As some of you know, I’m the Booklady in my neighborhood. When we first moved here, I started giving away books to the kids who live here. It’s an easy thing to do and very rewarding. I go to thrift shops and buy books, children’s and young adult, usually for around twenty cents each. That means I can get fifty books for about ten dollars. I keep a couple of boxes of books just inside my front door and, when a kid comes up on the porch to get one, I haul them out and let her choose one book.
The one-book-a-day rule is important in this whole business. I want the kids to value the books, even though they’re free. So at first some of them put a lot of manipulative energy into trying to get more than one book. I’ve even had kids try to hide an extra book under a T-shirt. They also insist the second book is for their brother. I tell them their brother can come get his own book. (I make occasional exceptions for “baby” brothers and sisters, but they only get baby books.)
One little guy from next door, about four years old, tries to stonewall me. He comes over for a book and takes it home. Then he comes over again, just a little while later, and claims he hasn’t been there that day and didn’t get a book. You can’t shake him. One time, after I kept explaining that I knew he’d already got a book, he looked at me fiercely and said, “I need a book!”
Well, I could certainly sympathize with that sentiment, but I didn’t cave. I’ve had ten years experience in not caving, and it’s a good strategy. Now kids bring new kids to the porch and explain the rules to them. Other Booklady rules are simply what I grew up with. No grabbing, hitting, cursing, or tattling. And no skates on the porch. (I don’t want to be responsible for any broken limbs.)
Over the years, some of the kids have become friends. One of the dearest was Julian. When he first started coming by he was probably seven or eight. He and his friend Giovanni came to get books for a good while. Then I made the mistake one day of giving them each a marble. They started asking for marbles every time they came. I had to make myself forget about the fact that I had a large jar of marbles and could easily have made them happy. The Booklady is about books, not marbles.
After a while, Julian started coming by to talk. When I opened the door and asked whether he wanted a book, he’d say, “No.”
I’d say, “Do you want to sit on the step?”
He’d shrug, and we’d sit down. Then we’d talk. I learned that Julian had six sisters. His mother had kicked out his father, apparently after he threw her down the stairs. Julian yearned for him. I suspect Julian was a shoplifter, and I know he was a con artist; he told me that school was really easy. All you had to do was pretend you were dumb and they’d put you in a class where you didn’t have to do anything.
When Mac Austin and I were working on America’s Children, one of our print documentaries, I gave the book kids disposable cameras and asked them to take pictures of each other. Two of the pictures actually made it into the book. They were both taken by Carolina, who showed a real talent for composition. She was kidnapped and impregnated when she was fifteen, and I never saw her after that, so I don’t know how things worked out for her.
I have a lot of other stories about the kids, but I won’t go into all of them here. All of you who are teachers have those stories, too. I just wanted to tell you a little bit about being the Booklady, in case some of you want to give it a try in your neighborhood.