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At the Library: Sharing the books that shaped us

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With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I’ve naturally been thinking about first loves.

Not the warm, fuzzy, giddy, awkwardness of a middle school crush, or the we’re-soulmates-and-this-will-last-forever certainty of high school sweethearts.

While those experiences were, and are, pivotal chapters in many love stories, there are other “first loves” that are just as life-changing — like the simple, unalterable joy of falling in love with a book that changes you.

I still remember discovering mine in a thrift shop, during the summer before eighth grade.

It was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.

I’m almost certain I bought a few other books that day, but Smith’s semi-autobiographical coming of age novel is the only one that stands out in my memory; there was just something special, and familiar, about the main character: quiet, thoughtful, imaginative and fiercely loyal, Francie Nolan.

Francie, who loved her family, and school, and writing, and books in equal measure.

We were kindred spirits, as far as I was concerned.

I also loved that, in her beautiful, richly detailed prose, Smith didn’t shy away from topics like poverty, death or alcoholism; while the novel is at times funny, and even hopeful, it features a stark realism that I was, I think, subconsciously craving as an adolescent just beginning to contemplate the world and my place in it.

As I thought about this week’s column, and how our literary first loves often have a lasting impact on us, I began to wonder what books my co-workers and colleagues counted among their childhood favorites.

So I asked them.

Managing librarian Heather VanTassell fondly listed Beverly Cleary’s beloved story, “Ramona Quimby, Age 8,” as the first book that she remembers truly falling in love with. “My third grade teacher read aloud from it each day and mesmerized the class,” she said. “I recall being caught up in the story and all of the mischief that (Ramona) got carried away in.”

Mindy Anderson, a library associate supervisor, listed “Redwall” by Brian Jacques as her first favorite book. She read it when she was 10 years old, based on the recommendation of her school librarian, and immediately fell in love with Martin the Warrior and all of his adventures.

When I asked other staff, some of their abiding favorites were ones that were simply exciting or suspenseful. Case in point: As a 5-year-old, librarian Matt Kendall loved Maurice Sendak’s picture book “Where the Wild Things Are” because it so thoroughly sparked his imagination.

Librarian Kyle Huizenga credited R.L. Stine’s creepy children’s book, “Stay Out of the Basement,” with being the most memorable page-turner he read as a kid.

Another abiding theme that came up again and again was the presence of strong, young, female main characters.

Managing librarian Georgia Reitmire recalled wanting to be a pioneer, just like the lead character in her childhood favorite: Carol Brink’s award-winning children’s book, “Caddie Woodlawn.”

Similarly, Nicole Drysdale, a library associate, said she has always loved mysteries, ever since reading the Nancy Drew novel “The Secret of the Old Clock” by Carolyn Keene.

For Deb Stilson, special projects manager, it was Scott O’Dell’s classic “Island of the Blue Dolphins” that stands out in her memory. Stilson, who grew up in California, noted, “I was really into historical fiction as a kid and (the fact) that it takes place on an island just off the Southern California coast made it a win/win for me. I just gobbled it up!”

As you might imagine, my question about favorite books from childhood sparked a series of nostalgic conversations among the staff I polled; I think there’s just something lovely, and comfortable, and wholly universal when it comes to sharing the books that shaped us.

So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m hoping that you, too, will be inspired to share, or at least reminisce about, the first book(s) from your childhood that really and truly captured your heart.

• Krystal Corbray is programming and marketing librarian for Yakima Valley Libraries. She and other library staffers write this column for SCENE. Learn more at www.yvl.org.

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