As a small child, the side room which housed the children’s collection at the Bassendean Memorial Library was a treasure trove of stories, somewhat akin to Aladdin’s cave. As my Mother fossicked in the main library, I was free to explore and use my two pink library cards to choose picture books.
Early on, books became my friends. Growing up with Cystic Fibrosis, my childhood consisted of boring physio sessions, nebulizer treatments, and hospital visits. I soon discovered that a book would entertain me while I waited at the hospital. Books were a lifeline as I did my treatments. If I felt tired or short of breath, I could sit and read — books didn’t judge me — instead, they took me on adventures and to places that were off-limits to my wonky lungs.
Midway through primary school, I experienced a book-drought. My mother and I moved from my Gran’s house in Bassendean to a semi-rural area. I no longer had access to a public library, and the school library consisted of a single shelf of books at the back of the classroom. My mother, who read but wasn’t a “reader”, couldn’t see the problem. You can, after all, only read one book at a time, she reasoned.
My book-drought didn’t last long before I devised a sneaky solution. Every second weekend I slept over at my Gran’s house. On these weekends, I would collect all the books and magazines my Gran had read and walk to the Bassendean Book Exchange. I was, without doubt, the worst customer they had. I would exchange my Gran’s Mills & Boons books and Secret Confession magazines for the pick of their children’s books. A wonderful lady ran the Bassendean Book Exchange, and she never once treated me as anything other than one of her most valuable customers.
I would sit and read all morning. Right before noon, a reminder that the shop was closing soon would come, and I would carefully make my selections, taking care to maximize the use of any credit I had. Clutching my precious bag of swapped treasures, I would hurry home to Gran’s house. As I walked past the Bassendean Memorial Library, I would slow down, staring longingly through the door towards the books that were out of my reach.
The library doors were a reminder of the loss of my two pink library cards. This loss preoccupied my thoughts. Without my library cards, I was no longer able to borrow books. The obvious solution never occurred to me — that even without library cards, I would have been welcome to sit in the library and read.
When I entered high school, my reading appetite continued to grow in leaps and bounds. Older and wiser, I devised a new solution to feed my reading habit. I dragged my Gran down to the Bassendean Memorial Library so she could take out a membership. I immediately relieved her of her four yellow library cards. Having both out-read and outgrown the children’s section by this time, it was fortunate that her yellow cards allowed me access to the books in the main library. Initially, I crept through the library, making my selections rapidly. I would borrow my books and depart hastily before any of the staff realized that I wasn’t “Mavis” and sent me back to the children’s section.
One Saturday, as I skulked through the stacks trying to be inconspicuous, Wendy, one of the librarians, placed a book in my hand and told me to try it. The following fortnight, she had another suggestion for me. She carefully cultivated my reading after that, pointing me towards books that challenged my thinking, that pushed me as a reader but were always age-appropriate.
After three years of stealthy borrowing as “Mavis”, I worked up the nerve to ask Wendy if I could volunteer at the library over the summer holidays. That summer, three librarians Wendy, Denise, and Pat, took me under their collective wing and showed me the ropes. Eventually, my volunteer work became more permanent, and I volunteered every Saturday morning. Each week I hungrily absorbed everything they showed me. Here was a world that revolved around books and information and I knew without question that I should be a librarian.
For me, wanting to become a librarian, and becoming a librarian were two separate matters. Throughout my life, one of the messages repeatedly given to me was, “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t”. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when my Year 11 Guidance Officer told me that due to my health, I couldn’t make a career from my love of reading. ‘Libraries are too dusty,’ he told me, ‘they’ll make you cough. Books are too heavy. You won’t be able to carry them.’ So he sent me off to do an accounting course. Account books were NOT the sort of books I was passionate about.
With my career path derailed, I made a half-hearted attempt to study accounting while working part-time after Year 12 graduation. But my thoughts always returned to the happy Saturdays I’d spent flicking through the card catalog checking for matches with inter-library loan requests. Still, the prediction made by my Guidance Officer ran through my head. In the end, it took five years and a baby to vanish his voice.
Studying librarianship felt right. Working in my first library position was fulfilling — even sweeter when I took over management of the library. When the opportunity to make a sideways move within the Education Department arose, I transferred into a school library. Here I was able to work magic, nurturing the love of books and reading to children. I was in librarian heaven until my lungs derailed and deteriorated rapidly.
The dire prediction of my Guidance Officer wasn’t my undoing. Neither the dust nor the weight of the books became problematic. Instead, talking with my disjoined breathing made it hard to make book recommendations. All I could do was put the book into a child’s hands and say, “You’ll like it.”
Soon after, my diagnosis of Respiratory Failure Stage 1, saw me wait-listed for a double lung transplant. Working was no longer a feasible option. Instead, on oxygen and virtually housebound, I wiled away the days with my faithful dog at my side and a library book in my hands. While I’d never neglected the friendship, I forged with books in my childhood, while I was on extended sick leave, they became my lifeline.
My return to my school library post-transplant was joyful. I had the lung capacity to wax lyrical once more. To engage with the students and talk up a storm. I know firsthand that the right book in the hand of a child at the right time can change their life. And now, once again, I am the guiding force helping children explore the wonderful world of literature.
Every time I place a book in the hands of a child and see their eyes light up with delight, I know the path I traveled to get here has been worthwhile.
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Sandi Parsons lives and breathes stories, as a reader, writer and storyteller. She believes that every child is entitled to see themselves accurately represented in literature and the arts.
Sandi was a Children’s Book Council of Australia, Book of the Year Award Judge, Early Childhood (2020 & 2021).
Sandi’s creative nonfiction has been published in MiNDFOOD and Frankie. She is a contributor in the Growing Up Disabled in Australia Anthology.