"The Bookmobile" is the fifth in a series of exclusive, original essays by Marilyn Sachs, the author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Credited with helping launch the trend of realistic fiction for young readers with her first book, 1964's Amy Moves In, Marilyn is considered a literary treasure. Born in New York City in 1927, she grew up in an apartment on Jennings Street in the east Bronx, and her own childhood provides the framework for many of her stories. When she came to Red Room to let us know she was working on her memoirs, we jumped at the chance to work with her and publish them here first. These essays recall a time and place far removed from our own; however, the emotions Marilyn evokes are timeless.
Marilyn says, "I look forward to sharing some memories with my fellow writers and readers. Please let me hear from you even if you want to disagree. And thank you to the staff at Red Room for their encouragement, help and advice."
In the early 1950s, I worked for the Brooklyn Public Library. During that time, I was assigned to spend a year on one of their two bookmobiles. It was a huge bookmobile with five staff members—three librarians, a clerk, and a driver clerk. We visited schools, neighborhoods, and housing projects that were more than a mile from any branch of the library.
1947 had been the year that baseball was integrated. Jackie Robinson, the great second baseman, was the first black player on the roster of the then Brooklyn Dodgers. During the summer, while we were driving from one location to the next, the radio was on loud, and somewhat softer while we were dealing with the public.
We were a curious mix of people. I was the children's librarian and, aside from biting my fingernails especially during the ball games, I felt extremely confident about my knowledge of books and reading. The second librarian was an opera fan, and favored us with some of her favorite arias from Boris Gudonuv even while the game was going on. She had a terrible voice, incidentally, that cracked and quivered around the high notes. Only the driver, a good deal older than the rest of us, genial, and hard of hearing, never made faces behind her back. The clerk, a young man, flirted with the three librarians, but nobody talked of sexual harassment then. Young men were often like that, and all we had to do was to shrug our shoulders, and move off to another part of the large bookmobile.
I'm saving the third librarian for last. Technically, she was the one in charge of the bookmobile, but she had a good-natured disposition, and never bossed anybody around. She and I made a match between two friends of ours, but that is another story.
We worked hard, circulating more than 500 books a day, and taking turns dealing with our patrons. If we had only adults, all the librarians worked with the adults. If it was a school stop, we all worked with the children. The bookmobile carried only books—no videos, no DVDs, magazines, and of course, no computers. The books were checked out by hand, and if the lines were very long or the clerk was sick, everybody pitched in.
Somebody was always sick. With all the people we dealt with, and tearing round in all kinds of weather, especially in the winter, one staff member or another would catch a cold, which often spread through the rest of the staff. Only the driver was indispensable, and the library always provided one even though one of two of the other staff members were out sick.
We got to know the regulars—the woman who wanted love stories, the man who needed how to books - sometimes the other way around ..., the kids who only read Beverly Cleary or Dr. Seuss, and we always tried to accommodate them. We had favorites—the cute kids, the good readers, the ones who appreciated us ... and there were others.
"Who does he think he is..." said our unfavorite patron, a middle-aged man with thick glasses, and an angry, loud voice. "Just because his name is Tolstoi. Who needs him to tell us why wars are fought?" He slammed the book down. He always slammed his books down. This time it was War and Peace. "I wanted a novel, not a treatise."
"Well, " I said pleasantly, "maybe ..." This was a neighborhood stop, and we had a large group of people waiting outside on line.
"No maybes. It's a boring book, and I wasted my time."
He looked at me accusingly as if I had written it.
"Well, I never read it, but ..."
"Don't bother," he said.
We didn't like him except maybe the driver, who seemed to get along with everybody.
One stop I'll never forget, because I learned I didn't know everything.
We had a number of school stops, and since we only spent an hour or so at each stop, the principal usually sent two of the brightest classes down, one at a time, Those kids were generally a joy to work with. Their excitement, enthusiasm, and hunger for books made all of us feel like we were missionaries.
At one school, however, the principal did not send down his brightest classes. He sent down two "Opportunity Classes," both sixth grades. Then, elementary schools went through the sixth grade before students moved on to the junior high, which included the seventh, eighth and ninth grades.
"Opportunity" was one of those euphemisms because the kids in the "Opportunity" classes were usually the worst performing kids in the school.
So we had two.
One of them had a teacher, Mrs. Stein, who smiled and spoke to her students with kindness and patience. Usually they carried baskets they were working on, or showed us a variety of craft projects. She never scolded or threatened. Whatever books her students chose were fine with her. We all admired and liked her, including the clerk even though she was too old to flirt with.
The other "Opportunity" class was the exact opposite. No basket, no crafts, no smiles. The teacher, Miss Walsh, was one of those tough looking women with a hard, frowning face. We could see the kids were afraid of her.
"No!" she would yell at one of them. "No, you're not taking a picture book out. No! Something harder. Here, take this one."
"But it's too hard for me."
"Because you don't use your brain. You have one, don't you? And don't take just one. Take another!"
She yelled at the kids, made fun of them, and frightened them.
I said to the librarian in charge, " I think I should go up, and tell the principal what a bitch she is. Just look - that girl is crying, and you can see that they're terrified of her."
But the head librarian persuaded me not to complain, although she and the rest of the staff, even the driver, felt great sympathy for the kids, and anger at their teacher. None of us looked forward to that stop, but after Christmas, little changes began to appear. Nothing happened in the first "Opportunity"class. Maybe the baskets were bigger, and the felt animals had more buttons. But in the other class, something was stirring. The teacher, Miss Walsh, still yelled, mocked and urged her kids to take harder books. And the kids - one of the girls asked me "Do You have some more of those Betsy ... Betsy ... Betsy ... uh?"
"Betsy Tacy books?" I suggested
"Yeah. I read one of them, and I'd like to read another."
"I liked that book about the war. I told the class about it, and my teacher said it was part of a series, and I should ask you for another one, " a boy said.
"Do you have that book of riddles Jimmy took out last week?"
As the spring progressed, The "Opportunity" class was reading books. The kids talked to me and the other staff members about which books they liked. They asked us riddles and fought over books several wanted. Miss Walsh sat down, looked at the books her students showed her. She stopped yelling.
I knew I owed her an apology.
"I'm sorry, Miss Walsh," I told her. "I thought you were so mean. I thought you were a terrible teacher. I didn't understand."
"They're all reading, at least at a fourth grade level," she said proudly. "Some of them do better than that. But why did you think I was mean?" Her face was puzzled.
"Because you ... well, you yelled at them. You didn't smile."
"Anybody can smile," she told me with a smile. "But most of these kids could hardly read when I got them. I couldn't send them out into the world unless they could read. They'd be vegetables. And now they do read. And most of them like it, and will keep on liking it. Some of them ..." She hesitated. "Some of them ... might even go on to college."
I learned many things on the bookmobile. But the most important thing I learned was that the students in the "Opportunity" class really had an opportunity with a teacher like Miss Walsh. They had an opportunity to break out of ignorance and, because she cared, discover new worlds and their own potential through the books she forced them to read.