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Children Find Refuge at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

Until I entered the first grade, I led a pretty sheltered life—loving, attentive parents, a neighborhood full of boys who were as addicted to baseball as I, and a creek nearby with the romantic name of Beargrass that was perfect for wading, fishing, and crawdad-hunting.

But school changed all that for me. For the first time I met children from families and neighborhoods entirely different from mine, children who were sometimes sad, sometimes cruel, and children who were often very poor (I remember a fair number of inadequately provisioned lunchboxes). It was in elementary school that I really learned for the first time just how unfair life can be.

In first grade, for instance, there was a boy in my class who had been crippled by polio. He wore heavy steel and leather braces, and he had to use crutches to get around. Standing in place, he would plant his crutches in front of him, then using the strength of his shoulders and arms (impressive for a six-year-old), and his crutches as a fulcrum, he would swing both legs forward through the supporting crutches. In this way, one swinging step at a time, he could make his way from our classroom to the lunchroom and back.

Inevitably, of course, there were children in my class who found the poor kid's method of walking funny, and they would point at him and call him “monkey boy.” When this happened, the child would lash out at his tormentors with one of his crutches. Once, I saw him inadvertently strike an innocent bystander as well. After that, I was frightened of him and kept my distance. All the other children did too, and the resulting isolation must have made him resentful for he often looked, to my childish eyes, as if he were smoldering.

In those days we used to have what were called “paper drives.” Everyone was expected to bundle up their families' newspapers and bring them into the school. There, they were stacked inside an old trailer that had been parked on the school grounds for this purpose. Late one autumn afternoon, for reasons I no longer recall, I found myself alone in this trailer with a boy I didn't know from one of the upper grades. The air inside the trailer was hot and still and smelled of newsprint and the trailer's old, banged-up wooden walls. For some reason the older boy began to tease me, and then he boxed my ears. For a moment I must have looked comically shocked, my eyes filling with tears, for it was then that the older boy began to laugh at me.

For the most part, of course, I had a good time in elementary school, but there were moments such as these when I found the world confusing. But school had taught me a sort of magic that helped to ward off my uncertainties. At night, like so many children before me (and, hopefully, so many since), I would climb into bed, pull the blanket up over my head, turn on my trusty flashlight, and begin to read.

Superman, Flash, and the Green Lantern were my first heroes, but it wasn't long before I was reading what I thought of as “real books.” The Hardy Boys' The House on the Cliff (which I considered an excellent title) was the first of these I managed to get through, but then I discovered Mary Norton's enchanting Borrowers series, and, eventually, C. S. Lewis's acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia.

Reading gave me a refuge—both balm and wise counselor—that allowed me to weather, more or less gracefully, the instances of disappointment and suffering native to a normal childhood. Truth be told, I still find refuge in reading; it is my boon companion. Which is one of the reasons I look forward each year to the library's annual Chesapeake Children's Book Festival: it lifts my heart to watch children delight in reading and storytelling and beautifully illustrated books.

On Saturday, June 24th, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., come rain or shine, the Talbot County Free Library will host its 8th annual Chesapeake Children's Book Festival in the library's Easton branch. This year's Festival will feature twenty-four of the country's finest children's book authors and illustrators, all of whom went through a rigorous vetting process before being selected to participate.

Children who sign up at the Festival for the library's Summer Reading Program will receive a voucher good for one free book (while supplies last) from the attending author of their choice. It's always fun to see the pride children take in asking the author they've selected to sign the book they've received.

The Imagination Library will be celebrating its tenth anniversary at the Festival, giving out free servings (again, while supplies last) of “Dolly Parton Ice Cream”—created especially for the occasion by Oxford Creamery. The Festival will also feature a petting zoo, complete with bunny rabbits and baby chicks.

What always makes me happiest, though, is the sure knowledge that the squeals of delight ringing out over the Festival as the children move from one author's table to the next are a sign of the joy these little ones have discovered in the gift of reading—a joy that will serve and shield them all their lives long.

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