Mom, Archivist, Devotee

For years now, I’ve been documenting Caroline’s life so she can read about her childhood when she gets older. It started with a baby book, which went up to age six. I was pretty faithful about filling in the many blanks, but somewhere in the house, there’s a plastic baggie full of baby teeth that still need to be taped inside. Baby teeth are the height of creepiness and sentimental value, am I right?  

When she entered school, I started storing her ephemera in file folder boxes – artwork, Christmas concert programs, report cards, photos. This year, however, was different. She finished sixth grade, partly remote, partly in person, fully indifferent, and all she got was this lousy t-shirt. But seriously, there were only two keepsake items: a dance recital program and a certificate marking her confirmation at church. Soon, I’ll drop her vaccination card in the folder and call it a year.

Not long ago, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “artwork” coming home from school and church. I tried not to feel guilty as I buried papers in the recycle bin, hoping their absence would go unremarked. But today, with zero artwork and not a poem about poop (or any other topic) in sight, I feel a bit let down.

I keep these records with an eye to the future, imagining looking through the file boxes together someday, laughing at the letters she wrote us begging for a cat, cooing at the sweet little handprint turkeys.

FYI, handprint art is a genre unto itself. Preschool teachers have handprint craft ideas up their sleeves for every occasion, Juneteenth and Tax Day included.

Alas, we are way beyond the era of handprint art, but grimy fingerprints on phone and iPad screens remain. While I’m trying to wean myself from writing too much about Caroline these days – she deserves the chance to tell her own stories – I will continue to document her days, as my mom documented mine.

A couple years ago, my parents cleaned out their attic and brought me a wicker trunk and large plastic tote filled with my life – yearbooks, artwork, beloved toys, and more. I don’t know what to do with it, but I see it as a symbol of Mom’s pride in me. It represents what she thought I’d want to remember – the poems I wrote, the pom-pons I shook, the proof that once upon a time I was a Sparta High School mathlete.

Because of this special kind of mother-love, I was struck by a passage in Michelle Zauner’s book Crying in H Mart when she comes across the ephemera of her childhood her mother had kept: “She was my champion, she was my archive. She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions. She had all knowledge of my being memorized. The time I was born, my unborn cravings, the first book I read” (223).

The author’s mother had died, sadly, but this collection of childhood memorabilia would serve as a sort of identity guide in her adulthood: “Now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind.”    

Here’s the zinger sentence: “She observed me with unparalleled interest, inexhaustible devotion” (223). Yes, I know something of that devotion, and I acknowledge how very blessed I am.

Next school year, I hope for band concerts and photos with full facial nudity (that is, no masks), but whatever the future brings, I’ll be standing by with my file boxes ready to archive her one wild and precious life.

-Em : )

Hope Springs Eternal (in the Library)

It’s been quite a year in the library – a very quiet year, since students haven’t been able to visit. Because of COVID, I deliver books to the students’ classrooms. Some days, they greet me like I’m the ice cream man. “Hey, it’s Mrs. Chemical with library books!” No doubt, from time to time my visit has helped to break up the monotony of sitting masked and staring at screens. And whether they get my name right or not, I truly appreciate the appreciation.

I spend about ten minutes on each visit, unloading my cart of books like an itinerant peddler and letting each student have a look-see at my wares. Most of the time, they decide quickly, especially if I’m well stocked with Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries, perennial favorites of many third, fourth, and fifth graders. For first graders, I bring at least two copies each of Berenstain Bears, Arthur and Friends, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Fly Guy. I give the people what they want.     

Some students are terribly indecisive. They look and look, but nothing strikes their fancy. I get it – I’ve been known to browse a bookshelf myself – but COVID times call for quick decisions and a whole lot of hand sanitizer.

I try to hurry things along, based on what other kids their age like. For third grade boys, my first hurry-up question is, “Do you like dinosaurs?” Nine times out of ten, I sell them on a solid prehistoric nonfiction read. Say they don’t like dinosaurs? I try outer space. Astronauts and dinosaurs are a surprisingly easy sale for such boys.

However, one little boy proved to be a tough customer. Doesn’t give a flip about dinosaurs, and outer space is beyond meh. I eyed the clock and offered a few more suggestions. Magic Tree House? Nope. Bad Guys? Not really. A really nice selection on caring for Siamese cats? Nah.

At that moment he stared past me, a faraway look in his eye as he asked, “Do you have any books about . . .” Here he paused for what felt like eternity as I searched his little masked face for some hint. “About . . .” he repeated, “about concrete?” I blinked. Never in a million years could I have predicted that.

The crazy part is, I did have a book about concrete. Well, it was about cement mixer trucks, but it was just about perfect for him.

Although I couldn’t sell my little friend on a Siamese cat book, books about animals are immensely popular with the K-5 set. When a student chooses a book about chinchillas, chances are very good they want me to know that their cousin has a chinchilla, and it’s soooooo cute, and they love reading about furry animals, but they hate snakes and love snacks. I love these conversations.

Many kids who have pets at home like to read about those animals. If they don’t tell me when checking out an animal book, I always ask, “Do you have any pets?” Some do, some don’t. I just feel that it’s important to show interest in their interests. One thing is consistent with all young readers who don’t have pets. They all tell me, “No, but I’m going to get a puppy real soon.”

I say, “Wow, that’ll be so exciting to have a puppy!” Maybe they’re right; maybe half the families in our district are in the process of getting a puppy. I think it’s more likely a statement of hope. Saying it makes it a little bit more true.

So I’ll go ahead and say this: we’re getting back to normal, daily life really soon! Probably by autumn.

There. Maybe I’m right.

I know I’m right about one thing: hope springs eternal, especially in the library.  

-Em : )

More Than a Library Book

At the end of last year, I’d planned to make 2020 my year of reading books from the K-8 library where I work—to really understand what the kids like to read. Then came Christmas morning, when I unwrapped a nice stack of books from my husband, including A Month in Siena, Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, A Short Philosophy of Birds, and RisingTideFallingStar. Then, in January, two friends loaned me books I’d wanted to read—Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and Tara Westover’s Educated.

All of which is to say it’s late February, and I’ve read only five chapter books aimed at middle schoolers. Maybe my goal was too much like a New Year’s Resolution to succeed. (I’m terrible at keeping those.)

Also, life is too short to restrict your reading.

Of the chapter books I’ve read so far, I really enjoyed Fair Weather by Richard Peck, the sequel to A Year Down Yonder. As for the other books I read—one classic of YA lit, one current children’s horror novel, one award-winning historical nonfiction narrative, and the other two I barely remember—they prompted me to go back to reading whatever the heck I want and fill in the blanks with the occasional Wimpy Kid or Flat Stanley.

It’s not that I think children’s literature is somehow less important, but that this job doesn’t require literary expertise. Students don’t ask for my recommendations as much as they seek my attention.

Some jobs call for expertise; this job calls for love.

For some students in the library, the books are peripheral. Sure, they need to check out books so they can take comprehension quizzes and earn points toward their Language Arts grades. Yes, ideally students should find books that spark their interest. Reading should be fun, and I do my best to get the right books into the kids’ hands.

However, I’ve noticed that sometimes choosing a book is about much more than reading. At times the book is a symbol of something bigger, an emblem of something longed for. When you’re a young reader choosing a library book, often it’s about what the book says about you.

Back in the fall, very young students would ask when checking out a book, “Is this mine now?” I’d tell them the book was theirs to read for a couple weeks and then they must bring it back and choose another one. If they’d never borrowed a library book before, this arrangement blew their minds.

For older readers, the book’s value sometimes lies in the cover with the picture of a teen on her phone, the title in swoopy pink letters that signify how very grown up you are.

One day a boy checked out such a book marketed to girls, with a lavender and pink cover. When a girl snickered at his choice, I gave her the raised eyebrow. We don’t judge others’ book choices, whether by reading level or taste. Not on my watch, anyway.

Sometimes the kid chooses a classic they think Mom will like. They imagine pulling the book out of their backpack and taking turns reading to each other before bed. Maybe some reading with Mom before bed would be nice.

I saw actual stars in a fourth grader’s eyes as she told me how much her mom would love the book she’d chosen.

One little boy chose a Star Wars book because his dad loves Star Wars. He was certain his dad would be excited at his choice. I asked if he, the boy, was a Star Wars fan, and he answered with hope in his voice, “Sort of?”

I saw then that it wasn’t about reading. It was about the look on his dad’s face when he saw the Star Wars book casually placed on the kitchen counter.

A library book is about so much more than the content of its pages. Sometimes it’s about hopes or dreams or self-image or ownership, however temporary. It’s about learning to read and reading to learn—and along the way learning who you are in this big world.


Eleanor Roosevelt quote

Looking Back on Fave Reads

So, lists like this are supposed to come out at the end of the year. However, the end of 2017 afforded me no time for reflection, much less thinking back on things I read.

Of the 35 books I read last year, three were fiction. I strongly prefer nonfiction to fiction. Not sure why. A few years back I went through a phase when I couldn’t stand music. These days I can’t tolerate most fiction. Give me a stylized slice of real life, and I’m happy.

The exception to my nonfiction preference was Diane Glancy’s The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha. I’m not sure how I came to read this work of historical fiction, since it’s far outside my usual taste in books. Still, I could not put it down. After I finally did put it down, it haunted me.

Glancy narrates the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk woman who was converted to Christianity by the Jesuits. A smallpox epidemic has left her badly scarred, nearly blind, and orphaned, but her life in the aftermath is both piercing and tender. (Another novel I read last year, Molokai, similarly told the story of a girl whose entire life was altered by leprosy.) My fave quotation:

Father James de Lamberville read the scriptures for scriptures to read to us. He told us about the cherubim in Ezekiel—they had four faces, a man, a lion, an ox, an eagle. They had hoofed feet on wheels and wings. They were full of eyes. There were animals in heaven, they said. The Indian spirits were counterfeit of these (30).

My favorite 2017 book, nonfiction category, was Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink. Kurshan tells the story of her life as an American woman living in Jerusalem in the aftermath of divorce, and joining the “world’s largest book club”—that is, reading the daily page of the Talmud with fellow Jewish people all over the world.

First off, a memoir about reading is right up my alley. Second, I’m fascinated by Torah study and the wild creativity that seems to be not just acceptable but standard in midrashim. I lapped up this book. Here’s a favorite quotation:

I knew God—and I continue to know God—primarily in shadows cast by other people. . . . I sought out God the way a traveler through the forest might seek out the moon through the trees; sometimes it was hidden, other days it was just a faint crescent, still other days it was a full orb with mountains and valleys of variegated hues. But it was still just a play of shadows, as all moonlight is (70).

Other favorites in 2017 include Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (once I worked up the courage to read it), Bitten by a Camel by Kent Dobson (a work of astonishing honesty about finding God), and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs (a well-researched book exploring infertility and the author’s individual experience of it).

What magic words will 2018 hold? Well, I just finished my pastor’s book, Love God, Love People, Don’t Do Dumb Crap by Rev. Shane Bishop, and I will soon crack open Philip Jenkins’s Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made Our Modern Religious World. (Caroline also assigned me some Rainbow Magic Fairy titles to read.)

What book(s) will stick with you beyond 2017?

school hallway

Dream. Read. Learn. Good advice from the hallway at East St. Louis High School.