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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians
The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians
by Carla Morris, illustrated by Brad Sneed
Peachtree Publishers,(March 2007)
Melvin lived in the Livingstom Public Library.
Well. . .he didn't really live there. He just spent lots and lots of time there.
He wanted to know a little . . . no . . . a lot about everything. He was curious. And the library is a wonderful place to be if a person is curious.
Everything had its place in the library and Melvin liked it that way. His favorite books were always in their places, lined up on the shelves like soldiers. And his favorite people were always in their places, behind the reference desk.
--The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians by Carla Morris, illustrated by Brad Sneed, p. 1-2.
When you spend most of your free time with specific people, sharing similar interests and enjoying their company, can they become like family? In this book, they do. Melvin spends as much time as he can at his local library, reading and talking with three librarians. Everything that Melvin's interested in, the librarians are also interested in, and they always help him find answers to all his questions. It is clear that over the years, they become like a family, and Melvin finds a place where his insatiable curiosity about the world is encouraged and nurtured.
This heartwarming book celebrates librarians, especially, and also books, readers, libraries, and a desire or curiosity to learn. It's also about gaining a surrogate family and building relationships with like-minded people. It makes libraries seem like a haven, and librarians seem like compassionate nurturers of children's souls and minds. This is the perfect book for any book lover, and for anyone who's had a positive experience with librarians and libraries.
Morris sets the tone perfectly with her opening two sentences—one that brings a warm feeling to book lovers and instant reader interest (why does Melvin live in the library? how?), and then a gentle, playful humor (admitting that he doesn't actually live there, he just spends lots of time there). All of those things—interest, a warm feeling, and humor—are repeated throughout the book. The initial paragraphs also set up the story, giving the reader an understanding of why Melvin likes the library so much, before introducing the other key characters—the three librarians, Marge, Betty, and Leeola—and the ways that they help him.
The story is well-written, engaging, and enjoyable. It also has a strong good feeling to it, as Melvin is repeatedly supported and encouraged by the three librarians. The text is a series of linked scenes and events, showing Melvin's relationship with the librarians building over time—how Melvin stops by every day after school and talks with the librarians, and they are always happy to see him, and then highlights of each major thing the librarians help him with through the different grades. This helps the reader believe in the strong relationship. The reader also sees through some of the dialogue and scenes that the librarians do not strictly help him with learning, but also want to know about his day and his life, and help him as a nurturing, interested relative might do, which makes the relationship seem more personal and stronger.
Concrete details of the librarians' ongoing encouragement, support, and kindness increase the good feeling; the reader sees the librarians helping Melvin to: catch and catalogue all eighty-seven bugs when he drops the container and they all spill out in the library (instead of getting angry or upset at him); practice for his play (even loudly in the library); and obtain acid-free boxes and a price guide for his baseball card collection. The librarians always take a keen interest in everything Melvin does and wants to know, and are proud of him, even attending his graduation. They are like a surrogate family, always encouraging and believing in him. This works especially well because the reader never hears about Melvin's biological family. Melvin also consistently succeeds at everything he does, and this also adds to the good feeling.
Morris makes distinctions between the librarians through their very different, unique, and funny suggestions when Melvin wants to learn more about snakes--one offers him a book about raising snakes in your bathtub, one offers him a book about making snakeskin purses and shoes, and one offers him a book about snake poems and blessings. After that, the distinctions appear mostly through the illustrations. Although at times separate and distinct, the librarians also frequently appear as a group, as one loving voice.
The text tells us in many ways that Melvin loves the librarians, and that helps the reader appreciate them more. The repeated refrain in the book that 'that's how librarians are' (after they help Melvin with something) brings a pleasing rhythm and a warm, friendly voice. The refrain is not repeated too often and is always worded slightly differently, so it remains fresh and interesting.
Adult readers, writers, librarians, and those who love words and learning may especially appreciate the way the librarians are depicted, with their recognizable desire to: research and learn about any subject that comes up; help someone find an answer; help someone learn; catalogue and organize chaos; help someone understand the meaning in a book; encourage reading and learning and a love of books; and care about their patrons.
Melvin's love of books and learning is also clear; he immediately acts on the suggestions the librarians give him, is the first to finish the Summer Reading Program, loves the Spend the Night in the Library party, participates in all the library programs, feels rich and happy surrounded by books, and goes to the library every day.
The story has a strong forward movement. This is, in part, because: each new scene is about a different interest Melvin has, and the interest is active—Melvin tripping and spilling bugs, Melvin acting out his play, etc; there is humor sprinkled throughout (Melvin is an enormous eggplant in the play, Melvin's picked to be on "So You Want to Be the Smartest Kid" TV show); the librarians offer creative help; Melvin grows progressively older in many scenes; and the strong good feeling. The book kept my interest the entire time, moved me deeply, and made me want to read it all over again.
The ending is touching, and brings a sense of having come full circle when the reader discovers that Melvin becomes a librarian at the very same library his favourite librarians still work at. It's clear that the attention and love that the librarians gave him made him want to be a librarian, too; that he's still a part of his surrogate family; and that he's going to pass on that same loving attention to a new child--one who is very like how he was as a boy. This brings a feeling that the story is going to repeat itself, with each new generation coming to emulate the librarians they loved.
Sneed's (Big Bad Wolves at School, Smoky Mountain Rose) bright, cheerful cartoon illustrations depict characters that look a little like caricatures, larger than life, their facial expressions exaggerated—but their excitement and kindness shows through. The librarians are visually introduced on the copyright and acknowledgement pages, beaming out at the reader, which is a nice touch, especially because they don't appear in the foreground in the first spread. The librarians' enthusiasm, love of finding answers, and learning leap off the pages, both through the text and the illustrations.
Sneed uses a bright, warm palette, bringing in lots of light browns and yellow, which help lighten the feeling, as well as greens, blues, and oranges. The illustrations bleed right to the edges of the pages, which helps add to the feeling of warmth and richness. Many of the illustrations are full spreads, while others take up three quarters of the spread with the last quarter being a separate, smaller illustration separated by two parallel lines and a thin strip of white space (like in a comic book). Often in the spreads with multiple illustrations, part of one illustration pops through the parallel dividing lines into the other, which brings great visual interest and a pleasing aesthetic feel.
Sneed skillfully uses light and shadow to bring depth to the characters and furniture, and texture is especially visible in the characters' hair and in the reference desk. There is also a pleasing and at times whimsical use of pattern in clothing, fabric, and some objects that helps bring visual interest. There is setting detail in some of the backgrounds, but often there are warm washes of color with some setting detail, such as a bookcase or doorway. Yet even the washes of color used for the backgrounds are gradated, which makes them appear to have some depth.
Melvin and the librarians are the clear focus of each illustration. Visual focus is brought to them by the bright colors they wear; the exaggerated facial expressions and body language; their placement in the foreground and often the center of the page; that they are often the only characters on the page; and that the backgrounds are often just washes of color, or are slightly faded in detail compared to the main characters.
Melvin's and the librarians' individual personalities come out strongly in the illustrations, through the unique clothes and accessories they wear (one librarian dresses more stylishly and hip, one dresses more relaxed and hippy-ish, one dresses more conservative or business-like with a flair); through their body language; and through their body types and hair styles. It's also nice to see the aging process over the years of both Melvin and the librarians.
There are many details that help make the library look comfy, homey, and welcoming, such as window seats with bright cushions and lights; colorful awnings; the cheerful librarians; an aquarium; a plant; cheerful colored floors and walls; and even that the books all have colorful spines (and not just all one color). THere are also many details that give the library a modern feel, such as computer screens, a dvd projector; the recycling bin next to photocopier, the sleepover in the library; and the decor and furniture.
Those who love children's books will enjoy recognizing some of the covers of picture books displayed throughout the book--covers that are blurred, without readable text (so as not to take away from the action or the scene) but can still be recognized, such as Where the Wild Things Are (in the Eggplant play spread).
There is a gentle, enjoyable humor in many of the illustrations, such as: a suit of armor standing in the library with a note pinned next to it saying "He reads knight and day!"; when the librarians are watching Melvin on a TV show, and one spills the bowl of popcorn in her excitement, while two cats leap away from the excited librarians; and Melvin holding a bouquet of flowers picked from the library garden (as an apology), the dirt and roots still clinging to them.
And a small, nice touch that may be familiar and reassuring to many readers is that at least three of the characters always wear glasses—Melvin, and two of the librarians. Since these characters are so nice, these are positive images.
The Boy Who Was Raised By Librarians is a wonderful, heartwarming book about friendship; surrogate families; love of books, librarians, libraries, and learning; and finding your place in the world. It encourages readers to seek out librarians and books, to keep reading, to treasure the people in your life who help you, and to reach out to others. It's also a feel-good, rewarding book for book lovers. Highly recommended.
-Added March 2007
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