When I was 13, I got a job shelving books at the public library in Duluth, Minnesota, the most stultifying job ever held by anybody on the face of the planet. (Or so I thought.)
At first I worked just a few hours after school, but later the librarians scheduled me to work on Saturdays, too. I resented giving up my weekend, so I decided to quit. As I was giving notice, I mentioned casually that it would have been fun to work in the children’s room.
The head librarian said, “OK,” and instead of handing me my final check she reassigned me to the joyous, noisy first floor, the room of tiny, colorfully painted chairs and Saturday afternoon puppet shows.
No, no, I’m quitting! I silently screamed. And then it was so great I stayed for the next five years.
Working in the children’s room opened up a world of books for me. By day, I was an Advanced-Placement high school student studying the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare; but in the evenings, after work, I stuffed my tote bag full of children’s books and read them furtively and joyfully on the bus ride home.
Good children’s books are worth their weight in gold; they are funny and wise and true and have insights into life and the difficult task of growing up. They hold up over time and through many re-readings. Here are four titles I loved then, and love still.
“Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet wore glasses (like me) and she wanted to be a writer (like me) and she sneaked around spying on neighbors (like me) and wrote down stories about their lives (like me). When she started spying on her friends — and then her friends found her notebook — all hell broke loose, but she remained defiant. I love the last scene where Harriet lugs her father’s typewriter up to her room. She jams a piece of paper into the roller and starts typing furiously. She is me, I thought. Of course, over the years, millions of other kids have thought the same thing.
“Greensleeves,” by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. This captivating novel is the story of Shannon Kathleen Lightley, a young woman who is hired by her attorney uncle to find out why an elderly woman left her money to a group of strangers instead of to her own children. To do her sleuth work, Shannon changes her name, her appearance, even her accent, and lives for the summer as a completely different person. It’s an exciting adventure, a mystery, a love story, and, of course, a study of identity. (In the end, she says mournfully, no matter how she wears her hair or snaps her gum, she’s still just “nobody but me.”)
“Witch of the Glens,” by Sally Watson. A kelpie is a Scottish water witch, but in this historical novel set in 17th-century Scotland, Kelpie is a young gypsy lass with the gift of second sight. She’s a stubborn, resourceful, conniving, strong-willed thief who gradually learns that she has a moral center and that she is open to love.
“Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White. The first time I read it, the book was about a pig and a spider and some talking animals, including a rat. The second time I read it, it was about a girl leaving childhood and moving toward adulthood. And when I read it again, not all that long ago, it was about the importance of friendship and the power of writing. White felt like a failure; he always wanted to write something significant and profound. He seemed not to understand that in this book, he had.
What do these books have in common? Great stories. Writing that transports. Layers of meaning. And protagonists who are smart, resourceful girls.