It is impossible to form a perfect circle, so the children position themselves in a lopsided one around Mrs. Beasley, the soon-to-be retired librarian. She loves her job and all the library patrons, the children who come for story hour, the high school misfits who take refuge in the library during lunch hour, the unhoused who drift in for warmth and a cushioned seat. But she is getting on in years and it is time to enlist someone who is younger and has more energy. That someone is Diana, who has just completed her degree in Information and Library Science.
Mrs. Beasley hopes that Diana will move from the observation phase to the active participation phase of her training, but so far, she is disinclined to do so.
“Why don’t you try your hand at story time with the kids?” coaxed Mrs. Beasley.
“I’d rather see how you do it first,” replies Diana.
Mrs. Beasley marks her disappointment with a sigh and offers a few tips. “Well, I usually try to get the children seated and quiet and if you can do that, it’s half the battle,” explains Mrs. Beasley. “Then I try to do some kind of icebreaker with them so they can get it out of their systems, and are prepared to listen to the story. But I always start with the same reminder.”
“It’s so nice to see everyone! Before we start, what should we do?”
In unison, the children say, “Respect the books. Respect each other.”
“Perfect,” responds Mrs. Beasley. “Now we can begin. Last week we read one of the Magic Tree House books. Who remembers what it was about?” Dylan’s hand shoots straight up, untucking his shirt in the process.
“Yes Dylan. What was the book about?”
“It was about mommies.”
“Not mommies. Mummies,” corrects Mark.
“Okay, what can you tell me about Mummies?”
Several of the boys snigger before Jeremy says, “Before the mummies are wrapped in bandages, they remove their brains through their nose with a giant hook.” Jeremy emphasizes the word giant.
“I want to be mummified,” cries out Dylan, causing the older boys to collapse in laughter.
“Well today we’re going to be reading about other fascinating things in Egypt. Now just for a minute, I want you to close your eyes and imagine you are in Egypt. What kinds of things can you see?
“Those are all great answers,” Mrs. Beasley is saying but before she can continue Jason Miller bursts into the library holding a box turtle.
“Look what I found by the creek!” The turtle, as if taking a curtain call, pulls his head out of his shell and rotates it as if to take in all the children.
“I want to hold him,” says Dylan.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not so fast. Before anybody holds the turtle, let’s find out about this little guy,” says Mrs. Beasley and whisks the children over to the computer to search for reference books about the turtle.
At the end of story time, the children know all about how to feed and care for Jason’s turtle. They understand the importance of washing their hands to avoid contracting salmonella. They learn how the turtle lays eggs and how long it will take for them to hatch. A few express their sadness about how few will survive.
They have also found an empty book carton and place the turtle in his new home, and although twenty pairs of eyes stare down at the turtle, it is no longer waved around like a softball trophy. The children have voted on a name for the turtle in an impromptu election, which has taught them about democracy. His name is Jasper.
Cleaning up afterwards, Diana remarks, “Storytime kind of got derailed by the turtle, huh?”
“Derailed? Oh, not really. I think everyone learned some important lessons.”
“But there wasn’t any time left to read.”
“Today’s lesson was about learning how to use the catalog system to find the information they need. It was about not endangering animals and keeping them safe. It was about pulling together as a community. Reading is just the vehicle for all that, and today we didn’t need it.”
“What was that you have the children say?”
“Oh, we always begin and end in the same way. ‘Respect the books. Respect each other.’ I figure they can’t hear it enough. I started having them say this a few years ago, and ever since, we get a lot fewer books back with stains and spills and torn pages.”
“And the ‘respect each other’ part?”
“A way to teach them to listen when others are speaking. That everyone’s opinion matters. That everyone should be heard.”
* * *
Mrs. Beasley begins setting up the room for the teen storytelling hour when she spots Jo-Ellen at the circulation desk.
“Could you help Jo-Ellen check out her books please?”
When Diana informs Jo-Ellen that there is a four-book limit, Mrs. Beasley intervenes just in time to save a crestfallen Jo-Ellen.
“Not for Jo-Ellen. She can check-out as many as she wants.” As Jo-Ellen scoops up her books, Mrs. Beasley shoots her a wink and a smile.
It’s five thirty and the teens are pouring into the library.
“I’m surprised so many teens are interested in story time.”
“Oh, it’s good fun. They read the chapters at home and then they act them out at story time. Not everyone is into sports, you know. So, this gives them an alternative. A group they can belong to.”
The teens position themselves in a circle around Mrs. Beasley, some sitting on the floor and some laying on cushions.
“Okay before we begin…”
“Respect the books. Respect each other,” they chant.
Years have passed since Mrs. Beasley’s retirement but story time lives on. The town does not stand still, although some would probably like it to.
The board members sit around a rectangular table with their coffee containers and printed materials. They are discussing which books should be banned from the library. The discussion becomes heated, voices are raised and coffee is spilled. A newspaper is used to mop it up. The meeting ends on an acrimonious note, without any decisions being made.
Jo-Ellen loops her arm around her partner’s as she shows her around her hometown. It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving and a lot of her old friends are back in town, although many of them have never left.
“This is the library,” she says as she stops momentarily to take in the building. “Mrs. Beasley, the librarian, noticed I had checked out all of the LGBTQ books they had, and discretely ordered more from the other libraries for me.”
“We never discussed it. She just knew. She knew before I had figured anything out.”
“The books were your support growing up?”
“That and Mrs. Beasley. She really fostered a sense of community. You wouldn’t dare disrespect anyone in her presence and I think it had a real trickle-down effect. No one cared if anyone was different. That probably save my life. And a lot of others too.”
“She sounds like your guardian angel.”
Jo-Ellen inhales deeply, raising her shoulders, as if disbelieving what she has heard could possibly be true in her hometown. “And now, books are disappearing off the shelves. And not just any books. Books where black people are featured or gays. It worries me. Books were such a solace to me.”
Regrouping, Jo-Ellen tries for a smile and pulls the door open “Come on, let’s go inside.”
« Jo-El-el-el-en! » says a delighted Dylan when he sees her.
“Look at you!” she replies. “What’s going on here?” Jo-Ellen thinks the rumors of book banning will be easier to hear from Dylan, whom she has known forever.
“Well, no decision has been made, but books have been disappearing from the shelves. Every time that happens, we bring in more books and just re-stock the shelves.”
“Yeah, like three times more,” says Jason who joins them.
“Hey come you two. I want to show you something. We’re almost done,” says Jason as he leads them into the main reading room. On the wall, in enormous black letters, are the words, “Respect the books. Respect each other.” And seated in a circle, ready to begin story time for a new group of children, was Mrs. Beasley.