Shelving is the neverending story of library work. You can unload cartful after cartful of books in the stacks, and when you turn around, there will be another shelf of returned books waiting.
The easiest books to shelve are reference materials; they’re enormous, so you can spot the five-inch-wide empty space waiting for any given book practically from across the library. Of course, reference books all weigh a couple of tons, give or take, so perhaps the best books to shelve are adult fiction—small enough to carry in one hand, read often enough not to kick dust in your eyes, and interesting enough to distract you with cover blurbs while you’re searching for the right spot on the shelf.
But my favourite books to shelve are the juvenile fiction.
They can’t stand up on their own, so you have to keep a hand on the cart to stop the whole row from toppling. The shelves are a mess, because children are happy to chuck Dr Seuss, Patricia Polacco, and Eric Carle all together on the same shelf, never mind alphabetising. You spend more time rearranging chaos than actually shelving, but there’s something magical about the children’s section—something that doesn’t extend to the rest of the library.
In the children’s section, you never know what you’ll find. Jumanji might rest against Goodnight Moon one day and Cinderella the next. Books meant to teach children about serious topics—handling death or loving people with special needs—press against books meant to trigger unbridled imagination. Animals and children and monsters mingle together in a colourful blend in which the population is too diverse for stereotypes and the lines between truth and fiction blur. Illustrated historical fictions make friends with the wildest fantasies, and yet the whole colourful mass whispers one unified message, telling children to love, to learn, to dream.
In my twenties, I still love children’s books. Over the years, I’ve grown from sounding out The Cat in the Hat to analysing Anna Karenina, but I can still hear the picture books telling me to explore thoroughly, live kindly, and dream vividly.
Green Eggs and Ham still reminds me to give new experiences a shot.
The Grouchy Ladybug still tells me to show compassion.
Harold and the Purple Crayon still promises that creativity can change the world.
No matter where I go, no matter what I learn, these incongruous worlds of colour and rhyme are with me. They underlie the jokes I tell, the choices I make, the dreams I pursue. They live in my memories and shape my ideas. And returning to them now, even if it’s just to put them in order after tiny hands have set them in disarray, feels like coming home, like visiting old friends who welcome me with love and send me back out with that one simple reminder that’s so easy to forget in the chaos of growing up:
The world is big, but not too big for you.