The first children’s room I was in charge of was at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library, in the South Bronx. It was a venerable Carnegie library, the oldest in the Bronx.
The children’s room occupied the whole second floor, with huge windows on three sides that pivoted, letting in the sun and wind all summer. Round radiators with marble tops warmed the room in winter.
The Mott Haven neighborhood was alive with children. They came trooping up the stairs and fanned out into the space and light of that gracious room. The senior clerk for the room was a warm and talented neighborhood woman named Caroline Williams. She took me in hand and I happily followed her lead.
“We need some diapers up here,” Caroline told me. And so we had diapers.
“We can get free lunches for these kids in the summertime,” she instructed. So we had lunches provided by a city program.
My favorite memory of Caroline Williams was the time she said, “I’m calling up some families we haven’t seen in awhile, telling them we’ve got a new librarian now.”
Soon a troop of children arrived with armloads and boxes of books overdue by eons. Mrs. Williams kept piling them on a book cart, thanking the kids for finding them. We never asked where the books had been, or questioned their condition. We welcomed those children back and they joined the crowd of regulars.
I have so many memories of Mott Haven:
- showing a luminous new print of The Red Balloon to a room filled with at least three hundred children. We gasped together at the brilliant colors, and the image of the boy carried by the balloons above the harsh Parisian neighborhood.
- learning to make hand puppets with Pura Belpré and watching her bring Perez and Martina to life with the slightest movement, the smallest gesture of a puppet’s head or hand.
- snowy winter afternoons when children sat near the huge, round radiators, the snow on their coats turning to steam.
- two young men approaching me an an empty subway platform. Rather than asking for my wallet, one said, “Are there any films this week, lady?” They recognized me! At twenty-four, with my young Irish face, I stood out in the neighborhood.
What a fine education I received at Mott Haven branch library, tutored by Caroline Williams and the children there. Keep the doors open, keep the children coming, make everyone welcome. Share the sun, the breezes, the warm, round radiators. And of course the books!