Last week, as the teachers of my elementary school entered the media center for a faculty meeting, we were met by two library carts stacked full of children’s books. The media specialist explained that she had culled her shelves of old, heavily-used books and invited us to go through them and take those we felt we could use. The books were pretty grubby and had been through the hands of many children over the years. Nonetheless, we teachers gathered around and eagerly sifted through the titles. I soon discovered a copy of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss, copyright 1938, and a 1929 Newbery winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly. I seized upon them with delight.
Both of my newly-acquired books are bound in fabric with dark covers. Their spines are frazzled and shredding and their corners bow in and have an appearance of having been dropped, maybe even stood- or sat-upon, many times. Their pages are thin and lie very flat when the book is opened. The books practically open themselves to certain places – perhaps the best pictures, the most exciting text. Their pages sport random smudges, rips, and stains – mute testimony to the many turnings and much laborious musings in which they have participated.
I believe in the power of old books. These books are special to me not just because they are well-written and well-illustrated classics, but more precisely because of all the children’s hands through which they have passed. Their pages have an odor, a texture, and an appearance that testifies to the places they have been over the years and the small hands that have turned them and loved them, at times almost to death. As I turn their pages I see much evidence of those who have gone before me. The excitement, absorption, delight, and frustration of the former readers have truly penetrated the pages of these books and have added to the vitality of the stories.
I dearly love old books, especially old children’s books, both for this atmosphere they bring with them and for the frequent treasures they hide between their bland, homogeneous covers. I often use one of these books to teach children the meaning of the saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Some years ago I acquired another library discard, an obviously elderly book called The Pirates’ Bridge by Mary Stuart, copyright 1960. It’s dark maroon in color with a plain cloth binding, decorated with a simple picture of a woman and children dressed in turn-of-the-twentieth-century clothing with some pirates in the background. Cardboard peeks through on all four corners and the spine has been repaired more than once. When I pull it out it’s guaranteed to raise a chorus of “We don’t want to hear that one. It doesn’t look good.” It is, in fact, a delicious story, featuring brave schoolchildren and their teacher who outwit a band of pirates bent on taking over their one room school. Highly imaginative, totally improbable, thoroughly satisfying – by the time it’s finished I can convince every child in the room of the value of looking beneath the surface – of books and people, too.
So, give me your old, good books any day. Let me catch from them faint whiffs of peanut butter and sweaty palms and library shelf dust. Let me imagine the hands that turned the pages and ran small fingers beneath the words – sporting blisters, Band-Aids, ragged fingernails, determined to master the mystery of print. Let me feel their soft pages for the magical touch of the power of the burgeoning readers who have gone before me.
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