Ticket to Read: Richard Wright and the Library Card by William Miller, illustrated by Gregory Christie; Tomas and the Library Lady by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colon; The Library Card by Jerry Spinelli

By Lise Funderburg

Hungry Mind Review

When I was growing up, an occasional after-church ritual took me to the children’s room of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Here, in a long rectangular stretch of basement that was always pleasantly cool (long before air-conditioning), my sisters and I were set loose. I wandered through the stacks, crooked my head sideways to read the titles of the shelved books, ran my hands along each row of spines. With unprecedented autonomy, I was allowed to make selections, to exercise my curiosity and imagination. I could have whatever I wanted — a least until the prescribed due date.

Like most children, I had yet to amass much capital in life (social, financial, political, or otherwise), and thus this ritual offered an early, rare glimpse of entitlement and power. Better still, as long as I obeyed the simple rules — walking, whispering — surrounding adults actually condoned these forays into independence. Every piece of the experience was delicious. The temporary ownership whetted my appetite for more: there was the pure joy of reading, certainly; and I tasted citizenship for the first time as I handed over my library card at the checkout desk, my signature still awkward with the long, unwieldy name.

Three recent children’s books link these themes of liberation, imagination, and citizenship to public libraries. The first two are picture books based on actual events. William Miller’s Richard Wright and the Library Card fictionalizes an experience Wright himself detailed in Black Boy, his 1945 autobiography. As a teenager, Wright wanted to read but was too poor to buy books and was denied a library card because he was black. He convinced a white coworker to lend him his library card, which Wright then used under the guise of borrowing books for the card’s owner. Wright’s trips to the library were degrading rituals, where he bowed and scraped so as not to arouse the librarian’s suspicion. In order to read Mencken, Stendhal, Ibsen and others, he recalled in Black Boy, he forged a note that read, “Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy . . .”

The temporary humiliation was worth it, Wright noted, as reading began to transform his life. “I went to work,” he wrote, “but the mood of the book would not die; it lingered, coloring everything I saw, heard, did.”

Miller makes a wonderful choice in retelling this gripping tale, though he softens the edges of prejudice and Wright’s poverty for his young audience. And Miller ends the story on a simple, hopeful note: “Every page was a ticket to freedom.”

Too bad Miller left out the painful paradox that resulted from Wright’s reading: Library books not only opened up worlds to the budding writer, but they also revealed the boundaries of his existence as an impoverished African American during the Jim Crow 1930s. (Gregory Christie’s emotive and painterly illustrations, however, are rich enough for either version.) In the original telling, Wright wrote, “In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. . . . I no longer felt that the world around me was hostile, killing. I knew it.”

For Richard Wright reading acted as a double-edged sword, freeing his imagination but confirming his oppression. Pat Mora’s Tomas and the Library Lady, on the other hand, recalls a pre-Proposition 187 frame of mind. In this sweet, uplifting tale, Mora draws from the life of Tomas Rivera, a Mexican American who climbed from his family’s migrant labor roots to become the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside. In the book, Tomas’s family does seasonal farm work in two states. Mora opens the story in Texas as young Tomas, his brother, parents, and grandfather, Papa Grande, all pile into the family’s old car to head for Iowa.

Graced by Raul Colon’s sepia-glazed illustrations, this is a lovely depiction of a mind coming into bloom. When Papa Grande realizes that Tomas knows the endings to his oft-told stories, he challenges his grandson to go find new ones at the library. Tomas heads for town, where he finds a welcoming librarian who not only encourages him with books on dinosaurs and Indian camps, but also asks for impromptu Spanish lessons.

Tomas may be the adventurer in his story, but his family members are fellow travelers, attentive listeners as he reads from books he freely borrows from the library. At the story’s end, the family still drives a rusty car, sleeps on cots, and scavenges from dumps, but Tomas is clearly richer and, unlike Wright, his taste of liberation is not soured by a new awareness of bigotry.

Jerry Spinelli, too, writes of children on the margins. His book The Library Card is a collection of four stories for older children. In the first, slightly fantastic tale, Spinelli introduces twelve-year-old best friends Mongoose and Weasel as they perfect the art of shoplifting candy from a Mini-Mart. Weasel directs the caper, and the boys make it out undetected and with pockets full. On the cusp of adolescence, they are clearly at a crossroads. They notice that “people were smaller, or seemed so anyway. Their teacher, their parents, older kids, grown-ups — suddenly they were not the danger they used to be. And neither were their weapons: detentions, groundings, scoldings, rules, threats.”

As the boys careen towards delinquency, Mongoose fishes into his pocket for loot and instead finds a library card. Weasel tries to throw the card away, but it keeps showing up where Mongoose can see it, on his windowsill and then on his bedroom floor. The card seduces Mongoose, who uses it at the library to identify a bug he accidentally sprayed during a graffiti escapade. Mongoose begins to dream of cicadas and tickbirds, to conspire with his teacher as he discovers how to learn. Weasel, left behind, dreams only of owning a red ragtop with mag wheels.

In the book’s other stories, a TV addict goes cold turkey for a week, again meeting up with a mysterious library card that reveals, through a magical biography, the life she’s been missing. The library also provides relief to a homeless boy who is tortured by how little he knows of his deceased, drug-addicted mother. And a child isolated by her family’s move from the city to a mushroom farm rediscovers friendship when the bookmobile crosses her path.

Spinelli crafts arresting funhouse versions of the world. As was the case in his award-winning Maniac Magee, reality mixes with unexplainable coincidence. Still, core emotions are consistently credible and to his credit, Spinelli avoids the too-tidy ending: for example, Mongoose may have found a new world, but only by leaving his best friend behind.

In all three books, the link between libraries and the sense of belonging in the world is palpable. The card is a life preserver for the alienated and dispossessed. But the gumption that Richard Wright used to craft his counterfeit or that propelled Tomas to wander into town on his own are not as evident in Spinelli’s stories. For the most part, his protagonists seem capable only of response: Change happens from the outside; they are not the agents of it. And that bleak prospect can’t help but tarnish their victories a bit.

Aside from this small complaint, Spinelli succeeds, as do Miller and Mora, in depicting libraries as portals to a larger, richer, more engaged life. The writers also speak to the particular pleasure of books — the intimacy between the reader and the page, the pleasures of reading aloud to others, the power of choosing when and where and what to read.

I wonder, finally, whether current trends and attitudes that plague our country will render these books fossils. Will tomorrow’s library cardholders have that same chance to spark their imaginations through the joy of libraries? Will they be introduced to the rights, privileges, and constraints of citizenry as these protagonists and I were, in the simple act of borrowing books? A bleak prospect again, as our country’s nearly 16,000 public libraries grapple with budget cuts, high-tech muscle, and the alarming portion of the 44 million public schoolchildren who read below grade level. But there is reason to be hopeful about how we as a nation value our institutions, as the American Library Association’s past president recently noted: We live in a country where the number of public libraries still edges out the number of McDonald’s franchises. Phew.