A Childhood in Books and the Importance of Local Libraries

“A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it.”

– Neil Gaiman, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

Opening Pages

My first memories of reading come from when I was about four or so. My dad sat me on his lap and pulled out an illustrated edition of The Hobbit. I can still picture the wonder on the faces of the elves as little Bilbo (about the same size as I was) held up the Arkenstone for them to behold. When we’d finished I asked to start again.

But my first memories of reading by myself come from the library. We moved within biking distance of Red Mountain Branch Library shortly before my eighth birthday.

I remember walking into the building, the sweat from cycling up the long climb of Adobe Street in the summer sun cooling in the blast of the air conditioning. And just inside and off to the left of the entrance was a big archway of yellow, orange, and green blocks. The neon sign above it read “Children’s Library.” I took the sign literally: this was the part of the library that belonged to me.

The children’s library had its own desk and its own librarian. This meant I didn’t have to stand in line with a bunch of adults to ask my questions. And boy did I have a lot of questions.

They let me sign up for my own library card, highlighter yellow with my name scrawled across the back in illegible chicken scratch. The limit was 35 books at the time (a limit I knew because I regularly hit it). I checked out every book in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, went home with a bulging backpack, and by the time they were due I was ready for a new series.

Middle Chapters

By the time I was thirteen, I was far too cool to be seen near the children’s section. I was a teenager, which to me meant getting a stool and grabbing something from the top shelves (though I’d often sneak back to children’s section when no one was watching to nab the latest installation in Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series).

In 2013, Red Mountain Branch opened a new wing called THINKspot: a place full of sewing machines and 3D-printers and cameras and computers. Most important to me, it had a conference room anyone could sign out for a couple hours if they wanted to hold a meeting. This allowed me—a self-conscious teen who hated having people at his house—to host a writing group. I’m sure we were annoying, a bunch of loud fifteen year-olds who spent half the time watching YouTube videos on the conference room monitor. But no one ever told us we couldn’t be there.

That’s what meant the most to me about Red Mountain Branch. It was a place I could go without getting kicked out for being a kid or not having any money. Mesa has always suffered from a paucity of community-oriented spaces, which made the library that much more valuable. It was unique. It taught me what a community space could and should look like.

The Ending or New Beginnings

In 2019 it had been a couple of years since I’d last been to the library. But as fortune would have it, I moved back to Mesa and found myself living once again within biking distance of Red Mountain Branch.

In my absence, they’d opened a miniature bookstore where they sold off old books that were going out of circulation. Thumbing through the stacks, I found the exact (somewhat beat-up) copy of the first collection of Ray Bradbury stories I’d ever read. It cost two dollars. Holding it, I felt like my life had closed a circle.

On that same visit, I got a new library card. As I signed the back, I realized that when I got my last library card was the first time I ever signed my name.

Epilogue

On March 16, 2020, Red Mountain Branch temporarily closed its doors due to Covid-19. They would remain so for an entire year. During that year, librarians staffed the CARES call center—a City of Mesa initiative to inform residents how to petition the city government for funding for their small businesses, rent, or utilities if their ability to pay had been impacted by the pandemic.

As of April 2021, the branch has reopened for business. They had planned to debut a new monarch garden and reading sanctuary last year, but had been delayed (for obvious reasons). This sanctuary is now open, just in time for the Arizona’s monarch breeding season (March – June).

I encourage any readers who live in Mesa to go show the library your support as it reopens. A list of library events and updates can be found here. If you don’t feel comfortable going in-person, you can get books from the library online at phoenix.overdrive.com.

The author would like to express thanks to Joyce Abbott, the manager of Red Mountain Branch Library, for answering his questions regarding the library’s history and programming.

Book Review

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Publisher: Tor.com
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
Buy Local
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this queer fantasy romance, Aqib bgm Sadiqi, son of a lesser noble in the court of Olorum, falls hard for Lucrio, a Daluçan soldier in the city as part of a trade delegation. Their love burns quick and bright, both knowing that each moment together is precious. All too soon the treaty will be signed, and Lucrio will be called back home. But they must also be careful, for the religion of Aqib’s forefathers does not approve of their union.

While kings and gods negotiate the future of their nations, Aqib and Lucrio negotiate their own futures in a treaty no less monumental for all that it defines—not relations between kingdoms and empires, but only between their two hearts.

Thoughts

The wonderful thing about short books is that you can read them in one sitting, and ever since Tor.com decided to start publishing novellas (one of the most underappreciated literary forms, in my humble opinion) I’ve been on the hype train.

A Taste of Honey is Wilson’s second novella from the imprint, set in the same world as his debut The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Tonally, however, the two books could not be more different. Sorcerer was a tour de force of experimental fantasy: a traditional sword-and-sorcery story with a non-linear narrative structure, and a masterful use of layered, naturalistic dialect. Imagine my surprise upon picking A Taste of Honey to discover an aching summer romance, full of queer longing and forbidden love.

Honey is in many ways a more casually approachable work than Sorcerer. This was a purposeful decision on the part of Wilson, who wrote in his essay “A POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction” that “Many people won’t read even gorgeously written dialect—cannot, in the first place, perceive the beauty in it.” Therefore he toned-down the dialect in his second work, though he notes that Honey is still “deeply although subtly spiced with it.” His experiments with form, on the other hand, have been—if anything—heightened. The warp and weft of interwoven past and present give the book an almost dreamlike quality, imbedding the reader into a diachronic character study of Aqib bmg Sadiqi.

Aqib’s personal turmoil takes center stage in Honey. I’m not ashamed to say this book made me cry as Aqib’s thorny relationship with his family tore its way through my heart. (Don’t worry though, Ashante knows better than to violate romance’s sacred trust of the happily ever after).

And Lucrio—sweet Lucrio—is just about the best Prince Charming I’ve ever encountered in print. If you fall hopelessly in love with storybook characters (as I do), be prepared to go head over heels for this strong and gentle Daluçan soldier.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. You would be hard pressed to find a more intimate portrait of tragedy, romance, and longing in a smaller package than A Taste of Honey. Come spend a chilly winter evening warmed by love and the light of the Olorum summer sun.