When I first began working at the library, I was often embarrassed to find myself stopping to thumb, absentmindedly, through some children's book I was supposed to be re-shelving.
Before you write me off as just another old-timer taking his first faltering steps into second childhood, do yourself a favor and check out the children's section of the Talbot County Free Library. Children's sections aren't what they used to be.
When I was a kid, the children's section in my hometown library stood behind a big door at the end of a long dark basement corridor. The door had a frosted glass window in it with the word “Juvenile” painted on it in black. At least in memory, the room behind that door was populated exclusively with titles like A Little Pilgrim's Progress and Swinford's Multiplication Tables. Certainly there was something about the place that made learning and growing up seem an awful duty, one that demanded more, perhaps, than my small heart could bear.
But children's sections today are warm, welcoming places full of books about everything you ever wanted to know about dinosaurs or Harriet Tubman or snowboarding or Bolivia. Dylan Thomas once famously observed that children's books “told me everything about the wasp, except why.” Well trust me Dylan, nowadays, in the children's section of the Talbot County Free Library, you can even find a book that will tell you why.
Which, I hope, goes some way toward explaining why this shelver can sometimes be found reading the juvenilia he's supposed to be re-shelving. I'm not senile, at least not yet, but I am most certainly fascinated. I mean who could resist one of David Macaulay's books showing how a medieval castle was built or a Roman coliseum constructed?
Speaking of fascination.
It is a truism among those of us that shelve for a living that every cart full of returns we wheel into the children's section will contain at least three books about horses.
I have seen the little girls that check these books out. They stand before the shelves devoted to their favorite subject, a book or two already clasped beneath their arms, and squint at what's left, foreheads wrinkling in concentration. This is serious business. Nothing is more important than the horse they're learning about, the horse they're preparing to care for, the horse they know—know!—they will someday own and love and cherish.
And when they grow up? What do you suppose becomes of them when they grow up, enter the “real world”? Are there, among our community's female real estate agents and doctors and merchants, are there one or two that even today—as they hurry through the library toward the DVD they'll watch this weekend or the book-on-tape they'll listen to in their car—are there one or two that still, from time to time, cast a wistful glance toward the children's section, remember the friend they once dreamt of, the sound his teeth made as he munched his oats, the horsey scent he left on their jeans, the end-of-the-day fatigue they would have felt, the end-of-the-day fatigue and contentment and joy?
If they do, I would invite them to return to the children's section, revisit the stories of their youth. All their old favorites are still there—The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, My Life As A Horse Veterinarian—as well as many new additions to the equine canon.
Indeed, whatever you wanted to be when you grew up—fireman, ballerina, cowboy—I would invite you to visit the children's section of the Talbot County Free Library, touch again the books that first provoked your wonder. I can guarantee you the experience will be gratifying. But you mustn't be surprised if some of even our newest children's books show signs of wear and tear. For these are the stuff of dreams. They have been lovingly handled again and again. Some have doubtless even lain beneath the dreaming heads they inspired.