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Best Books This Christmas

Becoming-Michelle-Obama-book-coverAs a young girl, one of my preferred gifts at Christmas was a book. Classics like Heidi, Five Little Peppers, Swiss Family Robinson, and Little Women remain some of my most cherished possessions. I’ve always surrounded myself and my family with books and literally poured books into my children’s hands, overflowing the bookshelves in our home.

We all know librarians fancy books. More than that though, it takes reverence for books to pursue a profession about them. Yet, libraries are evolving places where exciting programs and marvelous things are becoming more and more relevant to a library’s mission. The field is attracting young professionals who are, in addition to clever researchers and keen readers, excited about technology, music, and social synergy.

Not surprisingly, librarians don’t have the corner on book-loving. My family of children and their spouses – educators, graphic designers, marketing gurus – all worship books. Family times always see at least one or two of the adults curled up in a nook – often with a book discovered on one of our many shelves. Our grandchildren held their first books as infants – small cloth or chunky board books were wedged into their strollers and car seats. Their own collections grew until their favorite crawling or toddling activity was swiping them all off the shelf into a heap. They always reached for their favorites: Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin. Most parents (and grandparents,alike) can recite the words by heart through closed eyelids until they open them to turn back to the first page. “Again?” And again. And again.

This year, I bought multiple copies of my two favorite 2018 books as presents for my children and friends. One is The Library Book by Susan Orlean. While I had listened to the audio version, I took out our library’s speed read copy so that I could hold the lovely book in my hand, stroking the cloth cover (no jacket) and flipping through the few illustrations. The back inside cover depicts a library book pocket and date due card. It’s so realistic that you can’t resist touching it with your fingers to find that it is only a photographic image.

The Library Book tells the story of the massive fire that burned in the Los Angeles Public Library on April 29, 1986. The mysterious blaze, officially determined to be arson, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 600-700,000 more. It burned for seven hours and was fought by over 350 firefighters from 60 firefighting companies. Fortunately, all 400 visitors and staff in the library at the time of the fire were evacuated. Heat swelled to over 2,000 degrees within the concrete walls and firefighters worked to cut 18 holes in the building to release the smoke and heat, thereby decreasing the temperature.

In 1986 the fire hadn’t received much attention. Chernobyl was the talk of the day that captured the media’s attention. More than 30 years later, the story unfolded through Orleans. Susan Orlean is a passionate author who began her research accidentally when she toured the Los Angeles Public Library and heard that some of the books still smelled of smoke. That smoking gun, so to speak, led to research.

The account in The Library Book is so much more than just the fire. It incorporates a history of the city library and a 1921 effort to finally build a respectable library in a sun-drenched, fantastical place named “The City of Angels.” The story includes interesting characterizations of its first and current librarians. In addition, Susan Orlean describes the notable and remarkable attempts to destroy books and libraries throughout world history. She includes the accomplishment of rebuilding the main library in the 1990s.

I gave copies of my other favorite 2018 book, Becoming by Michelle Obama, to my daughters. While it is principally an autobiography of the life of the “first” African American First Lady, it is most significantly a book about a capable woman who learned to navigate her responsibilities as a young girl and young woman, a mother, and a wife. All of our daughters and daughters-in-law are professionals, wives, and mothers and we watch them in awe as they balance all aspects of their lives. Obama’s act is one to follow and includes some of the immeasurable advice they will read.

Our grandchildren all received books, as they usually do for their birthdays, Christmas, and any other chance I have. It was our granddaughter Maeve’s book, the 75th anniversary edition of the Complete Adventures of Curious George (2016), that created the best reading adventure of 2018. While Maeve has copies of the Curious George Around Town books that she fell in love with earlier this year, I wanted to give her a copy of the seven original Curious George stories in one hefty volume. And hefty it is at 3.4 pounds.

There is debate about Curious George. Some feel (my ex-husband among them) that Curious George is obnoxiously curious and never has to suffer the consequences of his misbehavior. Others simply believe that Curious George is a good little monkey at heart who topples again and again into trouble. My ex-husband refused to read Curious George to any of my daughters; I suspect this might be why it warms my heart and tickles my fancy that my granddaughter Maeve can’t get enough of George!

The Complete Adventures actually includes only seven Curious George stories, but they are the originals published between 1941 and 1966, and written and illustrated by H.A. Rey and his wife, Margret. Our very own Curious George Christmas adventures included at least ten readings of Curious George Goes to the Hospital and Curious George Rides a Bike. Other stories in the book are Curious George Takes a Job and the original story, naturally named Curious George. “This is George. George was a good little monkey, but he was always curious.”

If you are a little bit curious, it’s not too late in the first weeks of 2019 to read some of my favorite gift books from 2018.

Charlotte Canelli is the Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the January 3rd edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


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