It's Not Just a Book: Jennifer S. Brown

It's Not Just a Book Blog Series LogBooks are a chance to gather with friends, a refuge from the world, an answer to a problem that felt impossible, a connection to distant people, a lifetime of inspiration. They get to you after hundreds, even thousands of hours, of work by authors, editors, copy editors, and booksellers and they stay with you, in one form or another, for your whole life. We asked local authors, booksellers, and other book industry people to reflect on their experiences writing and publishing books, the importance of books in their lives, the role of independent bookstores in our society, and why books are so much more than just words on paper.

Below is a piece entitled It's Not the End of the World by Jennifer S. Brown.

When we entered the library, I headed straight for the card catalog, knowing exactly which book I wanted. I flipped through until I’d found the card, then walked to the children’s section to the right, where I located the call number. At the age of nine, I was an expert on navigating the Dewey Decimal system. Plucking the book from the shelves, I held onto it as I chose the rest of the books for our bi-monthly trip to the library.

A petite child, I staggered under the weight of the pile, but I made my way to the checkout desk where my mom waited for me with my literary mountain and for my younger sister with her collection of Amelia Bedelia.

I set the books down, the prized book on top. My mom’s face turned a pale shade of pink as the librarian took it, looked at the book, looked at my mother, and then looked at me with a pitying expression.

“Um, why are you checking that book out?” my mom asked.

“I’m curious,” I mumbled.

My mom uncomfortably glanced between me and the librarian, and now, gazing back as an adult, I can see she was flustered, perhaps a little embarrassed, but at the time, I didn’t understand what her problem was.

“But, Jennifer,” she said in a louder-than-normal voice, making sure the librarian heard her well and good, “your father and I aren’t getting a divorce.”

I shrugged and said nothing, as the librarian raised her eyebrows skeptically, stamped the due date in the book, and handed back to me The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce by Richard Gardner. 

If I had been a more articulate child, I would have explained that I wanted to read the book because that’s the book that Val recommended to Karen in It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume. I’d also have told her the Blume book was why I was attempting—and failing—to read the entire Sunday Miami Herald from cover to cover, just like Val did with the New York Times. It was the reason I began grading each day in my diary, just like Karen did. And it was why I coveted a foot-shaped rug, just like the one that graced Val’s bedroom

But I wasn’t that articulate. So I simply said, “I want to read it.”

To my mom’s credit, she shrugged, and said, “Okay.” My mother never censored my reading material.

In 1977, the South Miami Public Library was a wee thing, barely more than one large room overflowing to the point that books were stacked in piles when they couldn’t be squeezed in on the shelves. It was housed in a coral rock building, hidden behind palm trees. We went to the library regularly because buying books was a luxury. My mother was earning her bachelor’s degree in art so money was tight. But owning books wasn’t important, because between that little library and my school library, I had access to the entire world, which was neatly shelved and cataloged and waiting for me to discover. My life was shaped not only by Judy Blume, but by Norma Klein, Lois Duncan, Carolyn Keene, and Louise Fitzhugh. I took great pride that I regularly won awards at my elementary school for most books checked out in the year, a stack of green, stapled-together cards handed back to me, recording each book I’d read.

I grew out of It’s Not the End of World, and truth be told, I never finished The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce. Turns out a book about divorce is a little boring when your parents are happily married. Besides, the next year, I was a mature ten-year-old, no longer coveting a foot-shaped rug or trying to read the Miami Herald from front to back. Who had time for such childish nonsense? Because by that fifth grade, I had something way more important to do: Convincing my sister to run away with me to the Bass Museum of Art. It may not have been the adventure that Claudia and Jamie had hiding out at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, but it was as close as I was going to get in South Florida. I’d have to learn a few things first. We had plenty of art books at home for me to consult, but I’d need to visit the library to check out books on gambling. My mom wouldn’t have a problem with that, would she?

Jennifer S. Brown has published fiction and creative nonfiction in Fiction Southeast, The Best Women's Travel Writing, The Southeast Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, and the Bellevue Literary Review, among other places. Her essay "The Codeine of Jordan" was selected as a notable essay in The Best American Travel Writing in 2012. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Washington. She is the author of the novel Modern Girls.