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Mrs. Rabbit and the Little Nearsighted Girl

This past August, I attended a professional institute with 50 other library professionals at a beautiful Maine mountain resort. We enjoyed meals and participated in workshops for two full days, facilitated by RIPL, the Research Institute for Public Libraries.

During the workshops, we were often instructed to break into small groups of two to six to discuss the ways we can improve our service to the residents of the communities we serve. We also discussed how we were already doing a terrific job as librarians.

In one such small group on the second day, we were asked to turn to the person next to us and recall an inspiring story of our work. It could be something we had done or something we had witnessed at our library.

Now, give me a keyboard and some free time, and I won’t stop typing.  Ask me on the spot to think and I’m tongue-tied and brain dead!  One time, in a professional meeting, participants were asked to go around the room and share some little-known interesting fact about themselves.

When it came to my turn, and after an awkward silence, a friend and colleague sitting next to me jabbed me in the ribs and said “You have a dish fetish!” I laughed and announced to the room that, yes, I did have an addiction to collecting, displaying, using, and storing dishes of all kinds. At least the silence turned to chuckles.

Back to the institute in Maine, I thought, hard, and a memory materialized somewhere from the recesses of my brain.

I turned to my partner with a smile. “I can go first,” I said (much to her relief) and I began to tell my story.

I began my professional career as a children’s librarian as soon as I graduated with my master’s degree. Spending my days in the children’s room of a library was a no-brainer for me.   I loved working with children, it was an extension of my days spent mothering my daughters. And my name (my past married name at the time) was Mrs. Rabbitt. A perfect name for a children’s librarian.

And so Mrs. Rabbitt’s new career began at the Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire. The library served the community of Peterborough and the families and children in the surrounding nine towns. Families with children from infancy through high school began to rely on my expertise in children’s literature and my passion for librarianship. I loved my job there for four lovely years.

It was a tough decision but in 2004 I had decided to move back to Massachusetts to be closer to my now-adult children, an elderly aunt, and a directorship in a central Massachusetts town.

Now you must fast forward to the spring of 2013 when one day a former Peterborough colleague stumbled upon a post on an online blog, ShelfTalker for Publisher’s Weekly. He included a link in his email and wrote – “You must read this.”
ShelfTalker has many contributors and one of them is a bookseller, children’s book author, and avid reader, Elizabeth Bluemle. She is also the owner of the children’s bookshop, the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont.  Elizabeth’s blog post that month was titled “The Best Author Letter Ever.”

In ShelfTalker, Elizabeth relayed the story of a now-seventeen year old teenager named Sylvia.  Sylvia had just written to her out of the blue to thank her for writing a book that had changed her life a decade earlier when she was eight years old in 2004.  The “book” wasn’t actually a book, but an unpublished manuscript that had found its way into her hands. Sylvia continued her story in her thank you note and Elizabeth posted it in its entirety.

Sylvia had spent her short childhood unable to see clearly but when she was eight years old new technology finally gifted her with glasses – “enormous, larger-than-Harry-Potter” glasses. Huge that they were, she could actually see! Yet near-sighted Sylvia was a bit terrified of the world and she became more introverted, spending her days and nights reading everything she could get her hands on. And what she desperately wanted was to read was a great book about girls and a great book about that girl’s love of glasses. She begged her parents to find one. And that’s when she and her mother made their regular visit to the library and, Sylvia wrote, they “enlisted the help of one extraordinary world-class children’s librarian, Charlotte Rabbitt.”

By this time, as you can imagine, tears were streaming down my face as I sat in my office reading Elizabeth’s blog post and Sylvia’s letter. I vividly remembered that day Sylvia came with her mother to the library with her request. Their family was one of my favorites. Older brother Peter was a member of my Redwall Fan club and my Pizza-to-Pages book club. Sylvia was sweetly intent and always ready for a reading suggestion.

One characteristic of librarians is their innate desire to find answers … and their quest to put books in everyone’s hands. After searching for books that met Sylvia’s specifications, a book about a girl who loves her glasses, I came up with a few things … but not the right thing. I enlisted the help of peers in the children’s librarians’ world through a listserv and soon heard from aspiring author, Elizabeth Bluemle. She sent me the unpublished manuscript of a book she was hoping to get published, Iris Spectacle: Accidental Private Eye. I called Sylvia’s mom and told her I had something very special for Sylvia to read.

In her letter to Elizabeth, Sylvia wrote that she read and re-read that book. She bragged to her friends that she had a book that wasn’t yet published. Most importantly, she believed that girls who had glasses were invincible and also very, very cool.

I contacted Elizabeth and told her just what the blog post, and Sylvia’s letter had meant to me.

Many stories and letters find their way back to us, the librarians of the world. There are many times when we learn that we are able to change a tear into a smile, or frustration and sadness into understanding and joy. Sylvia’s story is just one of them.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the September 7, 2017 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


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