Yesterday was World Book Night, also Shakespeare’s birthday.
I’ve always preferred words to numbers, but I give credit to numbers when they deserve it. Sometimes they are more powerful than words.
On Thursday April 23, 25,000 volunteers gave out half a million free books in more than 6,000 towns and cities across the 50 states, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and overseas military bases.
2, 300 bookstores and libraries served as community organizers for the book distribution to the volunteer givers.
39 different books were on the list. All from Award-winning and bestselling adult and YA authors, as well as classics, books in Spanish, and books in large print.
I knew right away where I wanted to give books on World Book Night when I met James Tyner, months before I knew what books would be on the 2014 list.
When I saw that Waiting to Exhale was part of the selection, my mind was set.
Early February I found out that I would be, for the second time, one the 25,000 givers.
I asked for my books to be delivered at one of the very few independent bookshops in the valley.
Yesterday morning, I loaded the books in my car and drove down to the library . On my way, I stopped to get a cup of tea. A woman, sipping hers while she wrote, heard me when I gave my order and asked me if I was French. This happens to me regularly, so we chatted about France and anything French.
She had been there a few times and even stayed in Paris for a couple of months. She complimented my English – always nice to my ears – and asked if I was fluent when I moved to the States.
I told her the truth: I learned English through the books I borrowed at the library, first with the constant support of my French/American English dictionary, and then solo when I had significantly improved my skills.
She liked the story, and I told her that I was in fact on my way to give away twenty copies of the first American book I had read on my own. She liked the story even better and wished me a good day. Our conversation had been engaging, so the day was already a good one.
When I pulled on the library parking lot, I spotted several young men but only a few women making their way inside the building.
This neighborhood is part of the poorest in town, and I was both glad and anxious to step out of my comfort zone.
As a non-native speaker who wears her accent like a very visible tattoo, I am rarely 100% confident in public and tend to prefer the company of people who, like me, don’t fit perfectly.
Yesterday, I found myself among people who were born in the States and in fact had, for the majority, never left the valley, and yet I had an advantage.
Although my early struggles with the English language challenged me, I was an avid reader and a decent writer in my native language, and these skills helped me a lot.
Although I was born in a low-income family, France provided me with a good quality education, affordable health care and housing.
I share little in common with people who are reluctant readers, only because of circumstances such as the color of their skin, their parents’ jobs and ways of life, and their birthplace.
Yet when I told them about World Book Night, why I picked their neighborhood library, and why I chose to give them Waiting to Exhale, this personal story built a bridge between us.
It isn’t easy to give to people who have less than us because giving should never be done to make us feel good about ourselves and never be with pity. Respect is harder than compassion, I think.
James, the librarian, has a deep understanding of the neighborhood and its residents. He had invited a local poet who also teaches English at the community college. Michael Luis Medrano grew up a couple of streets away from the library where he used to come as a kid. He played soccer on the school field, right across the library. When he read two poems from his book Born in the Cavity of Sunsets and two flash fiction pieces, he totally captured the audience’s attention.
His words tell of the harsher side of the city, rarely seen and almost never experienced by white and affluent residents, and far different from my safe and beautiful Sierra location. And yet, because I’ve lived long enough in the States, in various parts of the country and diverse neighborhoods, the poems stirred unexpected emotions.
Unlike Terry McMillan’s reading that had forced me out of the bookshop, embarrassed and discouraged, Michael’s anchored me.
But without the initial failure would have I felt that I belonged?
As one by one, the copies of Waiting to Exhale found their way to someone’s home, I lingered behind, feeling comfortable away from my home.
In the end, when we give, we receive so much more.
For privacy reasons I won’t post any picture from the event, but you already know my face, so here I am in front of the library, wearing the special badge of the day.
Have you been a giver on World Book Night 2014 or in the past? Did you know about this event?