Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Exploring the Forbidden Corners of the Library: The Day I Ventured Out of the Children's Section


It all began when I was a chubby kid in denim overalls with an androgynous haircut that my mother had made me get during our two-month trip in China because it was "too hot."
When I was nine (which felt like a decade ago once I reached my ripe age of ten), I voraciously read tons and tons of Babysitters Club books. Oblivious to the fact that most of the hundreds of books were ghostwritten, I continued borrowing bagfuls and bagfuls of them at the library, occasionally mixing it up with a bit of Jerry Spinelli or Ann M. Martin's little sister series about Karen Brewer. 

There was something wholesome and innocent about those books, about young middle schoolers learning the rules and tricks of life. As a kid who felt a little alone even when I was in a fabulous group of drama-loving girls, the distinct but memorable characters that populated Stoneybrook made me feel like I had friends. Good friends. I lived vicariously through these characters, especially Mallory and Mary Anne, who I could relate to the most, with their strict parents and all (who are actually pretty easygoing compared to many Asian parents). I also envied their freedom to go out and hang out with friends.

This love continued until one day when I was ten, when I decided to venture beyond the safe shelves of the Children's Fiction Shire into the far corners of the library. 

To a fifth grader who hadn't fully explored her library (which is tiny now, from the perspective of this 5'4" giantess), the corners of the library felt mysterious and dark (perhaps the lack of strong light bulbs lent the areas this sense of mystery). At the back of library was a window which showed a slender tree whose dark green leaves dominated most of the glass. 

I tiptoed through the shelves, looking shiftily from side to side in fear of any wandering adult-ogres that could banish me from the realm of grown-up books forever. With their location being farther from the entrance than the children's section, it was quieter here, near silence. The sounds of the library assistants chatting with patrons muted into indistinct murmurs as I tread farther into the deep ends of the books. 

Perhaps I would get lost in this maze of shelves, die of thirst, and never come out again. Or at any corner there could be a black-furred monster waiting in the shadows to pounce on me and gobble me down. I could hear my breath sidling in and out in uneven puffs. I wasn't explicitly forbidden to be here, but I was standing in unfamiliar territory. There were books I was forbidden from touching at home; I figured that the same rules would surly apply here. 

Giant tomes of hardcovers swaddled in plastic cloaks surrounded me ominously. I looked up towards the ceiling and swore that I would never be tall enough to reach the canopy of this forest (that prophecy turned out to be quite correct, unfortunately). I took books out and looked at the DUE DATE stickers that the librarians gunned onto each book that was checked out. It was a secret pleasure of mine to peel the DUE DATE stickers off. 

Anne Bishop. Tom Clancy. Some guy with a whole shelf devoted to himself named Stephen King. A lot of Anne McCaffrey books, with loud FANTASY stickers pasted to the spine of the books. My eyes blurred as I increased my pace. Moving past the N's, O's, P's, Q's...I skipped the rest of the adult fiction novels and found myself near the edge of the window with the sickly, green tree.

At that age, the window was the portal to a mysterious forest populated with mythical creatures, both grotesquely beautiful and handsomely hideous ones. Close, yet untouchable to human fingers due to the glass barrier.

I ran across to the other side of the window, past the chairs and tables that composed the lounge and study section. A woman with gray curls looked up at me, startled. An old man with a long face pursed his lips disapprovingly. Ignoring me, a vagrant in an army jacket continued to sleep on, with his head on the study table. 

To this day, I still see the old man with the long face reading from a stack of hardcovers in the lounge section. Nowadays, a cane is propped next to his cushioned chair, and his hair has thinned to a light patch of straggly hairs on the crown of his scalp. His forehead is lined, and his disapproving stare at children has given way to a sense of resignation. He no longer responds to the occasional squawking of the children that walk into the library or venture into the lounge area. His glasses could be used to analyze bacteria in a lab. 

He goes in the late morning and stays there until around three or four in the afternoon. He likes action and suspense novels, especially those written by Tom Clancy. I know this because I still visit the library.

One morning, I sit myself across from him on one of the lounge chairs. As I noisily unzip my tote bag, his eyes flicker to me. I look at him. He looks at me. I look at him looking at me. 

Perhaps he recognizes me from my recent visits.

Perhaps I look familiar to him, but he can't put his finger on where he's seen me before. 

Perhaps he's been observing me for years, just as I've been observing him for years. 

We break eye contact. I peek back at his face once more. A faint shadow of an emotion lingers in the lines of his face. Recognition? Approval? Curiosity? With the gears in my mind turning with possible interpretations, I look away, flipping absentmindedly through the pages of my paperback. How much time does he have left, I wonder, and immediately a pang of guilt punctures me. 

Waving the thought into puffs of smoke, I turn to the page where I had left off and begin to read. 

Outside the window, the sparse boughs of the moss-covered tree lead to more trees. Above, in the high canopy, birds fly. Below, within the branches, little elves dance and sing spells. But we cannot hear their songs through the window. Oblivious to the music of the elves in the woods, the old man and I read on. 


  1. That was amazing to read. So lyrical and heartfelt. Makes me want to go visit my library :)

    Happy reading in 2014


    1. Hi Ashley! I'm so delighted to hear that you enjoyed reading about my experience at the library. :) Happy 2014 reading to you too!