Consciousness, Children’s Literature, and…Reality

There are two things I've been thinking about. One is the deep, strange pull of children's literature. The other was occasioned by a misadventure. The fearless Diana and I had an appointment in the city, and as is our wont when the homework has been conquered and time allows, we headed over to our love, the Jefferson Market Library.

Except that the door was CHAINED (honestly, wouldn't a sign have been sufficient?) and a notice hung there saying, essentially: renovations. closed. Go to 7th Avenue and 23rd Street.

It was a gray day, but we like gray days, and so off we trudged, our bags too full of extremely heavy books, with much anxiety (on my side) about whether that one would even be open in this era of budget cuts and stupid priorities. We trudged and trudged and trudged and it started to rain and then we finally got…to a bummer of a library experience.

Now I must acknowledge that at this point I'm just irritable. Our close-to-home library has been undergoing renovation for two YEARS so far, and in its place is a not-so-reliable bookmobile twice a week, with a painfully limited selection.

The library on 23rd street was small, not in a sweet and cozy way, but more in a "We don't actually have more books here than you do at home, as we have given all our space over to DVDs" sort of way. People were unpleasant, short, and sharp-voiced with my daughter. The wait was long. The books were sparse. The smell was…present. I tried to get what we needed, to not be late to where we were going next, to manage the long line, to pay our fines.

And as we made our way back to our appointment, late (of course), through the rain, I thought back, as I often do, to the specter of Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books, and her experience at the library (for more of the story go here). Betsy is is sent to the library downtown, where she sits before a fire and reads to her heart's content, then uses 15 cents to buy a baloney sandwich on fresh-baked bread, followed up by an ice cream. Then she meets up with her father, and goes home.

It is transcendently written. And later the night of our less-pleasant trip, I thought of it enviously, as I walked home (through more rain) to my too-late dinner and my mountingly horrifying list of things-I-hadn't-managed-to-get-to-and-it-was-already-9-o'clock.

And then I stopped there on the rainy street and realized something. Yes, a library with a fire and a wonderful librarian is an excellent thing, but that wasn't what killed me. What killed me was the extent to which Betsy actually experienced it. The warmth of the fire, the taste of the bread, the things that were happening as they happened. It is (to my memory) a gift of childhood—being fully committed to each feeling, whether it's outrage or pain or pleasure. This, I realized (yes, I got very wet) is what is so very compelling about children's literature, at least for me. My own mind is so entirely fractured most of the time, so given in parts to worrying about whether the library will be open, or did I forget to send in that tax correction, or what will I pack them for lunch tomorrow, or or or or.

And then I end up envying the purity of a moment experience by a little girl 70 years ago, not just because the moment itself is so glorious but also because my own ability to experience things is so atrophied. If I try to make myself do it, it's there: the cool dampness of April late afternoon, walking along with Diana making ridiculous jokes, the rain pouring down the outside of the cab while we're safe inside. But I just…I forget to.

This is what so many adults longingly find in children's literature (or in any great writing): that moment of complete conviction, immersion, an experience truly felt.

It's a theory, anyway.

13 thoughts on “Consciousness, Children’s Literature, and…Reality

  1. I have literal CHILLS reading this, because of the Betsy-Tacy reference and because of just how TRUE this whole thing is, in my entire life. And you just wrote it.
    I have been reading your blog for a while and I adore children’s literature and I have never been able to put it in to words. I am copying and saving this in case anyone ever asks me again why I read some of the things I read. Credit to you, of course. 🙂
    And YES on Betsy-Tacy. Oh how I wish I could have known those books as a child. I’m just glad I got to find them as an adult. And that I have a daughter (six months and one day) who I will be able to share them with not too many years from now.

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  2. Lovely. That description of Betsy in the library has always been one of my favorites.
    My daughter and I have a Friday afternoon ritual – it’s the one day where I can pick her up right after school and we go to our neighborhood library (Sulzer Regional Library) and then after to the Viennese coffeehouse Julius Meinl where I get tea and she gets chocolate cake and Italian green apple soda.
    After reading your lovely essay, it just occurred to me that this little ritual is my own attempt to recreate Betsy’s library visit that so impressed me when I was 8.

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  3. Some of my earliest memories are going to the library with my mother and brother. There’s a great essay in the current Yankee magazine about the range of libraries that exists and the people who keep them going.
    I’m not familiar with Betsy-Tacy, but I’m sure a visit to my library will resolve that. Thanks for the introduction, and my fingers are crossed that your library will reopen soon.
    Oh, when you mentioned the bookmobile, I instantly thought of the picture book where the bookmobile brings books to the animals in the zoo. I’ve forgotten its name, but it’s a great book.

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  4. I suppose what I really wonder is: do other people feel this way too? That somehow reading this literature in which feelings are so overpowering, so pure (in the sense of unadulterated, not innocent) is what draws people who aren’t kids to it? That it’s some weird alternative route to being in the moment, even if it’s not your own moment?

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  5. “I suppose what I really wonder is: do other people feel this way too? That somehow reading this literature in which feelings are so overpowering, so pure (in the sense of unadulterated, not innocent) is what draws people who aren’t kids to it? That it’s some weird alternative route to being in the moment, even if it’s not your own moment?”
    YES. Absolutely. 🙂

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  6. Perfectly lovely post, and don’t we all want that old library experience back?
    I fell in love with Betsy Ray decades ago and never recovered. These books are beautifully written masterpieces, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

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  7. What a lovely post! I first read about Betsy’s library visit when I was 8, in our “modern” library with a couple of tables for reading and two leather chairs in the magazine section. But when I think about visiting the library, I always remember it through the lens of Betsy’s magical library visit, inserting a fireplace and a huge painting for the convenience of my memories. Thank you for this lovely commentary!

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  8. What a beautiful post. I love that chapter in Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown. I would far prefer to be totally immersed in an experience. But fractured is my M.O. So it’s a lovely memory and thanks for writing about it. If you are a fan, check out the Betsy-Tacy Society and there is a Litserv where we discuss the books. Over and over and over!

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