For someone who loves children’s books as much as I do, it’s rather pathetic how little time my daughters and I have spent inside a library. In fact, we’ve been just twice in Eloise’s three years. Our most recent visit lasted less than 10 minutes – about 30 seconds after settling into the children’s section, my girls were racing in opposite directions through the stacks, screeching back and forth in high-pitch tones like dolphins using echolocation. With a girl under each arm, I left embarrassed.
In all honesty, though, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. I have more than a handful of memories of being asked to leave the library after particularly disruptive behavior on the part of my younger sisters and myself (yelling, running and hair-pulling were not uncommon).
When I came across Michelle Knudsen’s “Library Lion,” I was fondly reminded of those trouble-making days. I felt an immediate kinship with the author’s curious lion, who wanders into the library one day and has trouble following the rules.
When the lion walks through the library’s front doors, the circulation desk attendant, Mr. McBee, is startled by the big cat’s presence. While the lion finds a comfortable place to enjoy the children’s story hour, Mr. McBee goes running to the office of head librarian Miss Merriweather. She, however, is not fazed by her assistant’s report but does chastise Mr. McBee for running in the library.
“But there’s a lion!” said Mr. McBee. “In the library!”
“Is he breaking any rules?” asked Miss Merriweather. She was very particular about rule breaking.
“Well, no,” said Mr. McBee. “Not really,”
“Then leave him be.”
And so, the lion is allowed to sit through story hour. But when the books are closed and the children all get up to leave, he roars in protest. Miss Merriweather, of course, is not happy. The lion is informed that he will only be allowed back at the library if he can learn to keep quiet.
The lion returns the next day a model patron. In fact, he becomes a beloved fixture at the library, helping Miss Merriweather with dusting and stamp licking and helping children reach books on the top shelves. He wins over everyone – everyone except Mr. McBee, that is:
“Lions, he thought, could not understand rules. They did not belong in a library.”
Mr. McBee is eager for an excuse to banish the lion once and for all. He’s certain he has found just cause when the lion comes tearing down the hall and lets out his loudest roar right in Mr. McBee’s face. After dishing out a harsh reprimand, Mr. McBee takes off toward Miss Merriweather’s office intent on tattling only to find that Miss Merriweather had fallen and broken her arm, hence the lion’s urgency.
Before anyone can thank the lion, he leaves, certain his rule breaking has made him unwelcome. Days go by, and Miss Merriweather and the rest of the patrons miss him sorely. His conscience heavy, Mr. McBee tracks down the sulking lion and offers an olive branch.
“I thought you might like to know,” said Mr. McBee, “That there’s a new rule at the library. No roaring allowed, unless you have a very good reason – say, if you’re trying to help a friend who’s been hurt, for example.”
To everyone’s delight, the lion returns to the library the next day.
Libraries, with their insistence on quiet and decorum, are often intimidating places for children. Knudsen’s lion embodies young readers’ struggle to adhere to the rules in the midst of their excitement at exploring this novel place. The lion’s redemption gives a child hope that they, too, have a place at the library, even if they do slip up once or twice.
Prior to writing and editing children’s books, Knudsen worked in libraries in New York City and Ithaca, New York. One imagines that her experiences in the field (including rule enforcement) have likely influenced her work. In an interview on a fellow author’s blog, Knudsen says, “We did occasionally get animal visitors at the Cornell library – birds, squirrels, the occasional dog that got tired of waiting for its owner to come back out – but never any lions, I’m fairly certain.”
Like many of us, both Knudsen and illustrator Kevin Hawkes have treasured memories of childhood days spent at the library. Hawkes, who grew up in a roving military family, says the one constant of his youth was the feeling of home he found in libraries he visited in each new city.
“Every library in the world smells the same – they all smell like old books,” he said in a YouTube video about the book. “I could go to the library and see all of my friends there – different books that I had read at various places in my life. And it was a very comforting experience.”
Using acrylic paints and pencil, Hawkes has crafted timeless illustrations that honor our ubiquitous reverence for libraries. The soft color palette makes me think of the muted spines of old books. His rendering of Knudsen’s lion is both huggably sweet and nobly stoic, immediately bringing to mind the marble lions guarding the New York Public Library.
Knudsen’s endearing story, paired with Hawkes’ charming images, result in a library etiquette manual served with a spoonful of sugar. When I read the book aloud, I editorialize a bit, taking extra pains to emphasize the moral of the story: “Oh, that poor lion. He has to sit outside in the cold, cold rain because he yelled and ran in the library. He’s sooo sad.” Maybe with a few dozen more readings our family will be prepared for a return trip to the library.