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Here Lies the Librarian

by Richard Peck

Dial Books, 2006

145 pages

Think back to your teen years, to the times when you sought advice on friendship, dating, college, even choosing your path in life.  Maybe you confided in a favorite teacher, picked up a teen-oriented magazine, or even asked your parents for input.

How many times did you get the response, “Just be yourself”  or “Follow your dreams”?

A lot, I’m guessing–both phrases seem to be quite popular among those who give advice to teens.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  Teens need encouragement to be themselves, to develop an authentic identity and pursue their passions.

But that’s not an easy process under the best of circumstances.  And, when a teen’s identity and/or passions are at odds with cultural norms, the process gets even harder.

This is the quandary Richard Peck tackles in Here Lies the Librarian, a funny but perceptive take on issues of teen identity, personal destiny, and social expectations.

Peck’s heroine, 14-year-old Eleanor “Peewee” McGrath, lives with her older brother Jake in rural Indiana.  The two operate a small garage out in the country, and Peewee would like nothing better than to spend the rest of her days indulging her passion for combustion engines and greasy overalls.

Problem is, it’s 1914, and girls just don’t do that sort of thing.

Now that Peewee’s on the verge of puberty, Jake is threatening her with dresses, high school, and Home Economics classes.  And the only gender-bending role model Peewee has is her neighbor Aunt Hat, who’s been pushed to the literal and figurative outskirts of society.

In short, Peewee’s world is falling apart, and she sees no way to “be herself” and still hold a functioning place in society.

Then Irene Ridpath and her friends motor into town.

Impeccably dressed and covered in social graces, they appear to be the epitome of proper ladies.  But, as Peewee quickly discovers, they drive their own cars, literally and figuratively.

The daughters of progressive, wealthy industrialists, these young women are all enrolled at Indiana University–and they’re there for the education, not to find husbands.

When they apply as a group to run the town’s recently reopened public library, they (and their progressive ideals) become a fixture in Peewee’s life.

Through their mentoring, she learns that femininity and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive, that wearing a skirt doesn’t mean giving up her dearest ambitions.  And most importantly, she learns that, if a way forward is not readily apparent, she can blaze her own trail.

As Irene firmly points out, “They don’t let women be anything, Eleanor.  You have to give yourself permission.”

So that’s what makes this book inspiring.  What makes it good is Peck’s signature blend of memorable characters, lively storyline, and rambunctious humor. 

Sometimes it’s riveting action, like the climactic dirt-track auto race; other times, a more quiet kind of drama, like the young librarians’ showdown with a patronizing board of trustees.

Then there are the sly little asides that pepper Peewee’s narrative (“Colonel Hazelrigg stumbled in next . . . Luck was with us because he had his pants on.”) and the descriptions that make you think, “There’s no better possible way to say that.”

Every page you turn, Peck somehow cracks you up and makes you think at the same time.

Throughout, the novel is authentic, confident, and engaging–much like Peewee herself by story’s end.

True, girls today don’t face the degree of social restriction Peewee encounters.  But, as I’ve written before, a confident, aggressive girl is still likely to find herself on the wrong side of cultural norms.

And, as almost any woman will tell you, there are still plenty of glass ceilings to break.  Medicine, politics, law enforcement, even the arts: they (and many others) are all fields still dominated by men.

But there are girls out there who dream of being doctors, governors, police officers, filmmakers.  And a host of other things that, even in our society, women typically don’t do.

A book like Here Lies the Librarian is ideal for those girls.  It acknowledges the challenges–and sometimes heartbreak–of going against the grain, but it also shows that unconventional dreams are perhaps the ones most worth fighting for.

What has inspired (or still inspires) you to fight for your unconventional dreams?  How do you pass that inspiration on to the girls in your life?

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