Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Of libraries, great books, and career paths...

I discovered the library when I was in second grade. That was the Big Year we were allowed to visit the Bookmobile and take out books. Somewhere in those early years, I found Harold and the Purple Crayon – and I took it out as one of my two choices as often as I could. I loved that book, although I couldn’t have told you why. At least, not then. Now I suspect it had something to do with creating one’s own reality – much the way I love to do when I write stories.

By fourth or fifth grade, my dad was taking us for weekly visits to our local library branch on Winton Road in Rochester, NY (my hometown). This was a brand-new building with a large children’s room and more books than I’d ever seen in one place. I loved it. My dad would let my brother and I go – and being off the leash, I suspect, was part of the allure. We were free to roam throughout the room and read as many books as we wanted while he sat down and read the newspaper – or chose books of his own from the “Big People” room (as I thought of the main reading room). When he came into the children’s room, it was time to show him the two choices we’d made and take them up to the desk to get them stamped, just like an adult. Heaven!

Somewhere in fifth grade or so, I discovered the Sue Barton books in the children’s section. Sue Barton, if you’ve never heard of her, was a nurse. Throughout the seven books in the series, you followed her all the way from her first moments in training (Sue Barton, Student Nurse), all the way through getting her cap, getting married to the handsome young intern she met at the start (now a doctor, of course), through her adventures as a Visiting Nurse, a Superintendent of Nurses, and eventually, a staff nurse. I read them all. Over and over again, to my mother’s chagrin. “There are other books in the library, you know,” she told me when I restarted the series for the third time.

“I know,” I told her. “But I’m going to be a nurse…and these are good books!”

Well, my dream of being a nurse took a nosedive in 6th grade when we were shown a 16 mm print of a cornea transplant. I stopped re-reading Sue Barton, and by the time I got to 7th grade, the Winton Road Library had a new section: Young Adult. There I discovered Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and the whole new world of science fiction. Sue remained a favorite memory, although I didn’t take her books out anymore.

Time marches on, the newsreels tell us, and I found other parts of the library as well (an entire section dedicated to plays!). New genre, new interests, and eventually, new libraries to explore – all of which left the children’s room at the Winton Road Library in the dust.

Recently I had cause to go through some of the boxes of books in our attic, most of which contain books I had from my childhood. I’d kept them for my own kids, but discovered (as all parents do), that my reading tastes were not theirs. In order to make more room on my study shelves, I’d boxed up all their books as well as all my own. In an effort to streamline (and make more room in the attic), I decided to hoe out some of those books. Time to pass them along.

And who should I discover in the dark recesses of the attic, and my equally cobwebby memories? Sue Barton! I’d found four of the books by Helen Dore Boylston at a library sale before my kids were born and had bought them out of my remembered love of them. But I hadn’t re-read them at that time. For whatever reason, they had simply gone into the boxes for storage.

Now, however, I couldn’t resist. With some (okay, a LOT) of trepidation, I opened Sue Barton, Student Nurse. What if it didn’t stand up to the test of time? Would it be as wonderful as I remembered? How disappointed would I be if I discovered it was terrible?

I read the first few pages, pages that were brown and fragile with age. Then I read a few more. And just one more chapter…I was hooked. The writing is still engaging, still fresh, and still pulls me in after all this time. While dated (it was written in 1936 and medicine has made some advances since then), its still a wonderful story about a red-headed nurse and the adventures she has along the way. While we no longer have hospital wards and nurses no longer have to wrap their own bandages, nurses still wear soft-soled shoes and work harder than anyone realizes. The books still stand as a testament to a profession that deserves our respect – and our thanks.

So thank you, nurses – and thank you Winton Road Library, for allowing me to take those books out over and over and over. You gave me a love of reading – and reading takes me to new worlds and shows me new ideas. I passed by you not too long ago, and wished I had time to stop in. Would you, like Sue Barton, have withstood the test of time? Will you still have that new building/old books smell that I came to love? Will people still be sitting around reading and will the children’s room still hold magic? I no longer live in your neighborhood, but I do believe I may have to visit and see.

Play safe,
Diana, who is feeling nostalgic – and who will proudly admit she read not one, but TWO Sue Barton books that day. Two more to go! J