by Benj Thomas
Mrs. Summerfield, whom I remember as frail and dressed in pastels, was the children’s librarian in the New England town where I grew up. The library was a three-minute walk from my house, and from the age of seven on I made the trip weekly at least, with an armful of books. Mrs. Summerfield and I talked and agreed about books and authors – Marguerite Henry, Stephen Meader, John Tunis. I read constantly, more perhaps than was healthy, but books were my friends, repeat visitors to my bedroom, and even today recollected and even re-read with pleasure and gratitude.
Flash forward, to a point in my life when my children were all under five, my father was visiting, and I was immersed in what it meant to be a father (and a son). The book I was reading at the time was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers. This remarkable novel, written for adolescents, is about post-Roman Britain, but it’s also about fathers and sons. The children’s librarian in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where I was living, responded to my appreciation of the book, saying, “There are a lot of great books in this building and many of them are in this room.”
Bibliotherapy is the ten-dollar word for what I was doing, that is, gaining insight into my own issues through what I was reading. As a teacher of history to middle schoolers I practiced this all the time, using novels in my classroom whenever possible. Teaching about the American Revolution was better and more meaningful with Howard Fast’s April Morning, but it was also a really good book about adolescence and rebellion; the Great Depression came alive when kids read Irene Hunt’s No Promises in the Wind, but they also could reflect on hardship and social injustice. Such books not only let my students “walk in the shoes” of someone from another era, they provided these kids with a different and engaging perspective on their lives.
(Two other books also written for kids deserve mention as good and gentle vehicles for consideration of death. E. B. White’s masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web, is one; the other comes from Ms. Sutcliff once more, Knight’s Fee. I have read these two at least five times, and I feel in me a readiness to read them again.)
For those of us who (in theory) are not kids any longer, spending time with good literature written for kids is time well spent, informative and highly relevant to all of us. It’s easy enough to avoid the drivel that is mass-produced for the teen market and find books that are meaningful and well written. Your librarian can help you, much as Mrs. Summerfield helped me 65 years ago.
Benj Thomas is a City Council Member in Ukiah as well as a member of the Mendocino County Library Advisory Board