How a Librarian Changed My Life By Aaron Hartzler

Like most kids, from elementary school on up, I did my dead-level best to fit in. I always had a good group of friends, but there were still things about me for which I was teased: I have big ears, and big lips, and like to wear bright colors, and those were all things for which I was picked on.

There were older guys who used to ask me if I was “half black” because I had big lips—as if all black people have big lips; as if being black were some sort of problem.

There were older guys who said my voice sounded “like a girl”—as if calling me a girl were the worst put-down they could think of.

There were older guys who called me a “fairy”—as if being gay was something that was horrible and hilarious, and something over which I had control.

Worst of all, my family believed in a God who could read my thoughts. He loved me, and he knew exactly what I was thinking. And the things I was thinking about other boys? Well, that part he hated.

So, I tried my hardest to do as many things as I could to fit in as many places as possible. I ran track, and played in the band, and sang in the choir, and played the piano at church, and did theatre at school.

Luckily, there was also one other thing I did during those years:

I read.

I didn’t read websites, because there weren’t any.

I didn’t read blogs, because there weren’t any of those either.

I read books.

And do you know what I found out in books?

I found out that there were other kids who were popular, but didn’t ever feel like they fit in. There were other kids who were unpopular and picked on even more than I was.

I read books that told me that there were boys who liked other boys, and girls who liked other girls, and people who were straight as an arrow, but also queer as a football bat.

I found out that there were other people who didn’t fit in anywhere at all, and that this was not only okay, it was an asset.

I learned many things by reading books, but mainly?

I learned that I was not alone.

Books showed me that people who were weird as teenagers grew up to be interesting adults. Books showed me that there were places for people like me. One of those places was New York. Another was Los Angeles. Books showed me that when I was an adult, if I could just hang on and get out of the house, that I would be able to choose my own family, my own friends—that I could find my own tribe.

And there was a single librarian, whose name I do not know, who got all of this started.

When I was in second grade at the Blue Ridge Christian School in Kansas City, Missouri, my teacher, Cynthia LeDoux read aloud from a book after lunch every day.

After finishing Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill, Mrs. LeDoux started a new book called Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. It was written by a woman named Judy Blume, and I had never heard anything quite like it.

This was a book where the kids didn’t go to church. They didn’t pray before meals. I decided it was my new favorite book. I also decided that Mrs. LeDoux read far too slowly.

I was so excited by something about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, that the next week, when my Mom took me and my three younger siblings to the public library, I found the shelf where all of the Blume books were kept. Turns out, it was just above a shelf full of books I had already read by a woman named Beverly Cleary—all about a girl named Beezus and her sister Ramona.

I checked out every Judy Blume book I could find and took them home. That night, I finished Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and just as I opened Super Fudge, my Mom came into the room, and asked what I was reading.

I was so excited to show her, and tell her all about these amazing books. But instead of being excited, she was upset. I remember watching her face fall as she paged through a book about a girl named Margaret and then took Super Fudge out of my hands and told me how these were not good books. That the characters in these books did not love Jesus. That these books were written by a woman who didn’t love Jesus.

I asked my mom when she had met Judy Blume, and how she knew that Judy didn’t love Jesus. My mom just said that she could tell by the way the characters talked back to their parents, and the things that they thought about, and the next day, my mother called Mrs. LeDoux, and made her stop reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to my second grade class.


I had already read it.

And more importantly, I’d had another experience.

I was eight years old, and a few days before, I had taken every Judy Blume book I could find to the front desk of the library. And a woman behind that desk had clicked my library card through the machine, and stamped every single book with the due date on a little card in the front (because this was the olden days…)

And then, an amazing thing had happened. That librarian slid every single one of those Judy Blume books across the counter towards me with a knowing smile and said, “Oh! I see you’ve found some good books.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but that librarian changed my life.

When my mom made Mrs. LeDoux stop reading Judy Blume in our second grade classroom, that was my first experience with censorship. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was called back then, but I did know something else:

There was a whole group of adults who checked books out to kids at the library who thought that it was just fine that I read Judy Blume. In fact, they thought Judy Blume books were good.

It was the first moment when it dawned on me that there was a group of grown-ups who thought differently about things than my parents did, and this realization opened a window in my eight-year-old brain. It was a new vantage point from which to view the world.

I want to say a special thank you for the work that librarians do. I know it may seem thankless at times—with funding dwindling and the Internet snarling at the door—but please, please, never underestimate the impact you are having every day.

Never underestimate the smile you give an eight-year-old who pushes a stack of books towards you across that counter, or asks for help sliding them through the automatic scanner robot, or however it happens these days.

Because of someone like you standing watch at the gate, my life was forever altered. You are sentinels of open knowledge, the guardians of creativity, and I do not consider this hyperbole. Neither should you.

The unspoken message of the woman who said to me, “Oh! I see you’ve found some good books!” was that there was no book on the shelves in that section that I was not allowed to read. There was no knowledge that was off limits to me.

The quiet power of this unspoken message from the men and women behind that desk at the library made me a reader, and a writer. Because of your quiet voices, I found my own. And for that, I will be forever in your debt.


AARON HARTZLER is the author of the critically acclaimed YA memoir Rapture Practice. What We Saw is his first work of fiction. Set against a backdrop that is ripped from the headlines, Hartzler creates an engrossing examination of the guilt and innocence held by a group of friends at a small-town house party where a girl has been raped—and the truth has been covered up.

WHAT WE SAW * ISBN: 9780062338747 * On sale now! * HarperTeen