This morning, I gave a keynote at the Southern Kentucky Book Festival. Here are my prepared remarks.
Good morning. My name is Wil Wheaton. I am the New York Times bestselling author of Still Just A Geek. My narration of Ready Player One debuted at number one on the same list. I created, produced, and hosted the series Tabletop on Geek & Sundry, and I currently host The Ready Room, your online hub for all things Star Trek Universe.
I am so proud and grateful for all of that. I have an amazing life doing what I love. I’ve been married for 24 years to my best friend, Anne. We have two amazing kids, a pretty great dog, and a cat who allows us to believe we are in charge. I get to travel all over, talking to audiences like this, about things that are important to me.
I’m going to say it again: I have a fantastic life.
To get here, I had to survive what most of you probably know me from: my childhood acting career. In 1985, when I was 12, I starred in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, which has gone on to become a generational classic. At 14, I was cast as Wesley Crusher, in Star Trek: The Next Generation. 35 years later, I am introduced at science fiction conventions as an elder in the community, representing Legacy Star Trek.
I was really good at it, but I never wanted to be an actor. My mom forced me to do it, and gaslighted me about that truth until I finally had no choice but to end contact with both of my parents, so I could work on healing the CPTSD I have carried for as long as I can remember.
Today, I am a full-time writer and part-time host. I’m as happy and fulfilled as I have ever been, and for the first time in my life, I am doing what I want to do, what is important to me. Today, I want to talk to you about how I got here from there, and the librarian who made it all possible.
The earliest memories of my life are of my grandmother teaching me to read, in the kitchen of the farmhouse she lived in with my great grandparents and my great aunt. I don’t know what urban development is like here, but in the San Fernando Valley which I still proudly call home, what was endless farmland fifty years ago, today mostly belongs to people who cut down all the trees so they could sell you some manufactured shade. But when I lived there in the 70s, it was gorgeous.
I still have the first book I was able to read all the way through on my own, without any help. It’s called Willie and the Whale. The story goes: a boy named Willie goes swimming with a whale and they have fun together. At the end of the book, they agree to do it all again tomorrow. A simple, tight narrative that five year-old me had no trouble following. I loved it. I loved the special time that was just me and my grandmother. I loved that the main character and I had the same name. I loved how reading it made me feel … accomplished. My grandmother and great aunt were effusive with their praise. I once got a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall, and it wasn’t as awesome. Close, but not quite.
The next books I can remember reading were those little Power Records books that came with a 45 that I could play while I read along. Anyone here remember those books? Anyone else remember “When R2-D2 says “beep beep boop”, turn the page”? Anyone else get frustrated when the narrator wasn’t reading as fast as you were? Okay, cool. Real quick: all of you who share these memories, if you haven’t had a colonoscopy, it’s time to get that done.
Okay. Come with me to late 1978 or early 1979. The Bee Gees, Toto, and the Village People are tearing up the charts. The Muppet Movie is brand new in theatres. I’m six or seven, and one day, my mom starts taking me out of school to go with her to something she called “interviews” or “auditions”. It was how people got on TV, she told me. She really wanted to be on TV, talked about it all the time. When you were on TV you got lots of money and attention. When you were on TV, you were special and important. When she drove us to these auditions, she talked a lot about how great and fun it was going to be when we did commercials together.
I didn’t care about any of that. I mean, I was seven. I wanted to play with my toys, read my books, and watch cartoons. This is important: nobody asked me if I wanted to be on TV. Not my mom, not my dad, not anyone. My mom told me that I wanted to be on TV. This was so confusing to me. I barely even knew what that meant. I liked watching TV — I was all about Mister Rogers and Sesame Street — but I didn’t understand what making television was. I just knew that I turned it on, sat down with my cereal and my blanket, and hoped that Miss Mary Ann would see me through the Magic Mirror on Romper Room.
But my mother was relentless, drilling into me over and over again that this was all so great and so fun, and wasn’t it cool that we were doing something I wanted to do, spending all this time together? This happened so much, I started to believe it, even though I knew there were four lights. When we booked our first commercial together, she was as excited and happy as one of those people on The Price Is Right, when they won both showcases. She told me that we got to go on an airplane together to a place called Lake Tahoe, where we would film this commercial with a guy who was super famous. I just wanted to bring my Six Million Dollar Man action figure with me.
So in the winter of 1978/79, we flew on an airplane — a very big deal, something only fancy people got to do — to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to shoot a commercial for for Jell-O Pudding Pops, with Bill Cosby, who was doing shows at one of the casinos there. I don’t have a ton of clear memories from the shoot, but the few which remain are in 4K: the production brought trees up from Los Angeles, because the local trees had dropped all their leaves. They kept the trees in the hallways of the motel where the crew stayed, and I can still smell the dirt and bay leaves. We filmed on a golf course, which was meant to be a park. Again, because it was the middle of winter, the production covered tons of snow with tons of green dye that came out of a giant hose. Finally, most relevant to this story, the prop department kept the pudding pops in an ice chest with dry ice, so they wouldn’t melt. There was snow everywhere, and we were all cold, even with long underwear on, so keeping them extra-frozen seemed weird to me, but that’s how they did it. Before each take, the prop guy took a pudding pop out of the ice chest, dipped it into warm water, and handed it to Bill Cosby. Then, the cameras rolled, he handed it to me, and I ate it.
During a rehearsal, I ended up with a still-super-frozen pudding prop in my hand, and because the only thing better than free frozen pudding on a stick is forbidden frozen pudding on a stick, I stole a lick. As a little treat. Just for me. And that’s when I figured out why the prop guy was dipping them into the hot water.
You know when Flick sticks his tongue to the flagpole in A Christmas Story? Yeah. That, but for real.
Now, between booking the job and arriving on location, my mom drilled into me that I had to be on my best behavior the whole time we were on the set, and if I wasn’t, if I messed up AT ALL, we’d both get fired and everyone would be mad at me.
Okay. Well. I didn’t want anyone to be mad at me, so I had to get this thing unstuck before anyone noticed. So I gently tugged on the popsicle stick, which gently tugged on my tongue. I tugged a little harder, it tugged a little harder. I looked up and made brief, casual, eye contact with Bill Cosby. There was nothing remotely threatening about him. In fact, he’d been great to me the whole day. Still, a voice in my head shouted, “YOU’RE IN TROUBLE!” My survival instinct jumped into action, put its hand around my wrist, and YANKED. Problem solved!
The Jell-O pudding pop came off of my tongue, taking the entire surface of my tongue with it.
I yelped because it hurt, but when that first flash of pain was over, I saw that the entire crew was looking at me. I looked at my mom. Her expression said it all, and I began to cry, because I knew that everyone was now mad at me and we were going to get fired.
Only I wasn’t in trouble. Nobody was mad. If anything, they were all worried that I was hurt. It was the polar opposite of what my mom made me believe would happen.
The set medic gave me a warm washcloth which I held on my tongue while Bill Cosby sang a song about healing in one of the Fat Albert voices. My tears turned to laughter, after a short time the pain subsided, and we were able to get back to work. We finished shooting the commercial, he gave us tickets to his show that night, and the next day we flew back home.
Real quick sidebar: Bill Cosby is a monster who hurt people without a second thought for decades. He’s not a good person. He wasn’t a good person. But sometimes bad people do good things, and though it was a single grain of sand in a desert of abuse, in that moment, one of the most famous comedians in the world was kind and compassionate toward little seven year-old Wil, who was hurt and scared, and just wanted to go home. That doesn’t excuse or lessen any of the horrible things he did, but part of my life story is that Bill Cosby showed me more compassion and empathy on that set than either of my parents ever did, at any point in my childhood.
The commercial never aired. The flavor, butterscotch, didn’t test well, they said. That was fine with me. I didn’t care about being on TV, anyway. But my mom was so upset, like she took it personally. Again, if anyone had asked me, I would have been perfectly happy never going on another audition. But I wasn’t given that choice. I was taken out of school more and more for auditions. I started booking lots of jobs, but it was never enough for my mom. After each one I would ask if I could stop, now. And each time, I had to book more. And I had to be the star. When I begged my mom to just let me be a kid, she insisted that I’d always wanted to do it, that I’d made a commitment to be an actor. If you’re around a seven year-old, ask them what a commitment is. Ask them if they want to work more than they want to play. Ask them how the pressure to have a roomful of strangers like them so their mom isn’t upset feels. To save you some time, I’ll go ahead and answer for you: it’s not great. By the time I was eight, and in the third grade, the cracks were beginning to appear.
My dad didn’t want me to go to public school, because too many of “those people” were being bussed in. My mom didn’t want me to go to public school because taking me out of class all the time was becoming an issue with the district. So they put me into a private religious school that didn’t care if I was in class or not. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back on it now, that school treated education as an afterthought. They were much more focused on indoctrination. We spent lots of time learning pledges of allegiance and why we were all so much better than people who didn’t go to the church. They literally put the fear of God into us every day. It was a crucible, and I had been so emotionally beaten up by my parents, I was a soft target for bullies. It was easy to make me cry. It was easy to push me around. It was awful, and I didn’t get any support from any authority figures who could have helped. In fact, my third grade teacher regularly called me “Wil the Pill” in front of the class, because putting a target on a scared kid and giving the green light to bullies was all the rage in 1980.
So I didn’t feel safe at school. I didn’t feel seen or heard at home. I was scared and lonely all the time. I felt sad and trapped. And at the end of every school day, I’d walk with my fellow 3rd graders to the driveway where our parents picked us up. They all got to go home, or to afterschool day care, but I never knew on any given day if I got to go home and be a kid, or if I had to go sit in traffic all afternoon while my mom took me to the auditions I hated. Most kids get excited as the end of the day gets closer. It means they get to go home, ride bikes, play games, watch TV … you know, kid stuff. For me, the end of each day was a mystery box. Would there be a kid inside? Or mom’s actor?
More than anything, I needed a safe place to just be me. I needed a safe person to see me, not Wil the Pill, or the actor who didn’t want to be an actor, or the easy target for a bully. About halfway through the school year, I found that place and that person, at the public library.
Once a month, our entire class would ride the bus to the public library in Tujunga, California. It was one of those mid-century, post war government buildings, sturdy, but not exactly warm and welcoming. It was pretty much one long, narrow room with a couple dozen stacks and the biggest card catalog I’d ever seen. Near the front, there was a rug with some chairs around it, where we’d gather for a reading from one of the librarians. On one side of the rug, about two dozen books were laid out on a table. Every visit, we got to pick out a book to take home and keep, in addition to the three books we were allowed to borrow.
The first time we went there, our teacher told us we’d go to the table in alphabetical order by last name. The second time, we went in alphabetical order by first name. We alternated like that every month. This didn’t work out so great for your pal Wil Wheaton, who got a lot of books nobody else wanted, but it was a smashing success for Andy Baker, who always got the best book (and who also had impeccable aim in dodgeball, which is why I still flinch when I hear the ping of that type of playground ball). On one of the last field trips of the school year, our teacher announced that we would choose our free book in REVERSE ALPHABETICAL ORDER! Andy Baker would finally know the pain of being Millhouse!
I looked at all those books, and zeroed in on a small paperback all about the science of magnetism … that came with an actual magnet for experiments.
I loved science because it was a series of facts that could be tested and measured. Science didn’t tell gravity that what it really wanted was to be thermodynamics. Science didn’t rewrite itself every few months to accommodate whatever was most important to my mom at any given moment. Science was reliable, predictable. Science felt empowering to me. And I loved learning. Learning new things was fun, understanding that everything, no matter how complex it appeared, could be broken down into several smaller, simpler, things, allowed me at a very young age to wrap my head around the Apollo program, the transformation of an acorn into an oak, and to see how everything in our natural world fits together. For a kid who felt so out of control and invisible, there was tremendous comfort in the immutable laws of science.
But let’s be honest: I didn’t want that book because of science. I just wanted that magnet. It was basically getting a toy for free.
Harry Yang was called on to go first. I pulled my feet underneath me and got ready to leap into action. Harry went straight to the magnetism book and took it off the table so fast there was a small thunderclap behind him. You know that saying about how second place is the first loser?
I’d been so excited to be as close to first as I could get, so excited for that one specific book, I hadn’t looked at any other books on the table, or even considered a second choice. From a long way off, like it was down a tunnel, I heard my name called. I walked in kind of a fog to the table, seeing only the empty space where my book had been. While I scanned the remaining titles, the teacher told Jennifer T that it was her turn. I kind of panicked. There was something on that table that was second best after the magnet book and if I didn’t find it right away, Jenny T was going to get it. With only seconds to make my decision, I grabbed the closest title that looked interesting: something about doing magic tricks. I still have that book, and it’s great. I can still do some of the silly card tricks and that thing with a carrot under a napkin. I’m going to be an awesome grandfather someday in some small part because of the tricks I learned in that book, but in 1980, it represented yet another time I didn’t get what I wanted, and there was nothing I could do to change it.
I returned to my chair and felt sad, while the other kids in my class engaged in a sort of literary feeding frenzy. I stole a glance at Harry, and saw that he was having a great time with my magnet. He wasn’t using it to do magnet things, just sort of flying it around like a spaceship, like you do when you’re in 3rd grade. Oh, I was so envious. He wasn’t even doing experiments, yet, and it was already awesome.
Everyone got their free book, and we were set loose on the rest of the library to find and borrow other books. Normally, I was all about this part of the field trip. I’d go straight to the children’s section and look for authors I recognized. I made my way through the entire series of Ramona Quimby books this way. But on this day, I just wasn’t feeling it. I was tired. I was defeated. I wanted a magnet and all I got were magic tricks. I just sat in my chair and felt my feelings.
After some time had passed, the librarian who read to us and was, in my mind, in charge of things, sat down next to me. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember that she looked like she was in her fifties (so probably like 29), wore epic 1970s polyester pantsuits, huge glasses that hung from a long gold chain around her neck, and had a hairdo that was ten miles high. She was friendly and helpful, and when she reached out to that nerdy little kid, she changed his life.
“What do you have there?” She asked.
I showed her my magic book.
“You really wanted that magnet book, didn’t you?”
How in the world did she know that? It had all happened so fast! I hadn’t said anything. I didn’t cry. How did she know? Was I in trouble?
“I put those books out for every class that comes here, and every student wants that book, because magnets are really neat,” she said, gently.
“Yeah,” I said.
She gestured toward the book in my lap. “Do you like magic?”
I didn’t NOT like magic, but it wasn’t a magnet, you know?
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
She leaned forward and said, “A little, but not that much. That’s okay. Let’s figure out what you like, together!”
Other than my grandmother and great aunt, no adult had ever taken a genuine interest in me. I couldn’t remember any adult asking me what I cared about, what I liked. All the adults in my life essentially said “do this or else” or “this is what you like.” To be honest: I was a little suspicious, but something about her felt safe.
“Okay,” I said.
She led me to a display of probably five or so shelves with books faced out on each of them. I saw a couple I recognized: Where the Sidewalk Ends, How To Eat Fried Worms, The Westing Game.
We talked about the cartoons I liked, the books I had enjoyed, and, in response to “what movies do you like?” Star Wars. Because Star Wars was, as far as I was concerned, the only movie.
“I think you would like science fiction,” she said, in a tone that was both reassuring and uplifting. She pulled a book off the shelf called Z for Zachariah. I can still hear her describe it to me: “There is a nuclear war, and a girl who lives in a little valley with her dad and brother is safe from the fallout because of the wind. One day, the two of them leave the valley to search for other survivors, and they never come back. A year later, she sees smoke on the horizon.”
That’s a hell of a pitch! I was captivated. “What happens?” I practically shouted.
“You have to read the book to find out.” She said with a smile.
I took it to the counter and officially borrowed it. I began reading it on the bus when we left the library, and I continued reading it when we all went to a park by school to eat our lunches. The smoke came from a stranger who eventually makes his way into her valley. That afternoon, when mom picked me up and I found out we were driving all the way to West Los Angeles for a callback, I read it in the car, even when I felt motion sick. The main character, a girl named Ann, hides from the man as long as she can, and when she reveals herself to him, it turns out he’s a really bad person.
I kept reading it when I got home. I fell asleep with it. I read it before and during breakfast the following day, and finished it at school that week. It was the fastest I’d ever read any chapter book, and it was my introduction to speculative fiction.
I didn’t talk to my parents about this book or the characters in it. I didn’t want to risk being teased by my dad, who I knew would make fun of me for identifying with a main character who was a girl, and I didn’t want to justify to my mom why I was reading a book instead of practicing whatever audition copy she put in front of me on any given day.
When we went back to the library the next month, I found the same librarian and gushed about how much I loved the book she recommended. What else did she think I would like?
She gave me a book called The White Mountains, and told me it was the first of a trilogy. “So when you like the characters and want to read more about them, you know that there are two more books waiting for you!” This was my introduction to the concept of sequels, just in time for Empire Strikes Back to be released that summer.
The White Mountains is the first book in The Tripods Trilogy, begun in 1967 by British author John Christopher. It is set in a world that’s been invaded and colonized by aliens, called Masters. The Masters exert their control over humanity by capturing children on their 13th birthday and fitting them with a mind control cap that allows the Masters absolute domination of the entire adult population. It’s very much a Cold War metaphor, and unabashedly antifascist, and anti authoritarian. All of the political commentary went over my head, and I read a story about kids who, faced with the reality that nobody was going to save them, came together to fight back and save themselves.
The protagonist is named Will, and even though he spelled his name wrong, with 2 Ls, that was pretty cool. I took every step with him and his allies, on every page, feeling inspired and thrilled that it really was possible to fight back and stand up for what was right, that power wasn’t absolute, that authority seized through power was not the same as authority granted democratically. I obviously didn’t get the complexities of that when I was ten, but I could feel the fundamental message: you can make a difference.
Now, imagine with me that this story was not set in an imaginary world, but was in my real world.
In my real world, every attempt to stand up for myself, to have any kind of autonomy, to simply be recognized as a person with my own ideas and needs, was swatted away by my parents and teachers. Their power and authority was untouchable. It was inevitable and there was nothing I could do about it but survive. If this story had been set in my real world, if the Tripods and the Masters were teachers and parents, I would have dismissed all of it as completely unbelievable. I knew firsthand that adults never listened to kids, that kids had no real agency, or a voice that any adult could not silence. Who I was, what I cared about, just didn’t matter.
But if I lived in the world of the Tripods, with Will and his friends, I could be myself. I didn’t have to be an actor or go on auditions. I could be a regular kid, who was friends with other regular kids. And if the adults in our lives didn’t protect us, we would protect ourselves. We wouldn’t let anyone push us around. We would outsmart all of them. A better life was possible.
This is why speculative fiction is so important, so powerful, and so threatening to capital-A Authority. Because it shows us through allegory and metaphor that a better life is possible, right here in the real world.
I devoured The White Mountains in just a couple of days, even faster than Z for Zachariah, and waited for three excruciating weeks to go back to the library for the next one. When the day finally came, I got both The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire. I am just now realizing how lucky I was that these books were accessible to me, which I’m also going to come back to in a moment.
In The City of Gold And Lead, the heroes are captured by Masters. Some of them are enslaved. All of them are abused. Will sort of gets the least worst of it, when he is essentially treated like a pet by his new owner. And if I didn’t have enough in common with Will already, I certainly did now. It feels weird to give a spoiler warning for something that was written in 1967, but if I don’t, someone is going to yell at me. So. Spoiler alert. By the end of the book, Will and only one of his friends just barely escape. They are alive, but they have a long way to go before they defeat the Masters and are safe.
In the final book, the heroes figure out that they can weaken the Masters by getting them drunk, and use that knowledge to defeat them in a global war. Humans learn a number of technological advances, including space travel, from the ruins of their cities. But the ending isn’t exactly happy. Having driven the Tripods off Earth, humanity turns against itself in a fit of nationalism that suggests that maybe we aren’t much better than they were, after all. But there is some hope: in the final pages, Will and his friends stand with the resistance leader, Julius, as they begin the hard work of building a truly free and just society for everyone. John Christopher doesn’t tell us exactly what happens. Instead, he shows us that a better world is possible, but it’s going to take a lot of work to get there.
In order to survive, I disassociated for much of my childhood, but I clearly remember the books. That’s where I found comfort, companionship, inspiration and validation. It’s where the imagination that powers everything I do creatively in my life today was born. And it all started in that library, with that librarian. She was one of the first people I can remember asking me, “What do you like? What’s important to you? What do you want to know more about? How can I help you find it?”
That moment was so special and meaningful, not just then, but for years after. When I got older, I began to learn that so much of what had been presented to me as truth in school wasn’t just false, it was propaganda. I remember the first time I saw a banned books display at a bookstore in the mall when we were on location for Stand By Me. I wanted to read all of them, because I’d figured out that if They didn’t want me to, there must be something pretty great inside.
I read To Kill A Mockingbird, and began thinking about racism and injustice.
I read 1984 and Brave New World, and began thinking about autocrats, and what it meant to be truly free to choose our own destinies.
I read Johnny Got His Gun, and All Quiet on the Western Front, and saw firsthand the horrors of war.
Every one of those books lit a candle, or a torch, or a brazier in the dark room my parents tried to keep me in, and as the light spread, I began to see the cracks and the lies. I began to realize how much I’d been lied to in school, and that made me angry. When I was in my early 20s and read A People’s History of the United States, and Lies My Teacher Told Me, I recalled my fourth and fifth grade teachers passionately lecturing us about the importance of understanding history so we didn’t repeat it, and how betrayed I felt when I discovered that nearly all that history was 22actually myth.
Are there any librarians here today? How about booksellers? I love you. I’m not the only kid who was saved by you and your colleagues, because you saw us, and gave us a safe place. And that brings me to what I really want to talk about today. In January, 2011, I wrote: “Libraries are constantly under attack from people who fear knowledge, politicians who think guns are more important than books, and people who want to ensure that multi-millionaires pocket even more money. As an author, father, and a reader, I beg you: please support your local libraries in any way you can, and if you enjoy reading, take a moment to thank a librarian.”
We are here today in the shadow of Senate Bill 150. A cruel, deliberate effort by people who have nothing to offer but hate, to hurt as many people as they can, including children. It will allow teachers to misgender students. It will ban gender-affirming medical care for trans youths, despite medical experts and their professional associations saying such care is safe and effective treatment for children with gender dysphoria. As always, the authoritarians who are behind it claim they want to protect children, when it’s actually about consolidating and strengthening their own power and control in the face of overwhelming public opposition. That it will actually hurt children and the people who love them is not a bug, it is a feature. The cruelty is the point.
For years, I have known that I live life on the lowest difficulty setting, with the celebrity cheat enabled. I am not trans. I am not gay. I am a cisgender heterosexual white man in America. In fact, the only way I could be more privileged and protected in America is if I were an evangelical Christian.
And yet, I know how it feels to be a terrified child who knew who he was being forced to live a lie. I can relate to feeling like nobody had my back, that everything about me was wrong, was shameful, that I was not enough for anyone, when I wasn’t being too much. I know what it is like to ask for help over and over again, only to be told that I don’t need help. I just need to be fundamentally different and then it’ll all be great.
I know what it feels like to be scared, all the time, that someone is going to hurt me. And I know what it’s like to feel so alone, so invisible, so helpless to do anything about it, on the verge of just giving up so the pain will stop.
A 2022 study found that half of trans and non-binary people in the U.S. have considered suicide over the past year, citing an onslaught of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric spearheaded by right-wing politicians.
If these craven politicians truly cared about children, they’d be doing everything they can to ensure that no child ever has to feel any of those things. But they crave power, and they have nothing to offer but hate. So they are coming, as they always do, for the most vulnerable among us, to distract us from the truth. And to facilitate that, they are coming, as they always do, for schools, for books, and for libraries. Because they know that their lies collapse under any scrutiny, they work tirelessly to replace historical and scientific truth with the same revisionist myths my elementary school pushed on us so successfully, we took them for granted until we made an effort to uncover the truth for ourselves.
And where is the one place anyone can go to find the truth behind the myths? To have access to the knowledge and ideas that these authoritarians are so determined to destroy? The public library.
Recently, I saw a screen capture of a tweet from 2022 that read, “Today, a woman with developmental disabilities came into the library, and said she was lost. She didn’t know her address, but her phone number was in her pocket on a piece of paper with Elmo on it. She kept saying, “The library is a safe place.” We called and her guardian came right over. Apparently this happens pretty regularly. They even stayed long enough for her to check out some new books and Sesame Street DVDs. The library is a safe place, indeed.“
That hit me so hard, right in my heart. If the library wasn’t there, where would she go? Where would I have gone? Where will kids and teens and marginalized adults go? The people who wrote Senate Bill 150 have ideological partners all over this country, and if they have their way, all the safe places will be taken away, including our public libraries.
“The library is a safe place.”
Why libraries? Because the library is so much more than a building with lots of books, internet access, 3D printers, D&D programs for kids, and all the other things. The library represents and offers equal access for everyone to all of those things. Not just the wealthy. Not just the privileged. Not just the in-group. It is a safe place for everyone to be curious, to find inspiration, to sit in the stacks, as far away from the door and the world as possible, and just quietly exist for a minute. (Don’t you love the way those books smell?) The public library is a safe place for all of us, whether we are a kid who feels invisible, a woman who is lost, or a New York Times bestselling author who has the privilege of sharing their story with you.
And that scares the pants off of the authoritarians. The greatest threat to their fragile grip on power is equal access to education, information, and opportunity. So libraries and librarians scare them to death.
Whenever someone tries to ban a book, they are telling on themselves. They are confessing that they are weak, afraid, and out of control. They are telling us that when we read these books, they will lose whatever control and authority they have. Authoritarians will try to control every aspect of your life, because they feel so out of control in theirs. Ask me how I know.
Read banned books. Challenge book bans. Donate banned books. Take your kids to the library and encourage them to drink in as much knowledge, inspiration, and entertainment as possible. Support and reinforce their desire to learn and expand their world, because we’re all going to be old people in it, and I after the last few years of …. this …. I want that world to have more books and fewer Fascists in it.
One last thing, before I finish. I want to speak directly to any young people who are here: As I just said while you were looking at TikTok: This is your world, we’re just borrowing it for a little bit while you decide what to do with it. We’ve left you a real big mess to clean up, and I’m sorry about that. Believe me, a lot of us tried — and are trying — to make it easier for you, but we haven’t done enough.
I talked a bit about how afraid I was as a kid, how I felt like I was constantly on the verge of getting in trouble. One of the things I got yelled at about was doing something “on purpose,” so that’s a pair of words that have always kind of rubbed me the wrong way. For a few years now, I have taken the concept of “on purpose” and made it literal. I want to share with you some things I do “on purpose”, to literally give my life purpose and meaning, to help guide me when the path is unclear.
I’m a reasonably successful person. I don’t mean in my work, or only in my work. I mean in my life. I have great friends, I am so close to my adult children. I am married to my best friend. I get to do cool things, and I’m happy a lot more often than not. A real big part of that is committing to these choices:
Establish and protect your boundaries. You do not owe anyone anything. If someone does not respect your boundaries, it’s all the red flags.
Choose to be honest. I’m 50, and I’ve learned that the only currency that really matters in this world is the truth.
Choose to be honorable. This dovetails with number one. You attract to yourself what you put into the world. Dishonorable people will take everything from you and leave you with nothing. Do your best to be a person they aren’t attracted to.
Choose to work hard. Everything worth doing is hard. Do the hard work that sustains and nourishes relationships, that gets you the most out of your education, that gets you closer to your goals. Sooner or later, you’re going to run into something in your life that’s really hard, and you’ll want to give up, but it’s something you care so much about, you’ll do whatever you can to achieve it. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be less hard for someone who has practiced doing the hard things all along, than it is for someone who doesn’t know how to do the hard work because they’ve always chosen the easy path.
Always do your best, and know that your best will vary. Monday’s best may not be close to Tuesday’s best, and Wednesdays best may eclipse them both. Even if you don’t get the result you wanted, doing your best is really all you can ever do. We tell athletes to leave it all on the field. Whatever your version of that is, do it. And if you notice later that maybe you kinda phoned some of it in? Do your best to be gentle with yourself. We’re constantly learning and growing.
The last one is the most important one. If only one thing sticks, I hope this is it. This is the one I hope you’ll share with your peers: Always choose to be kind.
And just to be clear: Nice and Kind are not the same thing. Nice is about manners, and it comes from here. Kind is about empathy, and it comes from here. Cruel people can be nice, but they will never be kind. Please, practice kindness.
Thank you for listening to me. It’s been a privilege to speak to you today.
96 thoughts on ““The library is a safe place.””
Thank YOU, Wil Wheaton! Your librarians are so very proud of you!
I will forever be grateful for the kindness extended ot me from all of the librarians who have been in my life. My very first library card felt to five year old me as if I’d been given the keys to the world in book form. Libraries were and still are my safe places, no matter how far away from home I travel, I know I’m among friends when I walk in the door of a library. Thank you for sharing your speech with those of us who couldn’t hear it in person and I’m so very happy that librarian was there for you.
That was fabulous. Thank you for sharing.
As a trans person, thank you for your allyship. I’m sorry that you also experienced being told you were someone you’re not, and I appreciate your willingness to use your platform to make the point that nobody should be subjected to that, for any reason.
I love this. The trajectory is amazing – starting with facts that sound a bit like bragging, getting realer than anyone expects from a public speaker, morphing into an ode to libraries, and ending with a lesson. Brilliant! My kids and I spent every Monday afternoon at the library and I value that time more than anything. I fear that people forget what a gift we have in libraries. Thank you for reminding us.
All of your comment, minus the Monday afternoons specifically, seconded!
Thank you Wil for all of your good words! I really do hope that someone has learned from what you had to say! I’m also a book lover, and have always found a good friend in a good book. The book by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit, 451, has a lot to say about what a world would be like without books, and how people would go about keeping stories alive. It is a very good read. So, yes ,thank you for telling everyone to read band books because that is just the start!
I would also like to say Thank you for being the person that you have become, because I’m sure that you are helping a lot of lonely, lost souls out there! Please keep up the good work! Michelle Green Bartlett
That was absolutely beautiful. Thank you for being you.
Thank you WW for just being you.
My life was.changed by my elementary school librarian. She let me check out as many books as I wanted, starting in first grade. She also taught me so much about everything.
I love books. I devoured every book I could get my hands on as a kid. I used to love going to the library as a kid. As an adult I volunteered at the library at my older children’s school and loved talking to the kids about the books they chose.
I used to read to my kids all the time. Now I read to my grandson. Books and libraries are important. However, there is a responsibility of the adults in the world to protect children from material that they are not mature enough to understand or emotionally handle.
Video stores (are there any of them left anymore?) kept pornography in a back room out of view and access to children. R rated movies had to be rented by those over 18. Movies and video games have ratings to signify that they are not meant to be viewed/played by children. The same should be done with books. As a parent, I was appalled that my son’s school showed him an R rated movie in class without my permission. I have never allowed my kids to watch R rated films in my home unless I felt that they were capable of handling the content.
Highly sexualized content has no place in school libraries. Full stop.
There is no “highly sexualized content” in school libraries. Turn off Fox News.
Just because you are apparently okay with that type of content doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Parents have the right to choose what their children are (or aren’t) exposed to.
Nice strawman, Julie. It does not exist. It never has existed and it never will exist. That is a lie. Don’t come here and spread lies. You’re telling on yourself.
Unless you are okay with adults who are showing your children things you don’t want them exposed without your knowledge I think it’s time you step back and think about what you are saying.
If I was a teacher in a public school and did lessons on the Bible and the history of Jesus’ time and talked about MY beliefs with your children…even though I believe they are good…how would you react?
I don’t feel the Bible and Christianity are harmful to children, but I wouldn’t share those things with children unless their parents know about it. I also don’t tell children Santa isn’t real or that Easter isn’t about bunnies and chicks unless I KNOW their parents have already told them those things. I certainly would never show someone else’s children films that I don’t have express permission from their parents to show them.
You don’t respect your parents (understandable if everything you have said about them is accurate). Unfortunately it seems like because if your experience you don’t respect the rights of any parent who doesn’t think like you.
Boy, you just keep telling on yourself, and you’re so self-righteous you don’t even realize it.
I’ve given you, and your abhorrent authoritarianism and your hamfisted attempts to be condescending more than enough attention, and you’re no longer welcome here on my blog. I mean, go ahead and spew your garbage, but it’s going unread into the trash.
I agree, if you want to know the truth, then turn off Fox Entertainment. You see, their very name tells us they are NOT a news source at all. News, true news, is reporting the truth, the facts of any matter. Entertainment is simply something to draw you in and keep you happy with the subject. When Fox spews conspiracy theories and out right lies in an attempt to mold your thinking into being unkind to your fellow humans – that, yes that, is the tragedy of slight of hand being played on you. You are being tricked into their treating you as a slave to their wants and desires. Basically they want to control you by any means possible to achieve their outcome – so beware of entities that tell you how to not think for yourself. Beware of entities that don’t encourage you to learn the truth, and grow as a literate, knowledgeable human being who seeks to better, not only your world, but to better everyone’s world, to the best of your abilities for the good of all humankind.
What was the title of the movie? I’m surprised that you neglected to mention it, since it was so upsetting to you.
How dare you compare a school library to a video store from the 1980s. Wil’s right: you are telling on yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself where this overwhelming desire to control other people’s thoughts comes from.
Honestly the name of the movie doesn’t matter. Since you are dying to know it was “The Untouchables”. The teacher was showing it to 15 year olds during a section about prohibition as an educational film. There is language and situations that are not appropriate for 15 year olds and I would not have allowed my child to watch it at home. You may disagree with my view but that doesn’t matter. The point was that a teacher at my child’s school showed him, without my knowledge or permission, a movie I felt was inappropriate for his age and wasn’t even educational or accurate to the topic. On top of it all, ratings are on movies for a reason.
Whether you agree with my position or not, the fact that a person who is not my child’s other parent or guardian has ZERO right to expose my child to things that aren’t meant for children. Period. If I were a teacher in a public school and I showed your child “The Passion” in history class without your knowledge as a historical film…how would you react?
Even as a Christian I would find that inappropriate as it’s incredibly violent and disturbing. I would object to it being shown in a private school. It is not meant for children. There is no sex or swearing or nudity…but the violence is horrific. Even though I believe the message is good…it’s far too graphic for children.
As an aside, I am not for banning any type of speech, even when I don’t agree with it. Consenting adults can do or say what they want when dealing with each other. It’s when they are exposing children to things children aren’t mature enough to handle and/or against their parents’ beliefs that I have a problem.
You as an adult, if you have children, can raise your children as YOU deem appropriate. (Barring abuse…that isn’t okay) Every parent has that right and responsibility. Unless a child is being abused at home and you KNOW this, stay in your lane.
Wil, I’m glad you’re at a place where your life is good. You’ve made a difference in my life, repeatedly, without knowing me and I appreciate it. Continue to live your best life with all the support.
And librarians are the best. I’ve loved them since I was first brought to one, and for me, they’re the real sacred spaces.
Wil, I’m a librarian, and I REALLY needed to read this today. Thanks for being awesome.
This children’s librarian seconds this emotion. It’s rough out here.
My favorite thing in the world when I was very young was going to the library to be read to by Mrs. Huang. My favorite book was Boots. A small, thin, red and well worn had a line that went “red boots, white boots, black boots, brown” I’ve sadly never been able to find it.
It’s the middle of the night in London so jet lag has me up doing this.
Claire is asleep in the other bed but she is the most voracious reader I’ve ever known. She has read thousands of books. You can’t buy her anything she hasn’t already read. She used a gift card to buy a 3 month subscription to kindle unlimited instead of just a few individual books. The biggest closest building to our house is our local library. It’s 5 minutes away and it’s HUGE. It’s fucking gorgeous and my kids love it. We have gone frequently since they were tots.
She’s very into Harry Potter these days. And as a LGBTQ kid I’m sad to know what an awful human J.K. Rowling has turned out to be.
But I’m not going to let that steal Claire’s love for these books. We are going to see. Harry Potter and the cursed child today. We are going to do the Warner bros studio tour and the walking tour for muggles because my kid loves this magical world. And when we get home I need to make sure we all go visit Mrs. Huang. We are still friends and she hasn’t seen my kids in far too long.
I’m a generation older than you but everything you said about your childhood resonates with me; the religious indoctrination, the adult expectations (that differed from mine), the teachers who dismissed my attempts at art or teased me because of my unusual name (also in third grade), and finally discovering science and losing myself in science fiction at the library (my first novel was Heinlein’s Space Ship Galilleo).
It’s now over 60 years since that first book. Fortunately, I’ve managed to cope with, if not fully escape, my damaged childhood. I’m still reading, enjoying, and often learning from science fiction, too.
Thank you, Wil, for standing strong with libraries, authors, and all those who value learning over indoctrination and fear.
Thank you for this, and I’m so glad your story has a happy ending. My mother was a librarian and I have tried to support and donate to libraries all my life. She would have loved this piece.
I became a Librarian because of of my 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade teachers and the school & public librarians that encouraged me to read, escape, and find belonging among the stacks and between the pages… something I try to share with those that walk through our doors, no matter who they are or what their story is.
Oh, I bet that was Mrs. Shumberger! A tall woman with a gentle smile.. I worked at Sunland-Tujunga as a clerk in the late 70s (before becoming a Children’s Librarian myself in 1980 at Vanowen Park) and she was such a lovely person! She knew everything, was helpful to everybody, and did wonderful storytimes. You were lucky to find her, for sure.
Great insights, great and painful truths, and all very timely for me, Wil. I just moved, and got my new library card today.
Wil, your description of your librarian reminds me of my elementary school librarian. I have so many wonderful memories of amazing books because of her. I have been a Children’s Librarian at a public library for 17 years and it’s the best job on the planet. There are days I think about changing careers but I know my job matters in so many important ways. Thank you for reminding me of that today.
As a mom of 2 trans kids – thank you for speaking up for us.
Thank you for putting into words what I could not and doing it so elegantly. It put me in mind of what I come to think of as my day of horrors. I wrote on my blog called “A White, Racism, and a Poodle.” I wrote hoping to help people in my corner of the to talk about racism. Reading the comments that came over several months, I realized that every single song I learned in school from kindergarten to 6th grade was racist and from a minstrel show. Jimmy Cracked Corn, Camp Town Races, Shoo Fly even Kumbaya. Then the greatest horror of all. I was allowed to perform the story of bre’ rabbit and the briar patch by Joel Chandler Harris at a forensics tournament when I was in seventh grade. I performed this in front of my teachers, my parents, and my entire family. Not realizing that the stories were written by a white man, who regularly made fun of the African dialect. And thought it was funny to write in that dialect, as he saw it. I was sick to my stomach, thinking about it. Not one person not one said anything about it. They let me perform, a white girl a story in a black dialect written by a white man about Black people in a pseudo-black dialect. Then just recently listening to a story on NPR I learned that square dancing was a propaganda method used by white people against the civil rights movement. I too have strong feelings about what’s going on in the world with libraries and education. I understand the betrayal, and you captured it so perfectly I cannot thank you enough. How are these kids going to feel 20 years from now?
Will, I admire your love of books.
Before COVID, we took oir kids to the library every week, and to the art museum on kids day each Thursday where and for family day one Saturday each month.
We read all of.The Magic Treehouse series, and.Magic School Book series.
We let them pick out whatever they wanted to using their own library cards.
Like my parents’ and grandparents’ houses, our home had shelves full of books, most of them science fiction, so they had plenty to read during the beginning and after the worst of COVID.
I’ve told them books can take you anywhere and allow you to be whomever you want to be.
At home, we have many of the books the GOP banned.
Thank you for these kind and brilliant words! I grew up in a house without books, and the first thing I read were my grandmother’s garden catalogs. Libraries saved me from a life of boredom and ignorance, first a small library attached to the church and open only on Sundays, later the school library (two books a week, not nearly enough) and the public library in my school town. That helped me to leave my environment and to lead a self-determined life.
Beautiful, beautiful post Will. You are absolutely right about libraries and books. You just know if the powers that be want them banned, they are worth keeping around, for all sorts of reasons.
I’ve worked in school, academic, and public libraries. In my interview for my first library job (school library in a very poorly funded urban school) I said my goal was to make sure all the kids knew the library was a safe place, was their sanctuary. I’ve held to that my whole career regardless of the setting. I wept reading this because it has often felt like I am not safe to do my job the way it needs to be done…but I have persisted because I know there are so many who have no other safe place. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad you found a safe place in the library. I endeavor to continue keeping it so.
Librarian here. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so beautifully. My family was dysfunctional but we didn’t have that word in the 70’s. I also found escape in books and very fondly remember the school librarian who read stories to our class.
This was a great read. I’m two years younger than you, and I loved the Tripods series as a kid, too. Thank you for being so honest about your experiences. I, too, was bullied a lot as a kid, and it’s great to see someone I looked up to back then advocating for kids today.
I wish I could go back in time and thank local librarian, Mrs. Camalieri, for handing 10 year old me Anne of Green Gables when I told her I was going to PEI on vacation. It had a huge impact on me.
Wil, thanks for this beautiful piece and for all you do to share humanity, promote kindness and call out lies. Your choices give strength to me and many, many others.
Standing ovation for this one, Wil. Among your absolute best.
Wow, Wil —- as someone a little bit older than you who has been a fan since your first appearances on screen— as someone who wished they’d been able to be an actor and live in that world, creating magic for others to enjoy— I never knew what you were really experiencing. Now, I admire you and appreciate you even more. I’m so happy that you’ve found your best world, and, although I miss seeing you on TV and in films, I understand why. You are a very, very gifted writer and speaker. Thank you for voicing what so many of us cannot!
That must have been Mrs. Shumberger! She was the Children’s Librarian there forever. I was a clerk there in the late 80s, then a Children’s Librarian at the old Vanowen Park Library.
She was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Knew everything, understood kids, a very tall but non-threatening, kind & gentle person who did great storytimes.
Oh my gosh I think you’re right. That name sounds so familiar to me, and I am just now remembering that at least one other person who grew up in Sunland/Tujunga mentioned her name to me years ago. Bless her. I’m absolutely positive that I am not the only kid she affected in a positive way.
I remember the tripods and caps books. They were amazing, and the sad 2nd book where the hero is in the hot heavy city and discovers the bodies of the beautiful girls, killed and displayed for the monsters. Time to read them again. Thank you for bringing back those memories.
Thank you so much for sharing your keynote address beyond the borders of the Book Festival. This was a moving account of your early years and a beautiful tribute to libraries. ♥️
Excellent speech, Wil. I’m a retired IT guy and now librarian at the local university. It breaks my heart to see low gate counts and the overall lower usage of my library over the last four years or so. Covid really did us in and cut physical university attendance even further. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get shut down since we’re the second largest library in the university system, but it still hurts.
The worst part is the ridiculous number of people who think Google knows all. As Cliff Stoll wrote, I think in his book Silicon Snakeoil, ‘the internet is an information source infinitely wide but only a millimeter deep.’
Use libraries, talk to librarians. We can find pretty cool stuff for you.
I had not heard this before – As Cliff Stoll wrote, I think in his book Silicon Snakeoil, ‘the internet is an information source infinitely wide but only a millimeter deep.’
Wow – incredibly accurate!!!
Thank you Wil.
What frightened parents forget is that when you forbid something, it makes it more enticing to their children. The kids will find a way to read it.
Grateful for all the librarians, booksellers, and others that are finding ways to get the banned books into kids hands.
Example: at 15 I read my mother’s copy of Valley of the Dolls day by day in the hour between my getting home from school and her getting home from work. I found it boring, but finished it, thinking it was bound to get better.
Will, you have warmed an old woman’s heart. Thank you, all the librarians in this country and even the libraries themselves. Books are the most powerful things in the world and hearing people who “think” they are powerful try to take them away is so disheartening. To Ms. Julie – I will not argue with your right to restrict what your children read. I will feel sorry for them though. But all you have to do is make the library aware of what restrictions you wish, it has always been the case. Now let me tell you that you DO NOT have the right to tell other parents children what they can read. Sorry for the rant Will. I really just wanted to tell what a beautiful thing it was for you to share your story. I will be forever grateful and thank you for allowing to have a voice.
This is such an amazing keynote, Wil–definitely one of my all-time favorite speeches. I was particularly moved by it, because I have been a Children’s Librarian for almost 20 years now, and a fan of yours since you were on TNG. Thank you so much for being an ally to trans people, a huge supporter of libraries and librarians, and an inspirational example of an awesome human.
What an amazing, vulnerable, powerful speech. Thank you so much for sharing this.
Inspiring! Thank you for sharing some of your story. Yay healing!
Thank you, Wil, for continuing to tell your story of your painful non-childhood and how you are recovering from it (the recovery never truly ends, does it?). Thank you for reminding us of the crucial importance of public libraries.You are a bright stellar light in our dark universe, and I am so grateful that you continue to shine. Keep on keepin’ on, my dear friend. We love you so much.
Sh*t, Wil. This exact moment on Sunday March 26, I am cleaning in my father’s estate and what do I find? The exact magnet book you wrote about, which I have never seen before.
What I knew about my father before he died was tough. What I’m learning cleaning his estate is worse.
We don’t and won’t know each other, but it somehow feels like some small serendipity and I felt like telling you about it.
Cool book. If it still had the magnet and wasn’t pretty manky, I’d send it to your people to give to you.
The library was the same kind of refuge for me when I was a child. I identified with so much of your childhood experiences there. Thank you for evoking those lovely memories.
OMG, Z for Zachariah is SUCH a great book. It’s one of those books that I read as a child and couldn’t forget. I was delighted to rediscover it years later and was able to teach it during my very short career as a teacher. I had kids who had never finished a book finish that book early because they just needed to know what happened next.
I’m so glad you had a librarian who took the time to find out what you might like. And steered you towards such a great book. And, eventually your life as a writer.
This was a great essay. Thank you for writing it. Thank you for sharing it.
Love the reference in this part:
“But my mother was relentless, drilling into me over and over again that this was all so great and so fun, and wasn’t it cool that we were doing something I wanted to do, spending all this time together? This happened so much, I started to believe it, even though I knew there were four lights.”
I wonder what the ratio of people is (who heard you deliver this keynote or who are reading it here) that know the “four lights” reference and what its meaning is versus those who did not.
It wasn’t many people. Maybe a dozen
Add me to the list of those who recognized it. A very powerful episode I’ve thought of many times over the years.
As I’d imagined. More who did not recognize it. But for those who got it, it really helps to drive your point home.
Thanks for sharing this Wil.
This really hit home for me.
Books and libraries have always had, and will until my final days, have a special place in my heart.
I recall being taught to read by the oldest son at the first daycare home I spent time at after school during kindergarten and 1st grade.
My parents divorced when I was 7, during my 2nd grade year, so while I bounced around a few schools and living spaces, the library and books became my safe space. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time, it was just somewhere I didn’t have to hear any yelling, abusive language, etc. and the books themselves were ointments to salve the trauma of everyday life.
I would always check out the max number of books, on the few times I was taken to the closest public library, which unfortunately was once a month if I was lucky.
I was also given the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a present when I was 8. Not only did this book feed my growing fascination and love affair with science fiction, but I feel it helped develop my burgeoning problem solving skills and love of learning.
I still remember my first reading of 20k. It was extremely difficult because of all the scientific words. However, I loved it, and it taught me how to perservere and work towards achieving a personal goal (didn’t realize it at the time of course). It also helped build my vocabulary, because I would sit or lay there with a dictionary and the book, constantly starting and stopping while I had to look up a new word. Sometimes I would have to look up one or more words that was used in the definiton of the word from the book. For example just in the first chapter is the word phosphorescent. So little eight year old me, had to look up and multiple words like so;
phosphorescent: exhibiting phosphorescence
So instead of learning just one new word like phosphorescence, I would have learned four or more.
It wasn’t until I was 12, just before junior high school, and I had a 10-speed and could ride practically anywhere that ready access to the library was mine. Things really began taking off, and the world of books really began to blossom, when I hit junior high. During 9th grade I was able to be a library assistant as an elective. Luckily I was able to do so in following years when I went to high school as well as my first year of community college.
I’m sure part of the appeal of the library is due to my mild OCD, which loves to shelve books. But, it is also there is a certain tranquility and freedom of possibility that the library provides for me. Not only is it a safe haven, but also a gateway to self-improvement.
I enjoy taking in new knowledge, even if it challenges my existing notions. Thus, the banning of books is anathema to me. Thank you for helping to fight back against this most recent wave of censorship.
P.s. I came to your site today after watching the video of your appearance on Inside of You w/Michael Rosenbaum. Thank you for doing that by the way, it was very emotional, resonated with me more than you’ll ever know, and helped me realize some things about my own life that I’ve suspected but couldn’t quite put my finger on.
This librarian thanks you Wil. It does indeed feel as if my profession, myself and my colleagues are under assault from ignorant and cruel people, and it’s disheartening to see how many go along with them. I know, because I see it, that we change the lives of people like your seven year old self every day. So many come to us when they have nowhere else to go. I am grateful my colleague of times past was able to help you and show you some truly wonderful stories. Your appreciation is appreciated! Don’t stop doing what you’re doing. You’re making a difference.
I read this posting after spending the day volunteering with the Friends of the Library – our booksales and activities fund the guest storytellers and fun education programs at the library.
I’m a decade older than you, Wil. I too was a misfit, enjoyed learning, geeky, non-athletic, loner kid with an undiagnosed reading disability (I figured out my own workarounds, so while I was a slow reader, I succeeded in school); My refuge was the library and my only close friends were the librarians. My family had its dysfunction, but was loving and not traumatic. [I was my mother’s pride, but she didn’t control me other than blocking my relationship with my father; I grew up thinking that we just didn’t get along – while in college I managed to break through and build a loving relationship with my father. (Thank you L who pointed me in the right direction that allowed me to open that door.)]
My earliest treasured gift was from a librarian – When I was about nine, I discovered Star Trek reruns and every day after school I would watch hoping to catch one I hadn’t seen. The children’s librarian gave me (TO KEEP) a copy of the Star Trek Technical Manual with all the blueprints of the ship and devices!!!
I also loved Ramona – I tracked down and read every book that existed at the time written by Beverly Cleary. [In this quest the librarians taught me about “Books In Print” (a reference book in the pre-internet dark ages) and interlibrary loans.]
My introduction to Science Fiction was when the Youth Librarian decided that I was ready to leave the children’s section – he dragged me to the adult Science Fiction stacks and picked out a book for me. [It was “Seahorse In the Sky” by Edmund Cooper] I loved the creativity of world building and speculative fiction. I never went back to the children’s section except to visit with the librarians.
One last story (Every paragraph on the speech brought back childhood memories). While in tenth grade I discovered Tolkien. After a weekend of spending every free minute reading, I went to school Monday bleary eyed from getting very little sleep. In classes I was reading The Two Towers under my desk ignoring the lessons. During English, I was startled when I realized that the teacher was looking over my shoulder at the book in my lap ….. she went back to the blackboard and didn’t call on me for the rest of class. [Miss O was cool!]
I worked weekends in a bookstore in Eugene OR when you were filming Stand By Me in the area; it might have been our store’s Banned Books display you saw. I’m so happy to hear when one of these displays opens someone’s eyes to worlds they might not have known about, and chips away at the authoritarianism that inspires book banning. Thanks for a wonderful article!
School library thought: If Jupiter Jones hanging out with his two pals in their junkyard hideout makes you smile, then you’re a friend of mine.