Thank you very much for selecting The War That Saved My Life for the 2016 Judy Lopez award. This novel is my sixteenth published book, it's the best work I've done so far, and I'm thrilled with the recognition it's getting.
I have to tell you, Los Angeles amazes me. I grew up in northern Indiana, and have lived for the last twenty years on a farm on the edge of a small town in rural upper East Tennessee, so Los Angeles feels like a different universe. Everybody is up in everybody's business in Bristol. As an example: I once came home to a voicemail message from our public library that said, "Kim, the book you requested on hold has come in. We'll keep it reserved for you until Thursday, so you can just swing by Wednesday and pick it up on your way to Faith in Action." Faith in Action is the social justice center where I work on Wednesdays.
I visited the Bristol library on Thursday—two days ago. When I handed in my wildly overdue book—Matt de la Pena's The Hunted, which I found stacked in the piles in my office, the desk clerk asked when my sequel would be published. When Citrus, the parrot in the children's department, saw me, she immediately started ringing the bell in her cage, because she not only recognizes me but knows I know where the librarians stash the sunflower seeds. In the main stacks, the card catalog server was down, so I asked the reference librarian—who will sometimes put new books on reserve for me without my asking her to, because she thinks they'll be helpful to my research—who was the author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. "Oh, the Flavia de Luce books," she said. "That's Allen Bradley. And when you've finished the first one, Kim, come tell me because there's one passage I'd like your opinion on."
It's not that I'm any sort of celebrity. It's that in my town the librarians know everyone well. Our library attracts a lot of homeless people and when we rebuilt and expanded it a few years ago we put gas fires in the atrium with comfortable chairs nearby so the homeless would have somewhere good to sit. Now I know most of you all live in a much more populated area, and I know you've got lots of actual celebrities hereabouts, but my guess is that those of you who are librarians still know many of your patrons very well.
Librarians are my superheroes. They always have been and always will be. I'd like to tell you all a story to remind you that every time you connect a patron to a book, you have the potential to do more good than you ever realized.
Once upon a time, there was a small girl growing up with her older brother and her dying baby brother and later a sister, in a working-class neighborhood in a large industrial city. The girl's grandparents had all been immigrants with working-class backgrounds; they came to America and worked hard jobs in factories all their lives. Some of them learned English but several of them never did. The girl's parents learned English at school, not at home. They had to go to work young to help support their families and neither completed a year of high school. When the little girl was in elementary school her father was injured at work; her family lost their house and had to move back in with the non-English-speaking grandparents. There were no books in that crowded house. The adults living there were too preoccupied with survival to notice the absence of books.
But one day, quite by chance, the little girl walked into the public library downtown. She didn't really know what a library was. The librarians, though, were kind to her; they helped her get something called a library card, and they showed her books she could take home to read. Pretty soon the little girl was taking the bus downtown to the library every Saturday morning. She loved the books. She loved the librarians. When she reached high school, her first paid job was in that public library.
Now I'm going to tell you about another little girl. Me. One of my very first memories is of tumbling down the stairs in our small first house, landing more scared than hurt at the bottom, and my mother scooping me up to comfort me. She sat down with me in her black rocking chair, reached for one of the books that was always stacked beside it, and read to me. It soothed me. It always did.
When I was a tiny bit older my mother started to run her finger beneath the words on the page as she read them to me. Sometimes she'd stop at a word, and it would be my turn to read that word out loud. I can't remember learning to read. In my memory I always could. I certainly always did.
Many facets of my life were not easy and books were a constant certain refuge. But I wasn't alone in this. The public library of my hometown allowed each person with a library card to check out 8 books at a time, for a two-week period. I don't remember ever paying a late fee to that library, for the simple reason that we made very sure to go at least every two weeks. But the eight-book limit was a problem. I'd scan the rows in the children's department, sliding books into my arms, then realize that I had nine books, or ten, and that they all looked like good books and I couldn't possibly put any back. So I'd go find my mother in the adults' section and ask her to check out a few books for me on her card.
And she would say no.
Not because she objected in theory. Because she would have nine books in her own arms, or ten, and be unable to put any back.
So we'd gang up on my little brother and make him check the extras out for us.
I grew up in a house full of books. I grew up immersed in books. That, more than anything, made me a writer.
The first little girl, whose family spoke Polish and who wandered into the public library of Gary, Indiana, was my mother. The librarians changed my mother's world in ways that created mine. I could never have written The War That Saved My Life without that long-ago woman who was kind to an immigrant's child.
The War That Saved My Life came out of some very dark places in my life, but it also came out of light. It came from a houseful of books. My mother reads my books in manuscript form, and I remember her staying up late one night, slowing reading The War That Saved My Life. In the morning she said, "It's really good, Kim. It's your best one yet."
I hope you'll remember, tomorrow and next week and next year, that you never know the influence you're going to have. By loving books, and promoting books, and increasing access to books, you are making room for art in peoples' lives. You are improving the world.
Thank you very much indeed.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley