I was raised in Waukegan, Illinois, north of Chicago, along the shore of Lake Michigan. One day, when I was about 6, I was a reluctant player in a neighborhood baseball game. On that muggy August day, I was stuck way out in right field. I mean way out — possibly Indiana. I don’t recall that they even bothered to call me in to bat when my team was up; by the time I could walk back in, it would be time to walk out again. I was hot and bored.
But I did have a view of Lewis Avenue, and the line of stores there: a grocery store, a Walgreen’s, a Woolworth’s.
Then I saw it: the heat shimmering on the horizon, rising off the asphalt. It resolved into something big and blue, as large as a bus. Fascinated, I watched it pull into the grocery store parking lot.
It was a bookmobile.
I walked off the field (I wasn’t missed) and went home. I got my mother to walk me over to the stores.
From the moment I stepped up into the bookmobile, I was in awe. A bus full of books! In a kind of stunned glee, I asked for and got a library card. They let me check out some 3 to 5 books right on the spot. It was free!
Thus the bookmobile became a part of my life. It was there in the parking lot every week. So was I.
On the second trip, I noticed that there was a bright blue line painted around the whole inside of the bus, at about the top of the second set of shelves. I asked the librarian what it meant.
Mrs. Johnson told me that everything below the blue line was for kids. Everything above the line was for adults. My first thought was, “How clever and how right! Adults are taller, so they get the high shelves.”
For many weeks, I was content. There were so many beautiful books literally right on my level.
But gradually, I began to take greater notice of the differences between the children’s books and the adult books. Adult books were thicker. They didn’t have as many pictures. They had strangely intriguing titles. For some reason, I still recall the buckram binding of All Quiet On the Western Front, by Remarque.
One day, I picked up an adult book and tried to check it out. Mrs. Johnson wouldn’t let me. By that time, I no longer came to the library with my mother. Without an adult’s permission, I could only check out kid’s books.
I was, frankly, outraged. If those books were forbidden to me, then clearly, those were the books I most needed to read.
There began months of guerrilla patronage. I began simply: choose the fattest, dullest children’s books I could find, and slip in the skinniest, most brightly covered adult book. Wait until the line was long and it was almost time for the bookmobile to leave.
It didn’t work. Quietly, with a little smile, Mrs. Johnson would just set the book aside. Now, of course, I know that that’s because she was looking for the letter “J” (for Juvenile) on the book pocket. Back then, I thought it was either her highly detailed knowledge of each book in the bus, or some kind of malicious psychic ability.
“Mrs. Johnson,” I would say earnestly, “that’s a kid’s book!”
“No,” she would say, with infuriating mildness. “It was above the blue line.”
I became a librarian to find out what was over the line.