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Christmas at Huckleberry Mountain Library

by Lois Lenski

Huckleberry mountain library — the only rural library in Henderson County, North Carolina — is open for two hours every other Sunday afternoon to the mountain children, and was to be open on December 23. Packages of books from three of my publishers arrived on the 22nd, just in time for library day.

The library is a small log building, with a rock chimney at one end, sitting at the foot of the mountain, shaded by long-leafed pines. There had been three deep snows — more than this locality experiences in an entire winter — so the low-hung branches of the pine trees and the roof were white and glowing in the bright winter sun.

The children always come early, the young librarian, an educated mountain girl, said. The hours are from two to four, but often they are there by one-thirty. She has to open the door as soon as she gets there and keep it open, even at the risk of being very cold because the open door is a sign of welcome. If the children see the door closed, they may turn around and go home!

Through the weekdays, the building is unheated. So we went over early, to put up some greens and a little Christmas tree, and to get a fire started. Some young pine trees had been cleared out of the woods near by, and these Stephen chopped up. We had brought some dry wood, kindling and newspapers with us. The fireplace was filled with snow, and the chimney was very cold, so in spite of all our efforts, we never did get what you would call “a roaring fire” or any noticeable amount of heat in the room.

Wood is a problem. The mountains are full of it, but there is no one to chop it, and so there is no wood to buy. The Library Association (members of the Huckleberry Art Colony, active here in the summers) have tried to get the local people to do something toward “their library” and at one time suggested that each child bring a stick of wood each time he came. But it did not work. The children would pick up a dead branch as they walked along and bring that. Dead branches do not make good firewood. So what is gathered is usually what the librarian goes out and chops herself — and that is apt to be too green to burn.

The children looked so pretty as they came down the road across the snow. They were all dressed in their best — their coats and caps and mittens of bright colors — and had their hair neatly combed. They did not look ragged or tousled as they usually do at home. I was struck by the beauty and sweetness of their faces. Their natural shyness and quietness make their sweetness all the more appealing. There is a large proportion of redheads among them, evidence of a strong Scotch strain. They are apt to be small for their age. A boy, who looked to me to be about six, told me he was ten and in the fifth grade. Their clothes were pretty but not warm. The girls had thin cotton dresses on under their light summer-weight coats. Some (especially a group who had come all the way down the mountain) came in shaking and shivering, and their bare legs were blue with the cold.

We all huddled up as close to our feeble fire as we could. I told the boys to leave their caps on to keep their heads warm. When the door was kept closed, we began to warm up a little, but while we were keeping it open for possible late-comers, it was like trying to heat the whole out-of-doors.

The librarian was late and when she came in she was surprised to see a crowd of children all settled by the fire — some on chairs and a bench, others on empty nail kegs and the rest on the floor, examining the new books I had brought. There was little articulate expression, but if you could have seen the bright, eager look on the children’s faces, you would have understood what these bright, clean books meant to them. Most of the books already in the library are secondhand, and very much used, if not worn out.

We had a lovely time together. For an hour and a half we forgot how cold we were, and the children listened with rapt attention while I talked to them about books and pictures. Most of them were young, so I showed them Mr. Small, and talked of his many adventures, because I find that Mr. Small has an almost universal age appeal. Or, perhaps I should say that he is ageless! The oldest boy in the group, who looked to be fifteen or sixteen, listened as closely as the youngest, a four-year-old. He gave no indication, either direct or implied, that the books were too young for him. He was particularly interested to learn how Pilot Small made the airplane go.

The shyness of the mountain children before a stranger means almost complete inarticulateness. I have never seen or talked to such a well-behaved group of children before. There was no squirming or restlessness, but complete and undivided attention. Their lips spoke few words, but their eyes spoke volumes, and there were many spontaneous laughs. They work hard — I have seen them feeding the stock, working in the fields, and carrying their innumerable buckets of water — and they have few pleasures at home. In many homes, no games are allowed. They are repressed by parents at home and by teachers at school. Their lives are dumb and colorless. What a bright and happy world, in contrast to their own, they will enter through books! No wonder they are avid for them. No wonder they broke out now and then in spontaneous bursts of laughter!

A few were stony-faced throughout. One, a fat-faced girl of about eleven, showed no sign of emotion the entire time. I would have given a great deal to know what she was thinking. And one little four-year-old girl sat solemnly on her older sister’s lap, her lips pressed tightly together, solemn and scared, not a smile the entire time. I tried my best to rouse her to some kind of response, but failed. I was glad to see her go home with Spring Is Here clutched tightly in her fist; and her older sister, ten, with Let’s Play House.

The Little Farm came closest to them, because it touched their own experience. They have all milked cows, fed chickens and pigs, picked apples, helped in the fields, etc. They roared over the picture of bringing the cow in from the pasture. One girl forgot herself and burst out: “Some cows is jest stubborn and won’t go where you want ’em. You have to send the dog atter ’em!” One boy said he picked apples, but they were green ones and gave him a stomach-ache. When they saw Farmer Small chopping wood, they laughed most of all. I asked: “Do you boys chop wood?” and the girls broke in: “We chop wood too!” One said: “I help my brother with the crosscut saw.” Getting in wood is probably one of their most constant and disagreeable chores, but to them it was the funniest picture in the book.

While refreshments were passed around — candy, nuts and cookies — the children turned in the books they had brought back, and made their selections to take home, chiefly among the new books, of course.

A twelve-year-old boy — a neighbor who is less shy because he is getting acquainted — bragged boldly, “I can read five books in a week!” He selected an old-fashioned book about a pioneer boy, and I glanced over the pictures with him. One showed a boy, knife in hand, trying to catch a wild turkey. I said, “He’s going right after the turkey, isn’t he?” Charles laughed and said: “Looks like the turkey’s comin’ right atter him!”

There is no limit to the number of books they can take. Some take only one, others take three or four at a time. Their parents start reading them, too, often aloud to the younger children; or the older children read them aloud to the younger. Then sometimes, the librarian said, they will come and ask for a book for mother. She said that often the younger children choose a book simply by its color and often get books too old for them, and she doesn’t want them to get discouraged. So I went over all their books and made a selection for “easiest reading.” We cleared two of the lowest shelves for these, and now she can direct the younger children to them, with, we hope, happier results in selection.

Not all the mountain children within walking distance come for books. One mother, who is so religious she won’t have checkers or any other game in the house for her nine children, says she does not want them to read because it interferes with their work. Many of the families weave rag rugs, making use of “loopers” of knit stocking material, obtained from a textile mill as waste. These circular knit loops have to be looped together and rolled into large balls, and even four-year-olds can do it. The older children take turns weaving the rugs, if there is only one loom. If they have more than one loom, all nine children are expected to weave rather than to read. But a book found its way even into this home. It was a real joy to me, upon entering the cheerless, dark, low-ceilinged room, to see a little girl squatting by the fireplace, reading a library book!

There are other parents who are eager for their children to have books. Three families combined and sent a small gift, with a Christmas card and a note of thanks, to the young librarian. I was told that this was the first spontaneous sign of appreciation coming from the mountain people themselves.

The children were shy in their thanks and goodbyes. A fourteen-year-old girl really spoke for the group. She told me she was “mighty glad to meet me” and to know that I could write books and draw pictures too! She thanked me for coming, wished me a Merry Christmas, and asked me to come and visit her on the top of the mountain.

As I watched the children go, I looked up to see the winter sun setting behind the mountain, and I was happy in the thought that books will bring them wider horizons. Books will help them, as nothing else can, to see beyond the mountains to a world much larger than their own. As the young librarian’s cheerful voice rang out over the snow, in the customary parting greeting of the mountain people, “You-all come back!” I knew that they would come back, again and again, to live in the wonderful world of books.

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