I gave a talk to a hall full of librarians organized by the School Library Journal last night (what do you call a group of librarians? A kindness?). Many of them asked me to post it afterwards–here it is. I try not to disobey librarians. They have great power.
One of the things you don’t think much about when you’re a baby author
just hoping the hand if god will descend out of new York and lift you
up into the promised land of publication ate interviews. You’re going
to have to do a lot of interviews. Professional ones for blogs and
magazines, sure, but also from readers, at signings and conventions.
No one will grill you like a 12 year old who wants ti know how
currency wirks in fairyland. And often, you’ll get asked the same
questions over and over, which I actually find exciting–what will be
The Question for any given book? One always emerges, the thing
everyone wants to know. So I thought tonight I’d tell you about
something I get asked a lot.
The most popular character in the Fairyland series, stalwart
protagonist aside, isn’t a person. It isnt the charismatic villain or
the trickster with the twinkle in his eye. He’s a big red fellow named
A-Through-L whose mother was a Wyvern and whose father was a library.
This makes him, to my knowledge, fairly unique in the annals of
literature. He is a Wyverary. When I began talking about the sequel to
the Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
online, the question I was asked most often by children and adults
alike was: will Ell be in it?
And yes, he is loved because he is gigantic and bright red and funny
and loyal and bashes into things quite a lot, he is popular because he
is a Wyvern, which is a fancy way of saying Dragon, and few enough of
us have hearts so hard we cannot love a dragon whose great passions in
life are books and very fresh radishes, but the thing that makes Ell
who he is, that makes him a character so loved that young girls bring
hand-knit and crocheted Wyveraries to my signings, is that he is part
It’s universal and it’s instant–invoking a library makes people
happy, excited, curious. Because libraries are magical places. They
always have been, public or private. Books come from human minds and
when you gather that many of them in one space, the space becomes, if
you’ll forgive the word, holy. Books create their own space and
physics, their own psychic presence. For those of us who did not grow
up with wealth, libraries were the place you could go to stuff
yourself with stories and knowledge and pursue like a bloodhound every
Through most of my childhood, my mother was a student, getting her
master’s in 19th century drama and then her doctorate in political
science. That should probably tell you a lot about me as a person.
This meant a lot of time spent in university and city libraries,
wandering the stacks while my mother did “research,” a word which had
a glittering, talismanic quality to me when I was very young. It
sounded very grown up, and very interesting, something secret and
cabalistic, that smart and beautiful people like my mother and her
My school friends did not think “research” was as fascinating a game
to play at recess as I did.
But in those libraries where my mother worked, I read just about
everything–and that is part of why libraries are still magical, why
Borges wrote about an infinite one and McKinley gave Beauty an
impossibly complete one and why I’m still making them in my own books.
Because there is an alchemy to libraries. Because you go in looking
for a book about the Bermuda Triangle and end up losing a whole day to
medieval heraldry. You find Hamlet which you have to read for school,
but what in a cosmic sense you went to the library that day to find
was a little book called Seaward which would become an intimate part
of the architecture of your brain. You can never tell. A library is an
infinite tangle of possible paths to the person you’ll be in a year,
two, three, thanks to the books you stumble over by utter, delightful
chance. And though there is also magic and wonder in our digital
world, that is a spell that cannot be wholly cast online.
We are, with all of our very shiny tools, still primates. We still
crave physical experience–and more than that, a physical experience
of story, of narrative, that thing which has grown up from a thing
done around the fire in exchange for meat and wine to a thing done on
a vast stage, with paper and ink and pixels and files, a thing done
around a table at a conference in a city of high towers. We still want
to use our hands and our bodies to do things. We still want to wander
and pick up and hold and flip through and wedge a thumb in. Libraries
are a great bastion of physical experience–a literal city of books,
with laws and codes and maps and roads through high paginated towers.
This is also a magical thing. Any city is. Any forest in which you
might get lost and meet a fairy or a monster or a companion.
And so A-Through-L, my eternally helpful and hopeful Wyverary, is a
literal version of what so many of us feel–that we were born out of
libraries. For latchkey kids like me, they were parents and friends.
They were where we found out who we were, by peering into book after
book like a mirror. They were safe places we could run to when the
horrors of school got to be too much, when we didn’t have anywhere
else to go, and they were places where a love of books would never be
mocked, only encouraged. That was where I learned all those fancy ways
of saying things, and the librarians who taught me were my Gandalfs,
my Dumbledores, my Athenas with clear eyes and, I suspected, pet owls
hiding behind the circulation desk. Without them, I only know small
and usual ways if saying things. We who were raised by libraries were
trained up by librarians, the wizards who seemed to know so much, and
steered us toward books we didn’t even know would change our lives.
A library is a place where “research” really is talismanic,
cabalistic, wonderful, mysterious, beautiful. Where it is a game we
can all play together. I’ve traveled to libraries all over the country
in the last year, reading to kids about all the places where I see and
catch magic, and every time I read in Ell’s big, booming voice under
the roof of a library, it seems so very right. Let me tell you why.
It’s kind of a secret, between the two hundred of us, so lean in.
We are all half beast and half library. We are half big, awkward,
occasionally fire breathing thing who want to be loved so terribly
much, who want to be useful and good, and half all the books that ever
stuck with us, changed the construction of our brains and the
architecture of our hearts. We are half creatures afraid of bumping
into the world the wrong way and roasting something accidentally and
half a jumble of instincts toward wonder and kindness borne to our
innermost selves on rafts of so many books and stories. We are all
And that is why everyone asks me, with worry in their eyes, begging me
to say yes, if Ell will be in the next book. To make sure, to be
reassured, that this great and dear creature who stands in for
everyone who ever loved a library and wanted to make it proud, never
has to leave Fairyland. That he, and they, will always be in the
And I tell them every time, with a twinkle in my eye: of course he will.