A reputable librarian knows how to tell a story. My eleven year-old grandniece, reader extraordinaire, inquires about my days as Cabbagetown’s librarian. Our rockers creak on the covered porch, a steady rain patters all about us. “Best story you got, Auntie Claire. And I better not be able to see the end comin’.”
I sip my sweet tea. She leans toward me as I begin. “This story is true, more or less.”
Reading success; the number one predictor of a successful future. The research said children who chose books read more. Yet every summer, I rarely saw a child more than once or twice.
I recognized the challenge life put forth, and met it with an idea. A contest. One Saturday, my husband Earle and I went prize-hunting.
“Donations,” he muttered. “Librarians don’t make enough money.”
But my persuasive skills and Earle’s patience with me paid off. By the end of the day, I had a twenty-five dollar restaurant gift certificate and a host of small, token gifts from toy stores. The crown jewel?
A gift certificate for $100 from Atlanta Cyclery.
Naturally, I advertised. Stores all over Cabbagetown displayed my flyers. One of my regular customers came in with stars in her eyes.
“Mrs. Duke, a $100 bike?” Suzy Charles gasped. “My bike’s three years old. How many books do I have to read to win?”
“The most.” I pointed to the two-by-three-foot chart behind me. “I’ll sign you up.”
At the two-week juncture, Suzy Charles had read five books. I asked her questions about what she’d read and was satisfied enough to give her credit. She waited while I colored the bar beside her name.
“Twenty chapter books should be enough,” she said. “Take me a few weeks.”
I hadn’t seen the eleven year-old boy with a ripped t-shirt and sagging shorts until he emerged from behind the research bookcase. “A few weeks?” His eyes challenged Suzi’s. “You got a bike. I don’t. An’ I wanna win that thing.”
Suzi stood stock straight. Her eyes burned with the singular fire of desire untempered by caution. “That bike is mine!” she said. “I read all the time.”
The boy’s twisted smile grew. “I’m Roger Wallace, and I’m winning that bike.” He looked at the poster. “You’re my competition, huh?” He looked Suzi over, ponytail to Keds. “Plan to lose.”
Suzi set her jaw, turned on her heel in dramatic fashion and skulked out.
“You can only take two books out at a time,” I explained.
“Got it covered, ma’am,” he replied. From his pocket, he took out a folded list of books he’d already read. Titles like “The Rascal of Raeburn” and “Lady Veronica’s Pirate” told me I wouldn’t have the books in my stacks.
“Are these dime-store romance novels?” I asked him.
“That’s my plan,” he explained. “They’re short and I can get ’em for a nickel a piece at the Goodwill near my house.”
“But how do I know if you’ve read them? I have to ask you questions about each book, and I don’t stock those kinds of books here,” I said, amazed that any child – a boy no less – would subject himself to the ardor of bodice-assailing ex-military men and breathy virgins.
“I’ll prove it to you.”
Roger, a young man of his word, brought in a shopping bag full of books the next day. An avalanche of dog-eared books scented by cellar-dwelling tumbled onto my desk.
Since the library was empty as an afternoon church, we reviewed title after title. I asked a comprehension question at random. If he got it right, I counted it. But I was determined to be fair to Suzi.
“So, in Valley of the Moon, how does Princess Tigress avoid Sebastian’s advances?”
“By climbing out her bedroom window on a… trellis. That’s like a beanstalk, right?”
I found that explaining the books to Roger took a serious time commitment, but that when he said he’d read Nurse Sally’s Last Chance, he actually had.
“I knew Sally was gonna get her man,” he said. “These books all end with a kiss.”
Since Roger had worn the same damaged clothing two days in a row, I realized the value of those happy endings might be as significant as the nine credits I gave him.
“I’ll be back next week,” he said.
Naturally, the length of Roger’s bar lit a bonfire within Suzi. She began coming in every other day, taking out two books at a time, and making accusations. “He’s reading picture books!” she cried.
By the fourth of July, I’d seen Roger four times. I’d flipped through such elevated tomes as Lady Jezebel’s Folly, Make up your Mind, Nurse, and Bitter Masquerade. Roger provided reviews of the books in addition to simple answers. Books with Scotsmen on the front usually got two thumbs up.
“I liked Bride on Approval the best out of this weeks’ books,” he said. “Exciting, but I dunno if that mar-kwis woulda had a broadsword or a rap-eer.”
“It’s pronounced mar-KEY,” I explained. “He would have an elegant weapon. So I vote for the rapier. And you can leave that one here.”
On July second, I received my annual funds from the city council. When I considered adding a few romance novels to the collection, Earle said Roger’s bad taste had left its mark.
In July, Roger added checking the bar graph poster to his routine. On the third week in July, he saw that Suzy had crept into first place, two books ahead of him. “Wench,” he muttered.
“Oh, I can tell you read The Pirate’s Fury,” I commented, since a bawdy woman graced the modern cover next to a long-haired, bare-chested buccaneer.
“Don’t look at Saber like that, Mrs. Duke,” he said. Then he giggled. “That’s the same thing my mama did.”
The horse race between Roger and Suzy continued until only one week of the contest remained. Two lines of the bar graph stretched equally outside the limits of the poster. On the last reading day, at four p.m., they both arrived. Roger stared at her warily. They waited, each with a representative, among the library’s few regular patrons. I made the final tally.
Suzy had won by a single book.
I couldn’t change the outcome despite the temptation. A crestfallen Roger slid a wrapped copy of a thin book across the table.
Suzy turned to make a proclamation. “I want the second place prize,” she began. “I got a bike for my birthday, just in case Roger won. So I want to take my parents out to dinner. Roger, remember I won, but enjoy the bike.”
Roger beamed with delight. He extended his hand to Suzi. “Thanks,” he said. “I hope you enjoy your dinner.”
My niece smiles. “The best you got, huh? And true more or less? So what’s not true? The ending?”
“Oh no, you don’t. The ending’s spot on. Curious about the title of the book he gave me?” I ask.
She nods like a bobble-head doll.
“The Librarian and the Barbarian. Wasn’t half bad.”
We sport Cheshire cat grins. “Tell me that story,” she commanded.
Header photograph: By Virginia State Parks staff [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons