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Revisiting a Childhood LibraryI HAD NOT VISITED THE LIBRARY since my boyhood in the 1940s. The feelings were strange and unexpected.
I had arrived early in Toronto for a meeting in the east end of city. Although I had not planned it, I visited the Kew Beach Library to search out a magazine article. I had lived in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto in the 'forties and early 'fifties. The library had been an important part of my life. Through my visit I learned just how much it had shaped my world.
My Ukrainian parents never learned to read or write in English and there were never any books or newspapers in our home. As a young boy I spent hundreds of hours in the children's section of the Kew Beach Library with its beautiful old fireplace. It is a lovely tudor-style building covered in ivy, nestled on the edge of a wooded park of majestic old oaks. I don't recall how I discovered this quiet haven or the treasures that could be found there, but I frequented it weekly and I borrowed hundreds of books. I'm sure I read everything in the place.
I remember the pride I felt, like being a member of a select club, when the children's librarian made a visit to my class in nearby Williamson Road Public School to promote the use of the library. When she saw me she beamed and exclaimed to the class, resting her hand on my shoulder, "Now here is someone who is always in our library."
After I found the source of my article in the adult section I walked down the stairs to the children's library. Before I hit the bottom stair I began to feel a strange, overwhelming sensation. I took one look at this tiny room with its classical, oversized fireplace and broke uncontrollably into tears. I remember it as a cavernous room with row upon row of bookshelves. It was almost fifty years since my identity had been shaped by the children's books in that room. I was shocked by the emotional power of the experience and the eruption of memories of family and friends from that neighbourhood.
For most of my career as a high-school geography teacher, principal, and school superintendent, children's literature played no role in my life. But in the last decade or so I have returned to it with a passion. As a superintendent I became a strong advocate for a children's literature approach to curriculum. (I read a picture book aloud at nearly every principals' meeting.) I'm sure those memories of the captivating stories I read at the kitchen table after a return in the dark from the library, while my mother prepared dinner listening to Don Messer's Jubilee on CKEY radio, all had something to do with this renewed love of children's books.
But more than that, it was in that little room that the roots of my literacy were grounded. As the son of "peasant" immigrant Ukrainian parents, it was in the library where I learned the power of story and the importance of reading and writing. It was through reading the adventure stories of early life in North America that I first became enthraled with the raw beauty and majesty of this country, excited by the Native Canadians, adventurers, and pioneers who forged this nation. These stories were certainly not accessible to me in the classroom. The curriculum of the day consisted primarily of British culture and literature. Boring skill and drill lessons prevailed and memorizing the kings and queens of England is one of my agonizing memories.
It was in the sanctuary of the Kew Beach Children's Library where I learned a love for literature, and in particular for children's literature, and it is where my emerging Canadian identity was crystallized.
CM: Canadian Review of Materials
Copyright © 1996 the Manitoba Library Association.
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