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.””
So much of this resonates with me. The library was one of my Safe Spaces as a child as well. In middle school, many afternoons instead of taking the bus home I would walk the 2.5 miles so I could stop halfway at the library. They had the children’s section in the basement, along with an 8088 PC which happened to have a copy of Bard’s Tale available to play. Another kid and I spent many an afternoon there.
For high school in the early 90s, I would often take my bicycle for the 7 mile trip so I could stop at a larger library afterward. I rarely checked out books, but spent a lot of time with the microfiche machine reading old newspapers. I have always been a history buff, and this was like heaven to me.
A side note about the previous paragraph: At the time I was visiting this library, I did not know his name or material at the time but found out later that Kurt Vonnegut was not only teaching at the college where the library was located, I actually passed by him in the library on more than one occasion without realizing who he was. Talk about missed chances!
These places were also an escape from the things my parents forced me to do as well. Instead of acting, it was sports. My parents were both college athletes (swimming and football) and were hellbent on reliving their glory years through their kids. I finally broke free by acting out enough that I got kicked off the swim team, ensuring they couldn’t force me to go back.
It is also why I travelled 7 miles to high school when one was much closer to home: I deliberately picked one that did NOT have a football team.
Your story about Willie and the Whale touched me as well. Like you, I was a voracious reader while growing up. In our basement there was an entire bookcase of old paperback sci-fi novels, and I devoured every single one. In second grade, while my classmates (like you, also at a parochial school) were only three steps past See Spot Run, I turned in a book report on Arthur C Clarke’s The Sands Of Mars.
What I don’t remember is my parents every being proud of how advanced I was. I recall one incidence in kindergarten where the teacher (Sister Mary Bieda) was having me show off how I well I could read to my parents by reciting words on the blackboard. I remember her proud smile, but nothing of my parents.
They were never proud of me for anything I accomplished.
Fast forward to the present: While we have no children of our own, I became an uncle again several weeks ago with my SIL having her first child. You can be damn sure that I’m going to be the positive, supportive figure in my new niece’s life that I never had myself while growing up. The cycle ends. Now.
Thank you so much for sharing these stories and experiences, Wil. It is greatly appreciated. I have read the hardcover of SJAG but am now going through the audiobook; having it narrated, with emotion in the voice, gives it a much deeper feeling than just words on a page.
Thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry to read about your pain because I followed your career in Stand By Me and on Star Trek. I am happy for you that you have reached a happy and satisfying point in your life. Thank you for the eloquent statement on how important books, libraries and librarians are. I wish more parents understood that children don’t need to be controlled, they just need love and nurture to develop into caring and compassionate people. That you were able to do so without parental love is a testament to your resilience. I will hope you will continue to write and speak out. We need you in today’s world. Namaste.
What a powerful and moving speech. Thanks for sharing your words with us.
Wil, I did not know your story. I am truly sorry but so happy you survived and made a good life as an adult (with the help of therapy I assume!). I am a retired librarian. I am so happy a librarian found you and was able to put the perfect books into your hands. Thank you for using your voice to advocate the Freedom to Read for everyone.
Will, thanks for this message. As a librarian myself (and someone who NEVER misses The Ready Room!) I have a lot to thank you for. Your words -always be kind – led me to look at the message I keep on my monitor: “Be kind. Have courage.” You exemplify both of those things. Thank you.
I’m glad you’re sharing the truth about the hell you went through…Because there are kids out there who need to hear it…So they can know that they’re not the only one…And that there is a way to get to a better life…You’ll never know how many lives you have lifted…But it’s gotta be one of the most noble things you can do.
Thank you for this. Frankel says there are just 2 kinds of people, the Decent and Indecent. Indecent people are so loud these days. It was a pleasure to read the words of a decent man.
Also a librarian, and also want to thank you Wil. I’ve been in this profession a long time, and I’ve never before seen organized attempts at book banning, attempts to criminalize information access, and personal attacks against librarians at the level they are currently. Many of us feel like we’re almost literally under siege, doing everything we can to defend the public’s right to read, while the actual public largely remains indifferent. Thanks for speaking out.
…and can I just add that Star Trek is part of why I saw education, knowledge and intellect as cool and important, which in turn probably influenced my decision to be a librarian, so what goes around comes around. I always loved the fact that most crises on Trek were resolved with research. I mean the actual solution is usually polarizing the whatsits array to create a somethingorother field that will disrupt the Very Bad Thing, but the drama always hinges on coming together to figure all that out in the first place.
Thank you for sharing your story! I absolutely love what you say and I totally agree with you! As a public high school librarian and the parent of a non-binary teen, this topic is very personal to me. I truly appreciate your speaking out about it. I also enjoyed your reference to the Tripod Trilogy. I read that series when I was young, but I hadn’t thought about it in decades. I may need to go back and reread it. Again, thank you for your advocacy!
Thank you for coming out to our book fest! I didn’t expect to be crying during your speech, because I honestly didn’t expect you to have looked up the happenings in our state, but it was so life affirming to hear your support for our transgender kids (even if a lot of them are too young to know how you’re cool).
By the by, I did pass along your message to my kiddo that you did love him, and his response was “Oh, okay then.” so there’s that shrug
“Everything worth doing is hard.”
I KNEW it. That’s you saying “Don’t ever give up. Everything worth doing is hard.” on Gunship’s “When You Grow Up, Your Heart Dies”, isn’t it?
It is! I love that you recognized it!
You are an inspiration.
I’m not sure how to comment without being marked as spam, but I hope my comment will be read: I remember the movie “Stand By Me” and, of course, the character Welsey Crusher in Star Trek Next Gen. I didn’t like Welsey because he was a Wiz Kid and was annoying for that. But I’m sorry because I’m finally hearing that Will Wheaton was forced by his mom to be a child actor. I’m also a mom (probably Gen X or Y – I’m on the cusp) and I never film my kids and then post their videos on social media to make them as entertainment for a vast audience on the internet. Parents as “social media influencers” are doing this to their kids right now, and I admit that I also watched their videos with my kids because my kids had liked the “fantasy world” that those kids as child actors were acting for their parents’ YouTube audience. I’m sorry you were gaslit by your mom to be a child actor. She failed as a mom, a parent, and an adult to be respected when she did that.
It looks like my comment got posted. Thank you ❤️
Thank you for these words.
Wil, libraries are my life, since I was 6 and my parents convinced me it was ok to read other books besides school books (I was a rule follower). I used to walk to the library and start reading on the way home, with my five books, and go every week. A book every day. My wonderful memory of the library — story time with Mildred Smock, the head librarian. She was so influential to generations of children. I now live in my home across the street from the library. Thank you for this post! It was wonderful!
Flipping heck Wil, what a powerful memoir and kind of reflects my experience of the Library too. You couldn’t cart books in a barrow to me (Scottish saying) and at your age I was watching Star Trek TOS (although obviously it wasn’t called TOS back in the Stone Age. SO there are some parallels but I was lucky enough to have great parents. My Dad often used to say when I was trying to come up with what I wanted to do when I grew up “I don’t mind what you do, you can sweep streets if you want but make damn sure you enjoy doing it – you will be doing it a long time.” It looks like we both enjoy doing what we do. 🙂
Wil, thank you for recognizing the power of libraries. I went regularly, loved the bookmobile that was in my town during the summer, and even got a library card in the small beach town we used to visit. One of my favorite parts of being a mom was introducing my kids to the library. Thank you also for everything you have done to promote the idea of allowing kids to be themselves. Even though I would love to give you a better childhood, your openness about your struggles has been an inspiration for many. I appreciate the honesty about mental health because everytime someone talks about their own challenges it helps pave the way for someone else.
Thank you, Wil. I didn’t know your story. I appreciate your candor and insight.
I’ve grown to love the public library. I used to buy books, movies, music. How did I ignore all the free (well, taxpayer funded) books and media libraries have? I also had no idea libraries have makerspaces, VR, and other cool resources.
(A plug for the Libby app: I could never have afforded all the audiobooks I’ve been privileged to listen to with this app.)
I have had the privilege of getting to know the librarians at my kids’ schools. They are so amazing. They find books that are a good fit for a particular kid, because they know and remember the kids. One librarian taught the students how to spot false information online. So cool. (And so necessary.)
Thanks for standing up for trans kids. My sister-in-law is trans and lived for decades hiding herself. She’s out now and happier than she’s ever been. How would it have been for her to feel safe being who she is? Or even to have a name for what she was going through. She used to go to the library to find books that might explain what she was feeling. The library helped her on her journey.
P.S. Thanks for TableTop. I laughed hard in one episode where someone mentioned a person that had a tramp stamp and a collection of stamps with tramps on them. You all seem like a fun group of people to play games with.
P.P.S. There is a sentence with a typo in it. “how betrayed I felt when I discovered that nearly all that history was 22actually myth.” (I’m only telling you to help your message be as clear as possible for other readers, not to fuss about grammar.)
Love you, love everything in this post except the part about how you were treated as a child. So sorry that happened to you; but so glad you have overcome it and become who you are now.
I’ve always loved books and libraries! My sons used to take out 20 or 30 books at a time, and now my grandkids are doing it, too. 🙂 I still read between 3 and 5 books every week.
Thank you so much for sharing your important and moving speech. You made so many salient points, I want to shout them from the rooftops, but I’ll click share like a normal person. Thank you again.
Shared, with this comment:
If you sit him down and ask him about childhood Nikki, one of the first things my brother will talk about is my crush on (obsession with?) Wil Wheaton. Sometimes when you’re a kid you get a sense about who your people are, regardless of how impossible it might be for you to ever meet them.
This is a long, but intensely beautiful and honest piece about the way that literature saves us, fosters dignity, empowers the small, and frightens the tyrannical. I personally identify with so much of it.
If you have a minute, this is worth the read, regardless of whether or not you spent your allowance on Teen Beat magazines so that you could tape pictures of Wil Wheaton on your bedroom walls, your locker, the inside of your notebooks…. The end is a lovely list of livable maxims that, were we all to exercise them with fidelity each day, would spin the world a bit more freely toward enlightenment.
Thank you, Wil (can I call you by your first name?!? 😂). This was such a needed antidote to the prevailing vitriol of the day.
I loved this, and related to it so much too. Thank you for being you. I believe I had that magnet book. The book is long gone, but I still have the magnet on my desk. It’s just a small token from my past that I like to keep around — plus magnets are cool.
I’M NOT UGLY CRYING, YOU ARE!!!
Seriously, Wil, as a librarian, thank you so much. Your advocacy for kindness and earnestness has always meant a lot to me, and it’s been a real tough time lately, both personally and in the macrocosm. You have a knack for demonstrating the power of the pen over the sword and the heart over the fist, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your sticking up for us. Especially since it seems like no one else is. We’re hurting for allies and wondering why, when people so often claim to love libraries and librarians, our communities overwhelmingly aren’t lifting a finger for us and there’s no visible public counter-movement to defend us. You’re once again fighting the worldsuck with your heart, in the words of the Green brothers, and I’ve needed so much to see it. Thank you.
My mom sat on the local library board. They had their meetings on Monday nights, and I would hang out at the library. Often the librarian would call her her to ask if it was okay for an eight year old to check out books like Catch 22. My mom would always say “Of course.” I love my mom.