Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Midnight Library

I know that I am among friends when I relay the following story.  When I was young, I entertained the idea of many other careers (dolphin trainer was one of my more creative ideas).  But there was really no question that being a librarian was a career near to my heart.  I vividly remember the closet I shared with my little sister.  There were bookshelves inside that I kept in order, along with my very own card catalog.  I wish I could remember now how I cataloged each book.  But I knew enough from my experience at our public library to add title, author and a summary to the card for each book.  It was a natural thing for me, to organize and check out my own books.

Once I went to library school, and then began working in public libraries, I discovered that one of my favorite things to do was readers advisory - matching readers and books.  I just loved working with children and hearing what they were interested in.  This sort of conversation as we walked over to the shelves might lead to a whole stack of books as I heard what they had read last, what they liked and didn't like to read, whether they like to read at all, and how long the book was required to be.  All these things would get mixed into my head and come out as title recommendations.  Even better would be the later conversations, when they tried something and liked it, or maybe didn't like it, and could articulate why.  That would lead to more books, more conversations, and on and on, in an incredibly fulfilling loop of relationship between children and books.  In many ways, that is what I continue to do with all of you, my readers.  But it doesn't always feel the same.


The little girl in The Midnight Library is of course a girl after my own heart.  Starting in the endpapers, her world is stocked with shelves of books, swaying under their weight.  The books are interspersed with lanterns, an occasional helper owl and a ladder.  It's the sort of place that makes you want to slip in and explore.  Even better, the title page shows the young librarian, with pigtails flying, welcoming a string of library patrons.  Those patrons happen to be animals, but you can sense their excitement from their smiles as they approach.

The story is fairly simple - this library is only open at night, and is staffed by the little girl librarian and the three owls, who dash and fly around at her beck and call.  Animals visit the library in droves, but are respectful of the library as a place to learn. But one night things go a little awry.  A band of squirrels begin to play music in the reading room, and needs to be escorted to an activity room.  Then a wolf begins to cry so much at the plot of her book that the wolf's tears fall like rain (hey, we've all been there!).  Finally, at closing time, a tortoise believes that he shouldn't leave the library until he's finished reading his book...and he only has 500 more pages! We all know how slow tortoises are!  What's a librarian to do?

While I don't agree that the library should always be a quiet place, there are many, many things I love about this book.  First and foremost, I love that she is a young librarian.  It shows us all that children are never too young to love and be advocates for books and reading.  There is always such joy and enthusiasm on the girl's face as she interacts with her patrons.  I love that she is a problem-solver, without judgment.  The wolf is so upset by her story and tells the librarian "' Something very sad happened in my story and I can't read it any more.'"  But the librarian leads the wolf over to a storytelling area, and the read the story together, supporting the wolf until she smiles.  Finally, and what I love most about this story, is that the librarian is a valued and loved member of her community.  This Midnight Library is a community space, where everyone shares their activities and their interests together.  They trust her to be there for all the animals, and to meet them where they are.  The young librarian doesn't yell at the tortoise for trying to finish the long book, she gives him a library card.  She is patient with the noisy squirrels, crying wolf and slow-moving tortoise.  Each of these patrons has very different needs, and she is able to fulfill all of them.

Though the plot of this story is wonderful, I have to admit that it's the illustrations that really do me in.  First of all, the pages are a lovely muted orange - a very unusual choice for a picture book.  But because Kohara uses linocuts for her illustrations, the color choice works very well.  The linocuts involve a lot of heavy dark lines and print, and the orange just stands out perfectly.  And to add to the contrast, Kohara uses a deep blue as an accent.  It helps create the feeling of midnight, and it also makes The Midnight Library feel very charming, cozy and friendly.

The characters in the book are so endearing and warm too.  Because of the linocut technique, they are created with very few lines, but you realize there doesn't need to be a lot of detail to add personality.  The tortoise, eyes almost closed with the effort of reading, weights his page down with his flipper.  Behind him, the owl assistants ring the bell to close the library.  And speaking of the owls!  They are my very favorite part of the book.  The owl assistants are there on every page, hovering over the librarian, stamping and shelving books.  They really are the cutest!!!

I quite often buy children's books about libraries for my own collection.  The Midnight Library is one that I cannot pass up! Celebrate reading with this darling librarian and her wise assistants.

The Midnight Librarian. Kazuno Kohara.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

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