Think back to your childhood neighborhood. Beyond the memories of family and friends, what is your warmest recollection about the neighborhood itself?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood that featured two elderly women called “the Candy Lady” and “the Sucker Lady.” In elementary school, my buddies and I learned that they lived a couple of blocks away, next door to each other. Near their back doors they kept a bowl of wrapped candy and suckers, respectively, for kids to enjoy. Each time we rode our bikes to their houses, we couldn’t believe the treats were there again, like a gift from the year-round-Halloween heavens.
I hadn’t thought about these women for decades until my wife, two teen daughters and I moved into a new neighborhood about two years ago. Unfortunately, on the corner of our front yard, a dying tree needed to be removed a year after we moved in. As my wife and I lamented the large space left behind, we got an idea. Instead of just planting grass, why not install something that might benefit the neighborhood?
Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that promotes reading and community via small, portable libraries that homeowners can place on their property. (A family or group of families can buy one, or people can build their own.) The motto is “Take a book, share a book.”
My wife and I wanted to encourage very young children to discover the joys of reading, so we chose a low bench library with a window. After painting it yellow and turquoise, we put some inexpensive, used children’s books in the bench and placed it in the front corner of our yard.
At first, puzzled passersby approached the bench like they might be on a hidden camera show. Gradually they would inspect it, open the lid, and explore the contents. Then, word must have spread, because books continue to fly in and out of the bench nearly every day.
Part of the library’s success is due to the high-pedestrian traffic of street we live on. Thankful neighbors regularly approach us to say how much their children or grandchildren enjoy diving into the library. Indeed, one neighbor’s very young son couldn’t contain his love of reading when he asked: “Mr. O’Keefe, can I take all your books?”
As a writer and former English professor, I’m thrilled to foster the sublime pleasure of reading a physical book in our screen-dominated age. I remember vividly how The Emperor’s New Clothes made me laugh uproariously as a child. And I will never forget the paradigm-shifting moment when Sinbad the Sailor realized the island he stood on was actually a live whale. For my own daughters, picture books like The Paper Bag Princess and Stand Tall,Molly Lou Melon made them beg for re-readings during their early years.
The way that a bench full of books has impacted our neighborhood reminded me that parenting does not happen in a vacuum. As our homes increasingly become high-tech bubbles, it’s easy to forget the importance of a child’s physical environment — including what they encounter on walks and bike rides. The tiny library has become a found poem, a symbol of shared passion for a classic activity drenched in novelty for kids and nostalgia for adults. The library also operates on the honor system, symbolizing trust in everyone to give and take books appropriately. Indeed, we have rarely had to restock the bench — that magic happens by itself.
Granted, times have changed since the days of “the Candy Lady” and “the Sucker Lady.” Today, neighbors giving candy to children would justifiably be treated with suspicion. But those women’s generous spirit has managed to live on. The more passive nature of a little library has turned out to be a gratifying way for our family to contribute to our new neighborhood.
Maybe decades from now some of the neighborhood children will have warm memories of the yellow bench on that corner long ago. Will my wife and I become “the Library Couple”? We would be honored.