I was one of those kids growing up. You know, the ones who sat in dark closets with a headlamp and a book way beyond their comprehension. You don’t know them? Maybe I was the only one. My parents encouraged me to read, but it was a woman at a local bookstore that fed me books, handpicked tales of orphaned children and talking dogs for me to take into my cozy corners and devour.
Two summers ago I became one of those bookstore ladies. For three months I fulfilled my childhood dream and worked at a bookstore menagerie that was not only stacked floor to ceiling with every picture and young adult book you could imagine, but was also bursting with animals. Yes, that’s right, a bookstore that doubled as some sort of fantastical pet store. Cats wedged their way into top shelves so that at any moment, a book could come tumbling down precariously close to a toddler’s head. Sometimes, ferrets escaped from their cages and like kleptomaniacs obsessed with shiny objects, they hoarded old keys, forgotten cell phones and candy wrappers behind brick planters. We completed the parade with the Silkie bantam chickens that looked less like birds and more like badly dressed Elvis impersonators.
Watching this circus from behind the counter, I realized I had forgotten the wonder of childhood. Kids bounced through the store in tutus and swimsuits, flinging books from the shelves, pulling cat’s ears, curling up in a dusty corner and flipping through the wonderfully painted world of Keven Henkes or the adventures of Pete the Cat.
I had long since given up reading young adult books, let alone picture books. I read sophisticated books. Or, more accurately, watched Netflix and flipped through the pages of some paperback when I had time. In my new job, kids counted on me to feed them books. So, I started hoarding picture books.
That summer I collected all the picture books in our house (which was a lot) and stacked them into huge piles so that my room became a maze of book corners and covers. I started reading books for young readers and realized how much more sophisticated and genuine they were than most young adult books about sex or vampires or both.
When kids came up to the counter asking for book recommendations, we toured the store and I pulled book after book off the shelf so that by the end, the overwhelmed child was holding a stack taller than their head. I remember doing the same thing ten years ago, cradling my stack and reading the first pages of every single one. And how many worlds I entered in such a short time.
Sure, that summer I cleaned up more chicken poop than I would like to admit and captured ferrets twice a day and once even helped to brush a cat’s teeth. But I also rediscovered my love of reading that I lost somewhere among biology homework and English essays and history papers. Now that I have it back I cling to it, even as I ease my way back into the world of Netflix and sleepless Facebook. But all I have to do is remember what that one woman at the bookstore did for me, and what I hopefully did for at least one kid that summer, and I will stay up an extra ten minutes to read a book written for someone much younger than I am.