Lessons in shelf awareness
My daughter and I are now proud card-carrying members of the Hong Kong Public Library. My plan to get library cards for us last year got as far as completing the form and queuing at the registration counter because I had forgotten to submit proof of address. I'm ashamed to admit that it took us six months to get around to returning with all the necessary documentation.
This is especially momentous for me because I grew up in public libraries in Canada. Both my parents worked during the week, and most shops were closed on Sundays back then. So every Saturday afternoon, my parents would drop off my brother and me at whichever public library was nearest to where they were planning to shop, because this was the safest place they could think of to leave two primary school-aged children. They would pick us up hours later, after they had finished their errands.
In those early years, I remember reading books only while at the library and participating in the librarian's circle time reading. By the time I reached the age of nine or 10, an afternoon at the library always ended with struggling to decide which books to take home, and being rushed by my parents because I could not edit down my choices for the coming week to the maximum I was allowed to borrow at one time.
There is a wide variety of picture books about going to the library, Don Freeman's Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library is a favourite in our home, with elegant sentences about animals causing a rumpus and giraffes reading tall tales.
Famous siblings Charlie and Lola make a trip to the library in Lauren Child's But Excuse Me, That Is My Book. Precocious Lola doesn't quite understand the concept of borrowing when she sees another girl walk by with the book that she wants.
In contrast with Lola, a character from another book series is too earnest about book borrowing. In Alexander Stadler's Beverly Billingsly Borrows a Book, Beverly Billingsly is horrified to learn that the first library book she checks out is two days overdue and imagines terrible consequences for this misdeed.
Debbie Bertram and Susan Bloom's The Best Book to Read is a good introduction for preschoolers who want to learn about the experience of going to the library. For older children, The Shelf Elf Helps Out by Jackie Mims Hopkins explains the Dewey decimal system.
On the Sunday morning that we took my daughter to the Central Public Library in Causeway Bay, I was delighted to see the children's library filled with clusters of families: parents and toddlers, children with their grandparents, older groups of siblings and friends.
The first book that my daughter pulled from the shelves was Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse. I was impressed with her award-winning choice, and we happily found a spot to cuddle and read together. She liked it so much that she asked us to read it again. I reminded her that this is a library book, so we can check it out of the library and read it many more times at home. Then my husband pointed out that the book came from the "special award winners" shelf and could be enjoyed only at the library. How cruel!
We grudgingly moved on and were careful to guide our daughter to shelves containing books that could be borrowed.
The Central Public Library has a wonderful children's book section, and the government was clever to design a large indoor play gym to encourage toddlers to associate the library with fun and joy.
Our next stop will be the branch library at City Hall in Central, with hopes of visiting a few other branches in the coming months.
Annie Ho is the board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a children's literacy charity bringmeabook.org.hk