“Stella!” the juvenile hardcover picture books cheered as the librarian slid Stellaluna back on the shelf.
Stella’s book jacket crinkled slightly in distaste as she took her place between her sisters, Pinduli and Verdi. “It’s good to be home.” She sighed a contented sigh.
“That bad at the branch library?” Pinduli asked, leaning against Stella comfortingly as all the other books on the shelf shifted to make room for her. The new librarian still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of how to return books to the shelf without overcrowding or squishing anyone.
A shudder ran through Stella that rippled across the entire shelf. “They still stamp at the branch library. With a rubber stamp. And ink.”
Stella’s sisters hissed in sympathy.
“I thought everyone in the four counties used the scanner system now,” Gruffalo’s Child piped up from the next shelf over.
“They do! But I think we’re the only library that prints circulation receipts.” Again, a sympathetic shudder rippled down the shelf, this time coming from the direction of Gruff’s bookcase.
“Did you see any new books?” asked shy Rosie, poking her spine out from two shelves to the left of Stella. Stella sent a crinkly kiss Rosie’s way, knowing how much Rosie loved to hear about other books, for all that she never had the courage to talk to anyone new herself.
“I accidentally got shelved in the non-fiction main stacks for about an hour when a student was trying to put all of his books back.” Stella took a deep breath to compose herself. “He didn’t mean it. I think he was in too much of a hurry.”
“Did you meet anyone nice there?” Gruff asked, sounding very interested.
Stella remembered the short, fat books, with their dark, somber covers. They were mostly hardcover, unbending and upright in their stance and in their beliefs. They were solid books, books you could depend on, but some were so very long-winded and sure of themselves. She felt a little intimidated by them, for all that she towered over them in height. They hadn’t looked down on her exactly, but they made sure that she understood how different her purpose was from theirs. They educated. She…entertained.
“…they were nice enough,” Stella said finally, trying to be as diplomatic as possible. She still couldn’t believe that poor child’s mistake, shelving her in the wrong place. But she couldn’t be angry, either. She loved the student volunteers. Her own librarians were wonderful people that she loved more than anything: Miss Kelsey, the children’s programming librarian, who always had such wonderful ideas for the weekly storytime; Miss Nicolette, the assistant librarian, who had been working at the main library since it opened forty years ago. She couldn’t imagine the library without them. But librarians talked, and Stella knew what ‘budget cuts’ and ‘fewer job openings’ meant. Children who studied at the library were surrounded by books, and that exposure meant that they would remember how much the library meant to them when they were younger. Stella knew it was pointless to hope on a next generation to save her and her sisters, but some of the book sale books had been friends from other branches once, and too many of those branches had been closed in the past few years, her friends sold to private collections or donated to other homes.
“But…” Verdi continued, nudging Stella gently. She and Verdi had been acquired at the same time, so they had shared a shelf for more than five years now. Verdi knew her inside and out, and not just because they were author-sisters. They were shelf-sisters as well.
Stella hesitated. She knew how many books were listening now. The juvenile picture book section was known for its love of gossip, especially because the other books tended to look down on them, even the juvenile nonfiction section. Books in their collection, though, were usually returned to the main library. It was only a fluke that she’d been transferred to the branch library for a couple weeks – probably a mistake in filing.
“I’m happy to be home?” Did her sisters really need to hear the disparaging remarks about ‘literature’ versus ‘entertainment’? Did they need their visuals opened to the apparent hierarchy of the library, and how much books were valued because of educational content? Gruff and Rosie and the others didn’t care if she was ‘peer-reviewed’ or not. They didn’t ask about her pedigree and where she had been published. It didn’t even matter to them that she had a twin, Stella Too, who often sat on the shelf between her and Pinduli. Apparently “multiple editions” was a bad thing to the adult non-fiction section, with their precious call numbers blazoned on their spines like badges of honor. She preferred her simple “JE CANN,” thank you very much.
The others, at least, seemed content with that. Verdi still wiggled impatiently, knowing there was more to the story, but she didn’t push. “We’re happy you’re home,” Verdi replied, shifting her weight to lean against Stella again.
The conversation drifted to other topics: which sticky-fingered toddlers would be in today, harried parents and care-givers in tow; which books would be used for storytime next week, and what was the theme, actually?; who the contenders for the Caldecott, the ABBY, the Horn Book awards would be this year… But under the chatter, Verdi took the opportunity to slide closer and pester Stella til Verdi’s cover practically glued itself to Stella’s.
“Did someone hurt you?” Verdi was the same size as Stella, average height and length for a picture book, but a cool and calming green to Stella’s night sky blues and greys.
“Nooooo…” Stella trailed off, not sure what to even say. “Do you wonder, sometimes, about our purpose?”
Verdi shifted her weight back a little, her visuals considering Stella. Her cover crinkled thoughtfully. “Our purpose?” she repeated, sounding puzzled.
“What we’re worth,” Stella tried again.
Verdi wiggled a little bit. “Your barcode reads the same price as mine -- $17.99, slightly higher in Canada. What do you mean?” Again, Verdi shifted back, giving Stella a judgmental nudge. “Are you questioning our place here?”
“Noooo…” Stella hated that she sounded like a broken record. She also hated how well Verdi was able to read her. Like a book…
Verdi waited patiently until Stella finally admitted, “There’s nothing in our pages! We have pictures that don’t explain anything, and our word count doesn’t even equal a page of text in one of the adult books.”
“But would that page in one of those adult books help a child?” Verdi asked softly. “Who checked you out last?”
Stella thought of the blonde whirlwind of a three year old, one who moved from playing pirate-penguin-princess to dragging her mother into a game of train within a span of seconds. This same energetic whirlwind curled up in her mother’s lap and read the entire stack of library books, fifteen in all, in one sitting, and then asked politely, ”Should we read another book?” Some of her borrowers were terrors who gummed up her pages with sticky fingers, who tore her edges til they had to be carefully taped and healed by Miss Kelsey or Miss Nicolette, or who flung her end over end down the stairs to see if she would roll. But there was something about the soft wonder of a child reading a story, the cozy contentedness of a child learning about a new world, even if it was through simple words and not-quite-realistic pictures.
She had been slept with, slept on, and carried carefully into cars, restaurants, and sporting events. She knew the signs of a well-loved book. Those smarmy fat tomes in non-fiction hadn’t looked loved. One hadn’t even been checked out in a year. Plus, she towered over them like a tree casting shade on a bush.
“Maybe we all have our own purposes and our own value,” Stella finally concluded.
Verdi nudged her again with a snicker of crinkling cover. “And it just goes to show,” she said, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”