Making Room for Readers

August 18, 2011 | 39 6 min read

One recent morning, my almost four year old daughter started crying out of the blue. I asked her what was wrong, and she wailed, “I don’t have a library card!” So with a proud paternal bibliophile’s heart swollen in my chest, I strapped her into her car seat and we set off for the library in search of a library card and—at her request—in search of Tintin books like those I’d told her were my favorite stories at the library when I was young.

We went first to the branch library in our end of town, a small, round building with walls almost entirely of glass. All those windows, and the books behind them, make it look pretty inviting, and we parked our car in the lot and I held my daughter’s hand as she skipped to the door, bubbling over with excitement. Unfortunately, it was closed; I’d known municipal budget cuts had reduced the hours of all library branches, but I’d thought that only meant it was closed on Fridays. Instead, it meant this branch—and all others, apart from the main library downtown—were open only a couple of hours four afternoons through the week. No mornings, no evenings, no weekends.

My daughter’s bubbling enthusiasm turned to tears outside that locked door, so I hustled her back to the car and drove to the main library as quickly as traffic and speed limits allowed. It was open, thank goodness, and we spent a long time exploring the children’s room, learning how to find “a book about astronauts” using the signs on the stacks and numbered shelves, and choosing other stories about dinosaurs, kids in school, and a penguin. We consulted the online catalogue, but the nearest Tintin books were a few towns away and would have to be requested for later (something the computers in the children’s room didn’t seem capable of doing, for whatever reason, unlike those in the adult section upstairs).

When we’d found enough books, my daughter strutted up to the circulation desk, stood on her tiptoes, and announced to the librarian, “I need a library card!”

The librarian, who must have been through this before, sighed and her face took on the look of someone who knows she’s about to disappoint a young patron. “Well,” she said, “here’s the rule. If a child is under five—and I know it seems kind of backwards—if a child is under five, she needs to be able to print her first and last name on this form.” She slid a small blue card in front of my daughter, and pointed to a narrow space for her name.

“She can write her name,” I said, “but maybe not small enough for that line.”

“I can do it,” my daughter said, so I got her a pencil and she did a great job writing her first name, Gretchen, but unfortunately those letters took up the whole space. We should have chosen a shorter name, I thought, as she got frustrated—understandably—and tried to print her last name, which she hasn’t practiced as much, in the margins of the card and ended up with a mess. “I can’t do it,” she said, her face melting.

“We’ll practice at home and try again soon,” I told her, while sliding my own library card onto the desk. The librarian gave us a couple of blank cards to practice with, and I drove home with a crestfallen face in the rearview. And she has practiced, with tongue-peeking determination, but she still can’t quite fit her name in that space so she still can’t quite get a library card.

Later in the day, I told my wife about what had happened, and she said, “It’s just like that girl who wanted your book.” I hadn’t made the connection myself, but a few weeks earlier I’d gone to Maine for a book tour event, a sidewalk signing for which I sat outside a bookstore and hand-sold my novel to passersby. I had some great conversations and lots of fun, and even sold a few books, but it’s the one that got away I’ll remember.

A young teenager—a tween, I suppose, but that label feels infantilizing—came down the sidewalk with two older women, and the eyeball on the front of my book drew her in as her companions kept walking. Her face lit up as she read the back cover, and she said, “This sounds good. Can I buy it?” At this point, though, her escorts had realized she wasn’t with them and had backtracked to my table.

Before I could answer her question, one of the women said, “I don’t know…”

“It’s okay, I have my own money,” the girl said, but the women with her shook their heads.

“Is it appropriate for a thirteen year old?” one of them asked, and I admit, it’s a question I hadn’t been asked before.

“I think so,” I told her. “It’s not graphic or violent or anything. I don’t think there’s any swearing.” But I should have played the “I’m a parent card” to increase my credibility, because apparently I wasn’t convincing. Or perhaps I should have borrowed Mitch Hedberg’s line that, “Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read!”

“We should ask your mother,” said the second woman, a note of finality in her stern voice. “Books are so… books are tricky. That’s something your mother needs to decide.”

“But I have my own money!” insisted the girl, her face as low as my daughter’s would be at the library later. “I can buy it myself.”

At that point, I would have given it to her for free, and I would have paid for any book she wanted in the whole store, just to keep her reading, but I had a feeling that offer would make it all worse. The decision had been made, and as the two woman turned and walked away up the sidewalk, the girl (a niece, perhaps?) took a last look at the cover, then gave a sad, apologetic look to me as I gave an equally sad, apologetic to her. Then she put the book down and dragged her feet up the sidewalk.

I don’t blame those two women any more than I blame the librarian. Their responsibility as guardians, whether they were aunts or family friends or much older sisters, is to watch out for the young person in their charge. Thirteen is a liminal moment between childhood and adulthood, so who am I to say what’s appropriate for someone that age, and for this particular thirteen year old I don’t know in the slightest. And let’s face it, there are probably lots of parents who’d worry about their son or daughter (or nephew or niece) buying a novel about a hermit who spends most of his story naked from a scruffy guy like me. That’s easy enough for me to accept. As my protagonist says, “if I saw myself bursting out of the woods, I might not offer help either.”

Yet I can’t help but remember that reading—both the careful selection of books and being given enough privacy to quietly read them myself—was among the first freedoms I had. Those early choices, and being trusted to make them, seem like foundational experiences now, decades later. That’s how my brothers and I found those Tintin stories, in fact, wandering the stacks of the library unhindered until we happened upon a whole box of Hergé’s books in a cardboard box on the very bottom shelf in the very back corner of the collection. They may have been stuck there as an afterthought or an embarrassment, forbidden from mingling with “better” books, but to me they were buried treasure. And now, as a father and author, I want my daughter to find treasures of her own in the stacks, and I want a girl like the one I met in Maine to find books that are hers, only hers, and to find them all on her own. I can’t think of a better honor than to have something I’ve written be that book for someone.

It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach. It’s a mistake to assume, as Alan Jacobs did recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in a passage later quoted by Shelf Awareness), that readers are, “mostly born and only a little made.” Because those discoveries in libraries and bookstores—and, yes, on my parents’ shelves, too—are what made me a reader, not some mysterious, bibliogenic accident of birth. That kind of thinking not only makes fewer readers, but might unmake the ones already forming. In an era of reduced library budgets and hours, closing bookstores, declining sales, and lost readers, discouraging anyone, of any age, from picking up a book they’re interested in seems like the last thing we should be doing. And to the thirteen year old girl I met in Maine, if you should somehow read this, any time you want it my book is yours. I’ll throw in a few others you might enjoy, too.

Image credi: pexels/Lisa Fotios.

is author of the novels Fram and The Bee-Loud Glade, and editor of the webjournal Necessary Fiction. He teaches at Emerson College and has a website at


  1. I don’t want to put words in Alan Jacobs’s mouth, but I think his suggestion is true inasmuch as my birth—both the circumstances of it and my genetics etc.—had much to do with my making those chance library discoveries that led me to my illustrious career as an MFA candidate and anonymous Harry Potter fanfiction writer.

    One of the first things I remember about books is that the mechanics of reading came easily to me, when almost nothing else did; that, I think, more than the accessibility of books, brought me to literature at a young age. “I can read faster than you,” not better but faster, was one of my first weird attempts at positive self-identification as a beaten-up primary schooler.

    Of course that doesn’t diminish the affecting personal anecdotes you’ve tied together here—the 13-year-old stranger is particularly sad to follow through into her alternate universes, especially the one where she becomes Harvard’s first professor of Steve Himmer studies. As for the first story, I can’t believe your local library is in the habit of giving four-year-olds the third degree—are we really so flush with would-be library users that we have to turn some away at the door?

  2. Beautiful article. Heartbreaking stories. I want the mental images of your daughter trying so hard to write her name on the card and both the girls’ crestfallen faces when they were disallowed from reading as they wished (sure, your daughter got to read the books because you had a library card, but what about kids who walk to the library themselves – and, anyway, she wanted her own library card! How admirable of her! What kind of library turns that down. Any free speech-loving librarian would find a way around that inane policy!) I remember having moments that remind me of what happened with the 13-year-old girl when I was in elementary school – picking out and then being told that something by Judy Blume or Jack London was “too old for me” (London, I remember specifically, and I was not only furious about having a librarian determine my reading level but also because I was pretty sure it had something to do with my being a girl – I’m in, like, second or third grade here); my response was usually, “But I read [x not-kid’s classic] this summer,” which did not work.

    I always thought the librarian was telling me the books were too difficult for someone in my grade to literally read and comprehend. It was only after I started working for American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which co-sponsors Banned Books Week and co-runs the Kids’ Right to Read Project that it more likely had to do with the books’ contents. I think this article will be my morning ABFFE tweet.

    For your daughter and the other children in the area, I might suggest contacting the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and asking them if such a policy is legal or compatible with the Library Bill of Rights, to which I kind of think the library is beholden if it’s an ALA member, and most libraries (or librarians) are. That library is discouraging kids from reading, and if kids who don’t read aren’t getting much help with learning to write anything, even their own names. I guess kids whose parents don’t take them to the library have to wait until they’re 5 or 6 to start reading? Good luck with your standardized test scores, graduation rates, crime rates, and, oh yeah, unemployment rates, state.

  3. I work for a public library and never have I heard of such a backwards policy as this. What is the point of such a rule? At our public library, we even give cards to babies from birth to 4years of age (one made specially for babies, with a cuter design), and at 4 they get a normal adult card just like anyone else. No hoops to jump through.

  4. Great article! I was moved by both your stories about young readers. I also think you’re absolutely right about the fact that readers are made, and not necessarily born. The best is example is that so many people of my generation weren’t readers until they discovered the Harry Potter series, and then moved on to other books, seeking a similar pleasure and eventually learning to appreciate books for more than just the thrill of a good plot. It’s important that kids and teens have access to people and places that stimulate their reading habits and give them that first opportunity to read, which can then develop into a true love of books.



  5. Mr. Himmer, this is a really lovely article; very evocative. I have a few quibbles with the examples (although not with your underlying message): Are you saying that the women who called books “tricky” were rarifying them? I’m not so sure I would agree with that–books ARE tricky these days for girls around 13. I’m a passionate book person both personally and professionally, and an equally passionate supporter of free speech, but as a parent I still look at it as my job to limit my kids’ exposure to subject matter that isn’t age-appropriate, whether in a book or a movie or a video game. (When I say “age-appropriate” I don’t mean that in a generic sense; I mean appropriate given what I know about my own kids’ individual readiness to explore some adult topics.) In practice, I can’t remember a single book I’ve said “no” to, but I can appreciate the hesitation. I do think some books for young teens these days are a bit “tricky” for scads of reasons. It is precisely because I so believe in the power of books to influence our thinking as well as open our minds that I wouldn’t jump to judge those women. (Someone in that girl’s household appears to have “made” her into a reader already, right?)

    Even the library policy doesn’t strike me as rarifying books; I see it another way. When your daughter does learn to fit her name on the card (or turns five), I bet that trip to the library will be one of the proudest, most memorable of her young life. The folks at that library seem to believe that the card signifies a certain level of maturity and responsibility, and that policy can be seen as a way to increase the value of both the card and the books for young children. Of course there’s a good argument to be made that perhaps it’s not the library’s job to parent, but in this case as well I’m not so sure the policy rarifies books as much as acknowledges their value.

    Anyway, thanks for this great piece of writing. I’m inspired to address it at more length myself! I’d love your thoughts on my thoughts.

  6. I definitely agree with your premise about reading being an encouraged act. Sure, there are always going to be sensitive souls, linguistic prodigies or just good old fashioned curious minds who become great readers in enviornments where there aren’t a lot books around (which I think would support Alan Jacobs’ argument). But- and this is a huge but- encouragement is all-important. After all, you could have parents whose shelves are filled with stuff and forbid the children to come hear them…

    Great piece. “One of the first freedoms I had”- way to put that freedom to use!

  7. Both of my daughters learned to write their names with one thing in mind: to get their library cards. They only needed to sign their first names, I will always cherish their cards (they will always too), on the back their sweet scrawl big round choppy letters, their names, their cards, their keys to the libraries treasures!

    I dream of putting books in any/every child’s hand at that moment, that exact moment when their soul is ready for it –whether for a book in general, or in particular.

    Oh, how the world can change with a book, with a library, with a word.

    My word for you is THANKS. (I am going to use paper and print this article to keep.)

  8. My sympathies to your daughter. When I was a child, my public library required us to be able to sign our name–in cursive–to get a library card. So I made my mother teach me, and got my library card when I was about 5. However, my elementary school teachers spent several years crossing out my name on papers and hand printing it above because I wasn’t supposed to know any cursive yet. Heaven help our children from power-tripping authority figures.

  9. Bravo! And thank you for this article! Your central point is essential in this day and age.

    Many of my experiences as a child reader mirror yours. The discoveries I made on my own, and knowing that my parents trusted me to make them, formed much of the foundation on which I built my sense of self.

    I also appreciate that you don’t want to judge the guardians of the young teenage girl. It’s always tricky when you’re dealing with materials that may not be age-appropriate. Still, though – I just can’t get behind the idea that the best way to deal with these materials is really to our children’s exposure to it and shelter them from it. Mainly because the world doesn’t actually work that way – our kids see all kinds of things we don’t even know about. Kids are too curious by nature, and far too clever not to find their way to some of these tricky materials despite our best efforts to prevent it. If they’re going to get exposed it, then it seems to me that best thing we can do is to do is to try our very best to make them ready.

    That’s what my parents did for me. They knew the risks of letting me explore on my own – and lord knows I got into plenty of stuff that wasn’t age-appropriate by today’s standards! -but they also believed that it was the greatest skill they could teach me regardless of those risks. And I always knew that I could go to them whenever I saw or read things that I didn’t understand or that disturbed me. Any question, any idea, any issue or strange feelings these things engendered in me – no matter what, my parents would help me to find my way through it, to answer my questions and deal with the issues without flinching. Nothing I could ask them was “bad” and I didn’t need to be embarrassed by any of it. And guess what? On those occasions when I wasn’t able to come to grips with something I’d read or seen, I would invariably choose of my own free will not to seek out that material anymore.

    I can never thank my parents enough for doing things that way! This strategy did me more good and helped to make me a stronger, more adaptable person than any attempts they might have made to protect or shelter me. I can’t help but think that the impulse to shelter our children has more to do with our own adult squeamishness than with our children’s ability to learn and cope. I think our kids can be stronger than that, if we raise them the best we can.

  10. Sorry, the sentence in the third paragraph is supposed to read, “I just can’t get behind the idea that the best way to deal with these materials is to LIMIT our children’s exposure to it and shelter them from it.”

    I hit “Submit Comment” too soon!

  11. Our local library does not have a minimum age. The child can sign their own name on the back or someone can sign for them, but regardless, they get a card!

  12. This article brought back some memories for me of getting my first library card at age four and writing my first name and last name around the wrong way, but getting away with it. The weekly visit to the library became a wonderful time of discovery and freedom of choice.
    I had hoped to keep the card, but an overzealous librarian cut it in half ten years later as they were updating their cards. I remember asking tearfully if I could keep the bits.. but no, ‘not our policy’ was the answer… It can’t of damaged me too much though, ‘cos now I’m a librarian! (not the make you cry type ;-)

  13. It’s a very well written piece and agree with the sentiments expressed .. However I like the fine distinction that one commentator Jody Reins makes in her “quibble” as she calls it, that the two examples the author quotes as “acts of rareifying” are wonderful story hooks but not the best illustration of the point.

    Not every library / book store is a ‘careful selection’ of books .. trashy material snuggles with ‘classy’ ones. The act of reading is one thing, .. but what happens in the formative years and mind of a child given to the pleasures of reading requires a little active guidance … NOT dictatorial but some mediation and negotiating .. through BOTH the trash and the classy and regular fare.

    I truly subscribe to the fact that just as what you eat builds your body, what you read builds your mind, thoughts and person – books ARE POWERFUL .. and one needs to learn how to equip themselves with the tools of judging their value.

  14. Except of course, that’s not *quite* what Alan Jacobs said, is it? In fact, that’s really not at all close to what he said at all. In trying to make your point even more powerful you’ve actually weakened your case quite considerably by incorrectly quoting, making me wonder what else you’ve made up.

  15. Hmmm it’s great that this Dad is so focused on making books available to kids. But I was once a 4-year-old and had to practice long and hard to write my name on the library card. And the main thing I remember is the huge feeling of accomplishment and pride when I finally got that card, my scraggly writing beautifully entombed in official-looking plastic. I was so grown-up, I could write, I had my own card, I could take out BOOKS!

    It was one of the many hurdles that come with learning, and I, like other kids, like kids are meant to do, took on the rest of the hurdles too: the toughness of learning to read, figuring out math, learning to share, etc.

    During the time it took me to learn to write my name on the card (and during the agonizingly long two-week period I had to wait for the now-signed card to be properly printed up in plastic) my parents took out books for me on their cards. To be perfectly honest, for all practical concerns, I didn’t really need my own card. It was more a symbol of my increasing abilities and independence than anything else (and kids love such symbols!)

    As to the girl who was refused a book because it might not be age-appropriate, I sympathize with the authors sentiments–it really annoys me when kids are quarantined into the (age 4-7) groups; I think it’s good to encourage kids to take on stuff that might be a bit above (or a lot above) their current level of understanding. It shows them that there’s lots of room left yet to explore, and they can come back a couple years or months later with a huge sense of pride because what once was barely comprehensible is now so easy.

    At the same time, I was refused a lot of books by my parents because of sexual content/violence, etc, and it didn’t seem to hurt me. I generally found a way to smuggle them in under the covers eventually anyway, and it gave me a sense of both proprieties/rules/boundaries–and how to break them.

    I do entirely agree that closing libraries is despicable though–just because books are going digital doesn’t mean we still don’t need librarians and places of learning to gather in. How are we going to reopen them/build new ones/make them better complements to the many new ways of accessing information? I think such issues would as worthwhile of discussion as how to protect our kids from the harsh, philistine librarians who think that children can actually learn to write their own names and should, perhaps, not have access to porn.

  16. I’ve worked in and with many public libraries over the years and I’ve never heard of one where the child needs to be able to print their name before getting a card. Most of the time, the parent or guardian just has to fill out the application and sign it so they are responsible for the child’s materials. I hope this library considers changes their policy. Libraries are all about access and especially for children access should be as quick and painless as possible.

  17. I read something age-inappropriate when I was a kid. This was before the Internet of course, and I was curious about what naked people looked like. Well, the only place I could find them was in my dad’s medical library, and they were pretty hideous pictures. Not normal naked people. But you know what? It didn’t make a damn bit of difference. I knew what I was looking at.

    My great joy as a child was taking the bus to the next town over where they had a library and spending hours there. Long live the book!

  18. On the article and on the first comment displayed: it’s very hard to grow up a book lover without books around. It reminded me of me and my elder sister: both my parents were eager readers, and my dad used to read Jules Verne to us (instead of “Sesame Street” or “Fluffy Teddy Bear Takes the Bus”) every night. I began reading and writing short stories (about ponies and the like) when I was five, and I loved getting dirty in those used Buenos Aires bookstores I searched with my mother (we were rather poor) looking for something new to read.
    My sister, though, wasn’t at first very fond of reading as a kid. The strategy my parents found? They kept an open mind and invited her to explore different kinds of books so that she would find something she considered interesting. They kept the bookshelves open and kept inviting her to the family visits to the used books store, inviting her to pick any book she liked while they got something for themselves. During her early teens, she did find something she liked: first, the quite unsophisticated romantic short novels by Corín Tellado, later good vampire stories… Eventually she developped a literary taste and she keeps reading a lot. If my parents hadn’t done that back then, if they had thought she wasn’t born with it, or that she was meant to read more “appropriate” things, my sister would most likely have given up on books long ago.

  19. Wow! I was really tired when I posted that comment. So many incomplete thoughts and sentences! Sorry for subjecting everyone to that!

  20. Excellent article. You made some good points about reading and readers that I think we need to listen to. I personally would do anything to not disappoint or obstruct that first contact with a potential life-long reader.

  21. It’s lovely how you took the time and effort to help your daughter get a card, and sad she couldn’t get her own. This brings back so many memories of myself as a young reader – being told I wasn’t old enough for To Kill A Mockingbird (and ironic, when you think of Scout being punished by her teacher for knowing how to read, essentially), the one and only time I forged my mum’s signature because I needed it to borrow a book (how weird is that rule?), and the sense of accomplishment when I reads my first book without any pictures at all. (wry smile) Also, staying up late under the covers with a flashlight to read.
    I think reading should absolutely be encouraged – readers are made, not born. It helps to have books casually lying around the house, littering counter tops and tables, but a good library really helps. And yes, the younger the better.

  22. So says Steve Himmer but he fails to consider the millions of children born into poverty who cannot become readers because their parents don’t read; because books are not found in their home; because the library is not where you go to get a book, but where you go to use the internet for the assignment that can only be done online and yet you don’t have an internet connection at home. Yes, it’s lovely that Steve’s 4 year old wants to read. But had Steve been born to a poor family and had no access to Tintin would he have been a reader? A writer? Let us not forget that for the 1 in 4 children in the US who live in poverty, an “accident of birth” has a profound effect on not only a love of reading but basic literacy. Statistics show that children who start school already behind in literacy never catch up.
    I don’t mean to detract from Steve’s main point here, that all children should be encouraged to read, but it simply is not as easy as that.

  23. I remember as a little girl wanting to borrow something from the adult (as opposed to children’s) section of the library. My mother had to write a note agreeing to let me borrow a book by Charles DIckins. Fortunately, libraries have changed, hardly a shush to be heard these days!

  24. Alan,

    Please do not think that all libraries are like that. At my library also, anyone of any age can have his/her own card. We too issue them to babies.

    Please tell your daughter that we cherish her (and you!)

    Kathleen F. Lamantia
    Canton, Ohio

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  26. When my oldest daughter was about eight, and had already been reading a while, I decided to try and subtly influence her taste in authors and classics. As Tom Sawyer and white washing fences, I made a point of her seeing me happily read ‘Of Mice and Men (I thought it was of a level where she could grasp most of the message). It worked and she devoured it. To this day, and she is 29 and a successful architect, we share books and reviews on a regular basis. It is one of the most enduring and rewarding aspects of our relationship.

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