In the photograph, Mariah sits on one of the lower leafy branches of an old beech tree, her back to the camera, shoulders rounded as she studies something in her hands. It is the intensity of that study—communicated by the folds in her T-shirt, the tilt of her head—that makes the photograph a favorite. It captures the spirit of the child I once knew and so loved.
Rank amateurs when it came to children (we never got to have any of our own), Melissa and I were terrified that summer Mariah came to visit us for the first time. She was only twelve and we hadn't a clue what to do with a twelve-year-old. We planned picnics, visits with neighborhood children, trips to Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, trips to see the Shorebirds play. But, as it turned out, it was a visit to the library that sealed Mariah's affection for her aunt and uncle and Maryland's Eastern Shore.
I have no idea who first suggested the library, but I well remember the look of wonder that came over Mariah when she first caught sight of the children's section, summer reading program icons dangling from the ceiling, books everywhere, special sections for DVDs, music CDs, and audio books. Now you have to understand, Mariah had grown up attending an avant-garde school that scorned traditional teaching methods, with the result that, when she arrived that summer, she could read no better than your average seven-year-old. I remember wondering (with all the easy judgment of a childless brother) if my sister's advanced notions had doomed my niece to a life of semi-illiteracy. But then, all by herself, Mariah discovered Nancy Drew.
I'll never forget how covetously she used to look at that library shelf full of Carolyn Keene's works. In those days, just the sight of one of those little yellow books with the blue titles would make Mariah's eyes light up. At first she read the things slowly, haltingly, but by summer's end she was flying along, sharing favorite passages with me as you or I might share something out of Shakespeare or “The Aeneid.” Of course I work at the library now, which means I have long since grown accustomed to such transformations. It's what makes the library's summer reading program so much fun, watching the change that comes over young faces as, seemingly overnight, reading changes from chore to delight. One moment they are children, entirely dependent on the world around them, and the next, reading has placed that same world at their fingertips. They are off and running; the future is theirs.
In my favorite photograph, Mariah sits in a tree behind our house, her back to the camera, her mind intent upon something she holds in her hands. It is, of course, a little yellow book with a blue title. It is also a sort of lamp, a light that lit that child up that summer in a way I had never seen anyone illuminated before. The Talbot County Free Library gave Mariah that lamp. It continues, all these years later, to light her way.