Driving along a dirt road in Waterbury Center, I was sure I was lost. On my way home from work at Kids VT, I was searching for the Children's Literacy Foundation office. I drove uphill, passing hayfields and enormous maples. Finally, convinced I'd gone too far, I pulled over, got out of my Toyota and stood on the weedy roadside, admiring a spectacular view of Mount Mansfield, shimmering with early autumn gold. Then, up ahead, I spied the right mailbox number.
In addition to working at Kids VT in Burlington, I'm the director of the single-room Woodbury Community Library, one of the few hybrid public/school libraries in the state. This year, our tiny town of fewer than 900 people received a Rural Libraries grant from the Children's Literacy Foundation, also known as CLiF. The grant offers a dozen public libraries $2,000 worth of books, plus an additional $500 for the school library — and storytelling presentations, too. That afternoon, I was picking up boxes of brand-new titles, from board books to fat middle-grade novels. The lavish gift exceeds my yearly children's book budget.
I didn't set out to become a librarian. But when my marriage fell apart and our sugaring business sold, a friend convinced me to take the Woodbury directorship for more income. As a bonus, my younger daughter could come to the library after school, resolving the issue of childcare.
I had a few stints shelving books as a high school and college student. But when I took the job two years ago, I knew next to nothing about how to actually manage a library. What I quickly discovered, however, was that, while I am the sole employee at the Woodbury Library, I'm hardly marooned. A lifetime library user, I know many librarians in the area, all of whom patiently answer my questions, from where to buy due-date slips to how to implement library policies.
One afternoon, after I helped the Hardwick librarian mop up an overflowing toilet, we sat on the library's granite front steps. She answered my questions about switching online catalog systems, and I sympathized as she shared the challenges of building an addition. When I had to grapple with issues relating to the opioid crisis, I leaned on a state library consultant for direction, but also simply for comfort.
It didn't take long to realize just how much Woodbury's little library depends on the generosity of others. Although the children who use the library — who read on the rug or in the overstuffed chairs, play chess, sew scraps of felt, or paint popsicle sticks — aren't aware of this, the building itself was constructed from grants and volunteer labor. Over the years, countless residents have served — unpaid and generally unacknowledged — on the board of trustees, making decisions on everything from budgets to guest speakers. Others have given unrestricted checks and donations of books, art supplies and boxes of tea.
On the third Saturday of each March, deep in the heart of mud season, the library hosts the annual Woodbury Pie Breakfast. The event raises a fifth of the library's yearly budget and reigns as the town's culinary claim to fame. On the evening before, townspeople appear at the elementary school kitchen, carrying donated pies, many still warm from the oven, carefully wrapped in towels and aluminum foil.
My back road detour to Waterbury Center that September afternoon reinforced for me how profoundly Tennessee Williams' famous line about "the kindness of strangers" rings true in our small state. These glossy books demonstrate to rural kids, on a conscious or subconscious level, that they're deserving of beautiful, new books.
The books are a gift to me, too. In a world increasingly divided and strident, they illustrate kindness, tangible proof of the fervent belief in literacy's might. In addition to widening career opportunities and providing necessary skills for our society, reading is an inherently imaginative act, and imagination strengthens and enriches a child's ability to carve out her or his own destiny in the world. In my own journey through life, literature has opened up my heart and mind in ways I never could have anticipated, leading me down twisting dirt-road detours with unfamiliar scenery, to places both uncomfortable and sublime.
Just as violence often leads to more violence, kindness begets kindness. When I was a girl growing up in a small New Hampshire village, the children's librarian, widowed Mrs. Elliott, gave me first dibs on the few new books she was able to purchase each year. I was a shy kid, wild about reading, and she gave me what little she had to give, with no strings attached. I think of her when I offer the Mercy Watson books — the beginning reader series my own daughters adored — to my young library patrons.
This fall, I was walking into the library when a group of children surrounded me, tugging two wagons piled high with long-stemmed purple asters. From the far edge of the soccer field, the girls and boys had picked these wildflowers — some in full bloom, others past their prime and already turning to feathery brown seed — to give to me. I bent down and gathered the gift in my hands.