An Ode to Grandparents Who Give Books

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Customers browsing in the children's section
Customers browsing in the children’s section

With great appreciation for all the grandparents of the world, an essay:

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This time of year, you’re really easy to spot. You’re glancing uncertainly from your smartphone or a printed out email at the shelves and then back again. You’re turning around, slowly, taking in the non-fiction wall, the picture book room, the middle grade wall, the young adult corner. You look lost.

You’re a grown-up shopping for a children’s book for the holidays, and I’d really love to help you. In the front two-thirds of our store, I can’t do you much good — not the way my co-workers can. I haven’t read a book written for adults in years. The back of the store is my area of expertise. Your nephew is nine years old and spends all day playing Minecraft? I know just the book for him. Your fourteen-year-old granddaughter loved The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games, and you’re pretty sure she’s read everything? I bet I can find something she hasn’t. Your best friend just had a baby, and you know someone else has already given her Pat the Bunny and Goodnight Moon? I’ve got you covered.

Little Steph (rockin' the pink reindeer sweatshirt) with her family back in the day
Little Steph (rockin’ the pink reindeer sweatshirt) with her family back in the day

My sister and I grew up 300 miles away from our nearest relative and 600 miles away from our grandparents, so Christmas in our family was almost always a small affair, just us and our parents. But our grandparents always seemed to make up for the distance by sending a big box of assorted presents for each of us. There’d be clothes, school supplies, maybe a coloring book or an activity kit, something picked up on their travels. The year I was obsessed with my rock collection they sent a piece of limestone from a tomb in Egypt, and I couldn’t decide whether it was cool or terrifying.

And then there’d be books.

When I was eight, it was a set of ghost stories by Bruce Coville that I swore I could handle but ended up having to sleep with the lights on anyway. The next year, it was Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost — at nine years old, the longest book I’d ever read. The year my family moved from rural Pennsylvania to suburban New Jersey, a copy of Garth Nix’s  Sabriel was nestled amongst the mittens and pullovers in my box. It was a book ahead of its time, a story of magic and the search for identity, featuring a strong female protagonist whose voice echoes in the stories of today’s heroines like Hermione and Katniss. I devoured it and wanted more. I found my way to Tamora Pierce, Holly Black, Robin McKinley, Susan Cooper, Brian Jacques, Patricia Wrede, Jane Yolen. The books in those boxes shaped the reader — and the person — I became.

IMG_0323In each one of those books , there was a bookmark. John Rollins Booksellers, on Westnedge Avenue in Portage, the town with the mall near my grandparents’ tiny Michigan village. I had dozens of these bookmarks. John Rollins Booksellers has been closed for some time now, but when I visited my grandparents’ house this summer, I found these bookmarks in books all over their study.

It’s only now, during my second holiday shopping season here at Parnassus, that I realize: The books that changed my life were probably put into my grandparents’ hands by somebody much like myself. Somebody at John Rollins Booksellers who saw someone like you in the children’s section and walked over and asked, “Is there anything I can help you find?” Somebody who listened to my grandmother describe her ten-year-old granddaughter, who had recently discovered CS Lewis and Narnia, who had loved The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, who wasn’t afraid of length or complex vocabulary, who loved to crawl inside stories and be transported. And that somebody said, “Oh, I know just the book for her.”

IMG_0322My grandmother passed away five years ago, on my 23rd birthday. Most of the books from those boxes under our tree are still at my parents’ house, where they’ll stay until I stop moving from apartment to apartment and have a house of my own. But that copy of Sabriel has traveled with me — to college in Boston, grad school in Austin, a book festival in Texas where Garth Nix himself signed it. Like most of the books, there’s an inscription on the endpapers in my grandmother’s handwriting, though she signs it from both her and my grandfather. I don’t have much to remind me of my grandmother, but I have this book, and I have the hundreds, maybe thousands, of books for young people I’ve read in the years since it sat under my Christmas tree.

So I’m serious when I tell you, I’d really love to help you find the perfect book for the child you’re shopping for. I know it could change their life.

– Stephanie Appell, assistant manager, books for young readers

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Ah, memories.

Sabriel (Paperback)

Lirael (Paperback)

Abhorsen (Paperback)