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In praise of libraries!

In praise of libraries!

Yesterday evening I ‘attended’ an engrossing online event to celebrate Libraries Week. Hosted by Annie Everall of Authors Aloud UK , it was a chance for a bunch of us authors to share personal memories of ‘My Library, My Books and Me’. But while the others – Anthony McGowan, Jasbinder Bilan, Philip Ardagh, Bali Rai, Savita Kalhan and Paul Cookson – had inspiring childhood library stories to share, my praise for libraries has rather different roots…

You see, the library at my 1950’s convent school in Johannesburg was always locked! My only memory is of peering through dusty glass panes and seeing shelves of dusty books inside. I also remember how,  in my final year at school, our vice-principal refused to counter-sign my application to join Johannesburg City Library. “And what would you be wanting to read more books for Beverley? Have you not got enough with your text-books already?”

However, at home, I was fortunate to have a small bookcase with books, including Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book with, of course, Cinderella.  Below is the wonderful gift I received (some 7 decades later) from Marjan Vafaeian, illustrator of our Cinderella of the Nile.  Here I am a child again, with my beloved Fairy Book and Hare for a companion!

While these tales were part of the European colonial bubble in which I grew up, I’ve come to realize that, at the same time, they offered me something universal. I thank Jack Zipes, the great scholar of fairy tales, for helping me understand how our age-old fairy tales “emanate from specific struggles to humanize bestial and barbaric forces… threatening to destroy free will and human compassion.” [Spells of Enchantment] To hear more from Jack, do listen here to when we were interviewed by Ann Lazim, librarian at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.

Another ‘big’ book for me as a child was The Diary of Anne Frank which told me that literature could be about real life. My mother was Jewish and I knew that Anne’s fate could have been mine had I been born in Europe. I was quite a timid child but I loved Anne’s rebel imagination and youthful outspoken voice. She freely criticized adults to her diary, Kitty, and raged against the world, its wars, inequality and injustice: “Why do some people have to starve, while there are surpluses rotting in other parts of the world? Oh, why are people so crazy?”

Yet, here’s the thing. While crying over Anne and Nazi terror and injustice in Europe, I still didn’t see the gross injustices all around me in apartheid South Africa. Luckily, the blinkers began to come off when I got to university. There were still a few black students at the University of Witwatersrand who had received special permission to attend. This was after the apartheid regime’s so-called ‘Extension of Universities Act’ that, in 1958, ordered universities designated ‘white’ not to accept black students.

At ‘Wits’, I was introduced to a group of students, white and black, who met on the lawn outside the library at lunch to talk and debate. There, outside the library, someone lent me Es’kia Mphahlele’s memoir Down Second Avenue. Published in Berlin, then in communist GDR, the book was banned. With his writer’s generosity, Mphahlele led me into his world. Second Avenue was barely 30 miles from where I grew up… but it could have been on another planet. As my blinkers opened, there was no going back.

In my final year, Nelson Mandela and resistance leaders who became known as the Rivonia Trialists were captured and put on trial. They expected death sentences. By this time, I knew that choices had to be made in life, not just in literature.

Although I was a small fish, my own detention a year later for 8 weeks in solitary confinement, under the ’90 Days’ law, further opened my blinkers, as did the trial of my brother with about a dozen others. I don’t think I read much in those months of attending their trial. But when I arrived in England and future exile, a letter was waiting for me from the extraordinary professor of education at the new University of York where I’d been offered a place to study English for a BA Hons. Prof Harry Rée had fought alongside the French Resistance. Had I read, he asked, Camara Laye’s memoir L’Enfant NoirThe African Child? And had I read Edward Blishen’s Roaring Boys?  I got hold of both books. What a revelation! So, education could also be about culture… could be about class? I began to realize that what I had experienced at school was ‘schooling’. Nothing more. It wasn’t ‘education’!  Harry hooked me in with those two books and I signed up to study education alongside English at York. I was on a huge new journey.

Novels in the groundbreaking Heinemann African Writers’ Series began to open out for me societies and histories of which my schooling had left me totally ignorant. In time, I turned to African American writers, including writers for young people. Mildred D Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, set in 1930s Mississippi, seen through the eyes of young Cassie Logan, hit me in the guts. Its echoes of apartheid South Africa overpowered me as a reader. Later, when I came to researching white British teenagers’ responses to literature that might challenge their understanding of racism – and to consider questions about the inner lenses through which we read, Roll of Thunder was top of my list.

Beverley Naidoo - writer, author, novelist, children's author, UK, SA

Maya Angelou talks about the ‘significant others’ in our lives. Listening to the other authors last night, despite our different experiences (thankfully no other locked-up libraries!) I was struck by the threads connecting us. For each of us, books had become significant others. I managed to jot down a few phrases… Anthony McGowan spoke of his “transition” and his library turning him into a reader so that he was “never bored again”. Jasbinder Bilan spoke of “going into another world” and her library offering her a “safe haven”. Bali Rai called himself bluntly “a product of libraries” while Savita Kalhan is doing what I call ‘giving back’. She runs a teen reading group in her local library.

Finally, how can we have wonderful libraries without dedicated, trained librarians? I hadn’t known of Philip Ardagh’s previous incarnation as one such librarian and won’t forget his poignant story of the Library Elephant. I loved hearing school librarian Caroline Roche – current chair of the School Libraries Group – talk about the libraries from her childhood and how reading for her is like breathing. Lucky young people who have her to introduce them to books! 

The reality is that school and public libraries up and down the country are under threat from funding cuts. Already, too many are a shadow of their former selves, being kept barely alive by volunteers. Libraries Week should make us all stop and think about protecting these treasures that we should never take for granted.