The Narrative Neighborhood: Little Free Library Liberation and Story Scavenging During Quarantine, by S.G. Wilson

My neighborhood had achieved a state of peak Little Free Library years ago. By the start of 2020, it was headed for a full-scale borrowed-book market collapse. 

You couldn’t walk a block without bumping into one book-lending box after another on their curbside posts. So many of my neighbors had taken up littlefreelibrary.org’s nonprofit mission to share books and promote literacy that the glut had nearly robbed the whole endeavor of its magic. With practically everybody putting up a little free library, the little structures become so much background noise, like fire hydrants or post-911 yard flags circa 2003.

However picturesque they looked, the libraries stood there either empty (save for ancient tomes on marketing written before the internet, food-encrusted picture books spotted with cover mold, etc.) or saddled with the same boring stack of Barnes & Noble remainders everybody had already read or didn’t want to read. Day in and day out I’d pass these ghost libraries on the bike ride to my son’s school, rolling my eyes at the Tom Clancys and James Pattersons that never left the shelves, as if they were squatting there to keep books people actually wanted to read from moving in. I even watched one neglected Little Free Library rot and fall apart from disuse, a sight that traumatizes me to this day.

Then COVID-19 struck, and everything changed. Desperate for diversion like the rest of the world as we all sheltered in place, my neighbors produced sidewalk-chalk art, stuffed-animal hunts and lawn decorations as funny and uplifting as anything else you’d see on the internet. The world may have gone down the crapper, but the creative spirit of my neighborhood had come to life. And so had its Little Free Libraries.

The outdoor book shelves filled to bursting again, and the boring old titles finally moved on to make way for the new. I found novels I’d always wants to read, as well as fresh discoveries I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of, like a 1980s spiritual dieting book by Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. This blessed browsing filled a void that had opened in me since all the libraries and bookstores shut down.

I got so excited by all this quality time with books that I started making videos about the experience. With my son’s help, I fashioned them after the unboxing videos I used to deride, calling them my “Little Free Library Book Tour.” (Feel free to check them out here.)

Story Scavenging

Fun as it was to make a project out of my new hobby, I wanted to produce something that would contribute to this neighborhood renaissance I’d enjoyed so much. I found that something while walking around the next neighborhood over (which had generally proven to be a less creative neighborhood, but I’m biased).

“Which is the coldest planet?” the sidewalk asked us in chalk. Arrows pointed from the multiple choices: “Neptune” going one way and “Uranus” another. We could have just looked up the answer on our phones and headed back home. But this challenge was the most excitement I’d had during quarantine since discovering that Jim and Tammy Faye diet book (well, that and the impending streaming release of Hamilfilm). Never mind that when we made it around the block, the right answer had washed away from the pavement. Never mind that we wound up having to look it up on our phones (Uranus). All we cared about was that after weeks of isolating at home, for just a few moments there, we had an actual destination to reach.

I loved the way this sidewalk-chalk trivia challenge made people interact with the physical world in order to answer a question in their heads. It was kind of like Pokémon Go but with an actual reason to exist. I decided to take this basic format and give it my own spin: I devised a real-world Choose Your Own Adventure.

I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. If you’re not familiar, these books give readers a choice about where to go at the end of every section. “If you decide to attack the dragon, go to page 14.” “If you decide to talk with the dragon about the Republicans’ chances of holding on to their senate majority in the next election, go to page 50.” What I had in mind was something more akin to, “If you decide to attack the Dragon, go to the intersection of Dancy St. and Duval Avenue.”

Figuring everybody loves middle-grade books (again, I’m biased), I dug up a rejected novel my friend and podcast co-host Matthew Bey wrote years ago. When Monsters Attack, the tale of a boy protecting his school from an invasion of 1950s-esque B-movie aliens, lent itself to the conventions of a Choose Your Own Adventure once I boiled it down to seven parts told over a few paragraphs apiece. I made the story and its choice path super-simple, figuring the average pedestrian might get a headache from too many decisions, especially in the summer heat just around the corner.

I printed up signs, titled them “Story Scavenger: Navigate the Narrative,” and coated them using the lamination machine my son requested for his birthday (because he’s THAT kid, bless him). With the help of my other son, who prefers staple guns to lamination machines (because he, in turn, is THAT kid), we affixed them to utility poles within a five-block radius of our house.

I can’t say this experiment in interactive neighborhood narratives caused some sort of sensation, but over the course of several weeks, I saw a fair share of kids, families, hipster couples and other random folks try their hands at When Monsters Attack. One reader even fixed a typo.

At my site, I’ve made a set of these story signs with blank lines for filling in the directions in case you’re inclined to hang them up in your neighborhood. Still, I’d recommend making up your own Story Scavenger tale, if you’re so inclined. It’s a fairly straightforward process, but keep these points in mind as you go:

  1. Use second person. Stick with “you” instead of “I” or “he” or “she” or “they”. “You wake up in a cave in your underwear with no memory about who you are and a full-size bear is licking your face.” It’s a good way to immerse the reader in the story.
  2. Another way to maintain that sense of immersion is to not go into detail about the point-of-view character. Try to avoid mentioning gender, race and other details about the character if you can help it. Otherwise, it might remove them from buying into the story and feeling that immediacy when they’re making their choices. For When Monsters Attack, I left out most details about the character beyond the implication that they’re a middle school student with a knack for getting into trouble. Most people have been a middle-school student, so they can hopefully relate.
  3. Also, keep it concise. I didn’t write more than three or four paragraphs for any of the parts, figuring people reading the signs would want to get a move-on eventually.
  4. And while you’re at it, don’t complicate the choice path unduly. Too many choices and the reader (or in this case, the walker) might feel overwhelmed. In When Monsters Attack, I kept thing super simple: a choice to press forward with the story or an “out” to escape. However, the escape hatch choice bumps the reader to the conclusion, so it’s all tied together.

And one last piece of advice while you’re out turning your neighborhood into a story: wear a mask and keep a healthy distance from your readers!

S.G. Wilson is the author of the upcoming middle grade novel, Me Vs. the Multiverse: Pleased to Meet Me, due out Aug. 4. Alternate versions of S.G. from parallel Earths have worked as an Olympic shufflepuck commentator (Earth 24), food taster for Emperor Justin Bieber (Earth 101), stage manager for an all-mime version of The Sound of Music on Broadway (Earth 3), and many others. This Earth’s S.G mostly just writes stuff in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his partner, kids and cats. He’s worked as a magazine writer and editor and hosts a podcast called This Week in the Multiverse. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @SGWilson_Earth1.

. . .

S.G. Wilson is holding an Alternate Earth Giveaway for a free copy of ME VS. THE MULTIVERSE!

Me Vs. the Multiverse Alternate Earth Giveaway!

Everybody who enters gets: 

1. A “Greetings from the Multiverse” postcard (doubles as a bookmark)

2. A copy of “The Budget Guide to Traveling the Multiverse” (a zine)

3. The chance to win a copy of ME VS. THE MULTIVERSE!

To enter:

1. Think up an alternate Earth

2. DM it to me on Twitter or Instagram (bonus for follows): @sgwilson_Earth1

3. I’ll read out the entries at my online book launch have an the audience vote on the winner!

4. You don’t have to attend the launch by any means, but here’s the registration info just in case: Aug. 5, 4pm CST: tinyurl.com/y29fbpzw

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