Three years ago, I set out to save our school library. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to discover the power of funny books.
Not that the immediate situation was funny at all. Due to major cuts in school library funding, our town’s only primary school had lost its librarian long ago. By 2015, the library itself was on its last legs. “We called it the book dumping ground,” someone later told me. Random collections of old books were piled higgledy-piggledy, upside-down and backward, with pages torn and spines bent backward. It was impossible to find what you wanted, or to keep track of which books were where.
Every time I walked into that library, my heart hurt. I’d been lucky enough to grow up with great school libraries. They opened up the world for me. I wanted my daughter and her friends to have that. I wanted every kid to have that.
So I stepped up and volunteered to take charge of the library.
At first, I was asked only to straighten things up. But my dreams were much bigger than that. I wanted new books and new shelves, a computer system to check books out, and library training for all the children.
Step by step, with many people helping and raising funds, we got there. But it took an incredible effort, and I was giving my time for free. For a couple of years, the library needed anywhere from four to 20 hours a week from me—time that I had to take from my writing.
To save the library, I’m having to kill off my own books, I thought, And that didn’t seem funny at all.
Yet I was learning a lot from my library work. I was having conversations with dozens of children about the books they loved. I was watching them share their favorite books with each other. I was helping book-shy kids get hooked on series. And because I was in charge of buying new books with the PTA’s hard-earned funds, I was reading more widely than ever before.
I was also getting a new appreciation for the power of humor. Adults sometimes look down on funny books, especially for kids. Everyone knows that serious books are more likely to win prizes. But in our library, it was the funny books that went out again and again. Top borrowers, reluctant readers, the kids in the middle: they all wanted books that made them laugh. They would rush up to tell me about them, and they would get their friends to read them, too. If a new book in a funny series came in, I’d see absolute joy in their faces.
My experiences in the school library went deep. My own writing had always tilted toward the serious, with plenty of suspense and fear and darkness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’d reached a point in my life where I was searching for the light. Slowly, slowly, my time in the library began to change me as a writer.
Inspiration works in strange and not always obvious ways. I didn’t see it coming, but my very next work-in-progress turned out to be a funny book for young readers. Set in Ancient Egypt, RA THE MIGHTY features an unusual detective duo: Pharaoh’s pampered cat and his scarab beetle sidekick, who must solve a crime that’s baffled Pharaoh’s court.
I loved writing about this odd couple, it makes me happy to know that they’ve made my editor and illustrator laugh, and reviewers as well. Best of all, I now get letters telling me that RA THE MIGHTY makes children laugh, too.
And our school library? Thankfully, it’s on its feet now. And this year there will be a copy of RA THE MIGHTY for everyone to borrow, with my profound thanks.
. . .
A. B. Greenfield grew up in New York State, where she once had four kittens living in her closet. After studying history at Oxford, she became an award-winning writer, and she now lives with her family in England. Her latest book, Ra the Mighty, has been praised as “perfect for young gumshoes” by Booklist and “a charming page-turner of a mystery” by School Library Journal. For an excerpt, educator’s guide, and more, visit her at http://www.amybutlergreenfield.com.