A guest post by Books for Keeps Board Treasurer Joe Hill
I remember when I first learned to love to read. My father was stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, NC, and I was at Tabernacle Middle School in English class with our teacher Mrs. Hellmer. There we learned to diagram sentences and if we could, we used all the adjectives in our spelling list to make unnecessarily long sentences which we would then have to diagram. Mrs. Hellmer had a bookshelf full of fiction representing every genre and she would ask us to choose a book for recreational reading or a book report. We had a library I suspect, but I don’t recall going there in middle school. All I remember was her bookshelf and how because of it I discovered that reading was something that could be fun.
When it came time to choose my first book in middle school English, I remember thinking a book cover with dragons looked pretty cool. So I started with Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern. I started with Dragonflight, then Dragonquest, The White Dragon, Dragonsong, Dragondrums and pored through most all of her Pern-based books. My school was a little way out in Maysville and the bus ride with all the stops was at least a half hour. The long ride to school and home provided ample time to knock out a couple chapters. I became a voracious reader in middle school due to the long bus ride and my access to that bookshelf.
These were the days of Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers, where every mall had at least one bookstore. Both the comic shop and the bookstores were within bike-riding distance for me. After a slice of Sbarro’s pepperoni we would spend our hard-earned allowance on cassette singles, comics, and fantasy books. I picked up David Eddings 5-book series, The Belgariad and later The Malloreon. I fell in love with Terry Brooks’ Shannara chronicles, Tad Williams’ Dragonbone Chair books, Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga. With every trip to the bookstore a new author would speak to me, and I came to see the sci-fi/fantasy section as my home.
Today Books for Keeps offers a free bookshelf, like Mrs. Hellmer, so that all children can go through that process of discovery and joy that a good book brings.
After two years of exploring every major subject offered in college, I took a class called Introduction to Literary Analysis, which led me to declare as an English major. My professors had this look of rapture when they warmed to their favorite subjects. They championed southern literature, Shakespeare, or modern American poetry, but I had a hard time feeling the same connection. None of my professors liked sci-fi or fantasy, and that’s all I wanted to read. I remember taking a class called Myth and Mysticism thinking we’d read about different mythologies and the literature and folklore that they inspired. We spent the better part of the semester discussing epic Celtic poetry analyzing middle English stanza by boring stanza. I felt betrayed to say the least. For a time after graduating I was disillusioned by the forced appreciation of fine literature. Although, there are some books outside of sci-fi that stick with me today—Winesburg, Ohio and Catcher in the Rye, to name a few—my all-time favorites are in the genre I love.
Post graduation I eventually came to terms with valuing sci-fi above the “great” works of literature I studied in school. I realized that what I like to read has just as much value as any book in the school curriculum. I defy any expert on literature to read Frank Herbert’s Dune and not walk away with a sense of awe for his craftsmanship. Read any of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and marvel at his wit and wisdom. Can any lover of reading escape the poignant message of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (or Celsius 233 for the metricians)?
The point is we have a wide variety to choose from that is specially curated, based on what the kids tell us they like. And instead of having to be close to a library or in bike-riding distance to a bookstore, we bring the library to the kids, removing all barriers to access.
Today Books for Keeps offers a free bookshelf, like Mrs. Hellmer, so that all children can go through that process of discovery and joy that a good book brings. At the last book distribution I went to many of the boys admitted to wanting to grow up to play in the NBA like Lebron James. Well, we’ve got books about him. Some of the kids want to learn to cook for their families. Well, we’ve got cookbooks. We have a hefty amount of Diary of a Wimpy Kid books as well, a perennial favorite. You need graphic novels? We’ve got ‘em. The point is we have a wide variety to choose from that is specially curated, based on what the kids tell us they like. And instead of having to be close to a library or in bike-riding distance to a bookstore, we bring the library to the kids, removing all barriers to access. No choice they make in selecting 12 books is a bad one, and encouraging that judgment-free love of reading is what makes Books for Keeps mission so meaningful to me.
Joe Hill sits on the Books for Keeps Board of directors, where he has served as treasurer since 2012. By day, he is a business banker at Athens First Bank & Trust. He is also a lifelong lover of reading, particularly SciFi & Fantasy.