A Christmas Wish from the Library

by Bill Peak

Children are a never-ending source of happiness for me. No matter how difficult the day, how long my to-do list, I know a quick stroll through the children's section will reveal something guaranteed to lift my spirits: three little girls at Miss Rosemary's crafts table creating impossible, unheard-of creatures out of construction paper and spangles, a couple of little boys walking plastic dinosaurs across the floor and making them speak to one another in gruff dinosaur voices, or, maybe, over in the corner, a young mother sitting in one of the grown-up chairs with a four year-old in her lap, introducing the child to the wonders of Dr. Seuss. It is a lucky man who gets to work in a place where, round every corner, something delightful waits to jump out and surprise him.

But today I want to talk about another kind of child, a kind I see from time to time in our library. These children are often unusually quiet, their expressions—surprising in children so young—almost solemn. I worry that these children are unhappy, that there is something in their lives that is making them unhappy. It may just have been a spat with their brother or sister, it may just be that they're ready for a nap, but whatever the reason, these are the children I want to remember this holiday season.

Reyna Grande, the author of this year's One Maryland One Book, “The Distance Between Us,” suffered such a childhood. Brought to the United States illegally as a small child, the daughter of a distant mother and an abusive father, by the time she reached adolescence, Grande found herself living in a tough neighborhood where most of her peers were busy joining gangs or getting pregnant. But she was a bright child and she was a lucky child. A teacher loaned her a copy of “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros, and in it Grande discovered a child very much like herself, a little girl whose abusive father made her wish that, at the end of the day, instead of walking home after school, her “feet would one day keep walking and take” her somewhere else, that she could escape, fly away. Through books like Cisneros', through reading, Grande learned she was not alone, and that learning gave her the strength to go on, to rise, like Oliver Twist, above her apparent lot in life, to become happy, healthy, whole.

Which brings us back to those solemn, unusually quiet children we see from time to time in the library. Is there a book or story out there that could offer them hope as “The House on Mango Street” offered Grande hope, is there a book or story that will reawaken in them a faith in the possibilities life offers? Of course there is. It is my firm belief that such a story exists for every person born into this world. And so, during this season of love and goodwill, it is my wish, my prayer, that each of us will take Reyna Grande's teacher as our model, that we will find the time and the courage to reach out to children like this, offer them a book, a tale, that will show them that their lives are full of promise, that there is a way that can be followed, a story that is theirs alone ... and that that story has a happy ending.