by Jim Trelease © 2009
librarian or reading teacher should be as good a spy as he or she is
a people-reader. “Who’s reading what?” should be daily
refrain their professional lives.
A prime example of this surfaced in
a recent NPR “Story
Corps” episode in which Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge
Olly Neal told his daughter how he went from operating on
the fringe of delinquency to college and law school. (Story Corps is
part of a national oral history project associated with the Library of
It all began one day in the high school library in
Marianna, Arkansas. Neal was a senior, cutting class and hiding out in
the library when he spotted a book on the shelf by Frank Yerby,
at that time a little-known black author of adult novels. Between the
cover and text, Neal was intrigued enough to want more. There was a problem,
If he took the book over to the library checkout counter,
the girls attending it would notice and surely tell his peers that he
was taking books out. "Then my reputation would be down, because
I was reading books," Neal explained to his daughter. "And
I wanted them to know that all I could do was fight and cuss."
Neal stuffed the book under his coat and walked out. When he finished
it, back he went to return it, only to find another Yerby novel in its
place. "So I thought, 'Maybe I'll read that, too.' So I took it
under my jacket," Neal said. "Later, I brought it back, and
there was, by God — there was another book by Frank Yerby. So I
All together he head four Yerby novels that semester
and a habit was formed, which eventually led him to college and law school.
As I have written elsewhere, lifetime readers usually meet one book that
towers above all others, a volume or author that “hooked” them
so deeply they were pulled into that deep ocean of reading for life.
Neal had no idea when he read Yerby that he was reading the first African-American
to write an American bestseller, the first to sell a book to the movies,
and an author whose sales would reach 55 million. All Neal knew was a
good story when he met it.
But Neal was ignorant of something else as well, something
he wouldn’t discover until a high school class reunion years later
when he chanced to meet his former school librarian, Mildred
Grady. To his surprise, she clearly remembered the Yerby incident. "She
told me that she saw me take that book when I first took it. She said,
'My first thought was to go over there and tell him, boy, you don't have
to steal a book, you can check them out -- they're free.'”
here where the librarian-spy becomes a people-reader. Neal explained, “She
realized what my situation was — that I could not let anybody know
I was reading." But she also recognized a window of opportunity
when it was open. “She and Mrs. Saunders would drive to Memphis
and find another one [Yerby book] for me to read — and they would
put it in the exact same place where the one I'd taken was. You've got
to understand that this was not an easy matter then — because this
is 1957 and '58," Neal said. "And black authors were not especially
available, No. 1. And No. 2, Frank Yerby was not such a widely known
author. And No. 3, they had to drive all the way to Memphis [50 miles]
to find it."
It is incalculable the benefits that
come with a librarian or teacher who knows what their flock is reading,
who knows Billy is crazy about Anthony Horowitz and
when she sees in the catalog that his new book is out, “Hey, Billy—I’ve
got good news!” On such solid ground is built a lifetime reader.
And as Olly Neal knows, it will also create a lifetime debt to that
librarian or teacher.
Judge Neal’s conversation with his daughter Karama
can be heard online at StoryCorps www.storycorps.org/listen/stories/judge-olly-neal-and-his-daughter-karama.