told me, his eyes never straying from the green.
Steve, his mom, and his younger brothers moved out of the shelter not too long after that Yankees game. Like how it often happens in the shelter system, the move happened fast. I didn’t get to say good-bye to him. I didn’t get to give him the stack of books I wanted him to take to his new home.
Last week, my husband and I took our two daughters to their first Yankees game. Coincidentally, we had received free tickets from our local library because our oldest daughter had read so many books during the summer reading challenge. We sat high up in the stands, similar seats to the ones I sat in with Steve ten years earlier. My daughters were not so interested in the game, but they liked the Cracker Jacks and stared curiously at the fans yelling obscenities at the Houston Astros.
Sitting there in the stands, I thought about Steve. He must be seventeen or eighteen by now, a young man looking out at the giant world. I wonder where he is now. Did he do well in school? Is he going to college? What is his favorite book? Did he find a good library to spend time in? Does he still love the Yankees?
A few days ago, I reread The Giving Tree.
Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.
I think about the books I would give to Steve if I saw him today. Books that speak truth, books that tell him to dream big and to love and to have courage. I would give him Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, and Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson. Books by Walter Dean Myers and poetry by Lucille Clifton and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I hope the time we spent reading together made a whisper of a difference in Steve’s life. I think about our conversations on those Tuesday afternoons, conversations that never would have happened without that precious jewel of a library. That humble library filled with books donated by adults and kids who believed that access to books was as important as access to clean water or fresh air or healthy food. That top floor of a South Bronx brownstone that gave these beautiful kids a world beyond the walls of a homeless shelter.
I remember the faces of those kids who learned how to read for the first time in that library, and the kids who were transported to another place and time through those books, and the kids who had a reaction—both good and bad—to a story they read out loud to me.
And in the end, I have to think that yes, that library made a world of a difference. To me, libraries will always have the power to do that.
To donate books to kids in need, contact your local homeless shelter or city homeless services.