SIRENS AND BADGES AND BOOKS—OH, MY!
I was eighteen months old when my parents moved to the town where I grew up—a town that did not have a library building. Plans were in the works for a fine new building to house the library, but for years the library was located in, of all places, the fire station.
Most people associate libraries with silence. By the time I knew how to turn the pages of a picture book, I associated libraries with noise and excitement. A trip to the library meant a chance to ogle the huge, gleaming fire engines and perhaps glimpse a firefighter clomping around in heavy rubber boots, wearing a slope-brimmed fire hat and lugging a coil of hose. Our town didn’t have too many fires, and we often suspected that the siren was used to summon the volunteer firefighters to the station for poker games. But sometimes there was an actual blaze, and the clamor of the siren was followed by the rumble of engines and the clang of bells as the fire trucks tore out of the garage. The stacks of books in those cramped library rooms at the back of the fire station would tremble as the trucks sped away.
At the age of six, I was finally old enough to participate in the library’s summer reading program for children. If anything could excite me more than sirens and big red trucks with flashing lights, it was the chance to earn a badge proclaiming me an Expert Summer Reader. To receive the badge, all I had to do was read a dozen books over the course of the summer.
The week after school let out for the year, my mother drove my sister and me to the fire station to sign us up for the program. I left the library staggering under a pile of books, with the librarian shaking her head and grinning at the exuberant little kid seemingly determined to earn her badge in record time.
I may not have set any records, but I recall receiving my badge in about two weeks.
The badge was nothing special—just a bell-shaped piece of wood with a pin glued to the back and “Expert Summer Reader” printed on the front. I tossed it into a box of keepsakes stashed on the shelf of my bedroom closet and never wore it. But those two weeks were enough to addict me to the joy of blitzing through books in the summer. That was the summer I realized that fire engines and badges weren’t the best reasons to visit the library. The best reason was all those books wating to be read!
Eventually the new library building opened its doors, just down the street from the fire station. Every week I was home during the summer, I’d bike to the library and fill my bicycle basket with books. I devoured Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona stories, Walter Brooks’ series of Freddy the Pig novels, Lewis Carroll’s fantasies about Alice. I wept my way through Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. I imagined myself a daughter in the One-of-a-Kind Family books and wished I was one of the youngsters in Edward Eager’s Half Magic and Magic by the Lake. I inhaled P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books, which were so much better than the movie.
By the time I was ten, I’d graduated into the adult books section of the library. My summer afternoons were spent lying on a blanket under the willow tree in my back yard, reading To Kill a Mockingbird, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Catcher in the Rye. A few summers later, I spent those steamy, lazy days reading anti-establishment novels: Catch-22, Johnny Got His Gun, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lord of the Flies, The Invisible Man. A few more summers and I was on my feminist fiction kick: Fear of Flying, Up the Sandbox, Memoirs of an Ex-Prop Queen, The Women’s Room.
People tend to think of summer reading as “light” reading, “fun” reading, “unimportant” reading. I’ve always thought of summer reading as reading enjoyed in great, lusty gulps. Reading so absorbing you scarcely notice the summer humidity and the shriek of a fire station’s siren. Reading you wish you had time for all year long.
In the summer, I get book-greedy. Give me a blanket under a tree—or, these days, a beach chair under an umbrella near the ocean—and a good book. That was my idea of bliss when I was six years old, and it’s my idea of bliss today.
Judith Arnold’s new release, now available in bookstores and on line, is Goodbye To All That. “Simply one of the best books of the year. A must read!” New York Times bestselling author Jill Barnett.