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National Libraries Day: Anthony McGowan and his teen narrator say it better than we ever could

National Libraries Day

Today is National Libraries Day and the eagle-eyed ladies who chase us all for blog content asked if our staff members would write a few words about why we all love libraries.

We suggested instead publishing two powerful pieces of writing from Anthony McGowan on the subject. The first is from 2013’s Brock. Nicky is a kid with some tough stuff going on: his mum is gone, his dad is on bail and he is, a lot of the time, a carer for his elder brother Kenny. More pressingly, he and Kenny have rescued baby badger Snuffy from a badger baiting and have little or no idea what to do with him. Nicky’s first port of call? The library.

“The library used to be open all the time, and I used to like going there when my mum and dad fell out.  Also it’s good sometimes to have somewhere to go that’s free.

The library lady has big hair and glasses on a chain round her neck, just like you’d expect, but she’s always dead nice to me.  She saw that I liked books about space and aliens, and sometimes she used to recommend things to me, but most of the time, she just left me get on with it.  I don’t know what her name is, which is why I always just call her the library lady.  She’s got a name badge, but it’s small and I don’t want to stare at her chest in case she thinks I’m a weirdo.

Since the cuts, the library’s only open some of the time.  But on Saturday afternoons it’s open until 2, so I was OK.

I looked in the big reference books first, but there wasn’t much about badgers.  I mean, there was loads about their skeletons and that sort of thing, but nothing about how you’d take care of one.  Then I went and asked the library lady if there were any books on badgers.  She looked on the catalogue on her computer.  “I thought so,” she said.

The book was just called Badger and it had everything you could want to know about badgers in it.  It was one of the books you’re not allowed to take home, but I didn’t mind.  I sat down at one of the big wooden tables and spent an hour going through it.  After that I felt like I was an international badger expert.  I knew what they ate (worms), where they lived, what sort of sounds they made, how big their families were, loads of stuff like that.  But I still didn’t know how you’d look after one.

“Did find out what you needed to know?” the Library lady asked when I put the book back on the shelf.

“Yeah, sort of.  Not everything.”

“Is it for your homework?”

I nodded.  I hated to lie to the library lady, but I couldn’t tell anyone that I had a badger, could I?  Lying with a nod didn’t seem like proper lying, cos it didn’t come out of my mouth.

“Why not look online?” she said.  “You’ll probably find there’s lots more information there.”

It wasn’t like the library lady to tell you to look stuff up on the internet.  She always said the internet was full of rubbish, and that books told you the truth.  Plus there was normally a wait to use the two crappy computers they had there, while other people tried to find jobs or sell their junk on ebay.  But for a change there was nobody using them, so I went and had a look for badger stuff.

There were a couple of good websites, and at last I found out what I should be feeding the badger on – the dog food was fine in fact, as he was too old for milk.  But what I really needed to know wasn’t there.  But one of the sites had a contact phone number.  I wrote it down on a scrap of paper, said thanks to the library lady, and ran home.’

Anthony has returned to Kenny and Nicky for Pike, published in May 2015. Things are on the up for the family, but Nicky doesn’t trust their new-found security. They are enjoying a nice day together – and Kenny and Nicky scheming to rescue treasure of a sort from a local pond – when Nicky spoils it all by bringing up the spectre of his long-gone mum. Kenny’s reaction is devastating, and where does Nicky go? You’ve got it – the library. But things are not going so well at the library either:

‘I tried to put my arm around him, but Kenny flailed at me. He was a strong kid, and when he got angry he could do some damage. I didn’t mind getting hurt. In fact, a part of me wanted him to hurt me, to punch me in the mouth, to knock me out. But I knew he’d be even more upset when he realised what he’d done, and I didn’t want that to be my fault as well.

So I left him there in the shed, hugging the lilo bouncy castle, thinking, I suppose, about the things that we’d lost.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, then. I didn’t want to be in the house, and it was too cold to wander around. I looked in my pockets. Three quid and some coppers. Not even enough to get into Leeds and back.

So I thought I’d go to the library. I could look on the internet for ways to sort out the raft.

….

I did see one raft that was a bit like ours, but it had blocks of polystyrene under the boards of the pallet, and I didn’t know where you could get polystyrene, or if it was the kind of thing you could even buy.

And then I did something I’d never done before. I googled my mum, just in case. Her name’s Yvonne, so I put in “Yvonne Lofthouse”, and there were 56,500 results. I clicked through a few pages, but there was no one who could have been my mum. Then I realised she might not even be called that any more. I mean she might have gone back to her own last name, whatever that was, or got married again and changed it to someone else’s.

So I went back to the pictures of rafts and tried not to think about anything.

Then I heard a voice behind me. “This is one of our regulars. He comes in every week, don’t you, Nicholas?”

I turned round, and the library lady was there with the baby man in his horseshit jacket. He looked like he’d have given all the money in his wallet to be somewhere else.

“This is Mr Catterall from the council,” the library lady said. “He thinks we don’t need to have a library here. What do you think, Nicholas?”

I felt sick in my stomach. I wanted to say that I loved it in the library, that it was the best place in the town, and that they should shut everything else down before they shut the library, but I couldn’t think of the right words.

“We’ve got to find the money somewhere,” Mr Catterall said. “You’ve got a computer at home, haven’t you, young man?”

“He comes in for books, as well,” the library lady said. “Not just the computer. He’s got a brother with learning problems. He helps him, don’t you, Nicholas?”

I still couldn’t get my mouth to work. I felt all the badness of the day piling up around me, and bursting out of me at the same time. It was like I was under the water of the Bacon Pond, and it was crushing me, and I was swallowing it, and I was full up with it. Like a balloon, like a drowning man, like a dead body. I got up, and the library spun around, and I tried to run to the door but I hit a chair, then another chair, and I sent them crashing around me, like white waves on the water. I heard a voice behind me, the library lady, but I couldn’t understand her, and then I was outside, and the sweat on me turned icy cold.”

Not a lot we can add to that except perhaps to say that Nicky does not, in fact, own a computer. Access to books, and computers, and a safe, warm place to go is not a given for Nicky, as it is not a given for many people in society today. We don’t need to love libraries; we need to understand that they are a lifeline.

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