Over the last few years in the neighbourhoods of Victoria, British Columbia, small wooden boxes on poles have popped up on front lawns and sidewalks. Their designs vary greatly, some are rather plain, others lovingly painted and decorated, but their contents never change: they all contain books. Take one, share one, is their credo.
I have borrowed good reads from these little libraries and dropped off some of my own books, but this summer my curiosity was piqued, and I looked into how the whole thing came about. Apparently, it all started in 2009 with Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, USA. He created a cute wooden mini-model of a one-room schoolhouse to honour his late mother, a teacher, who loved reading. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. Encouraged by the positive reactions of neighbours and friends, he built several more and gave them away — and started a book sharing movement that has since spread all over the world. This year, 75,000 libraries in 85 countries were registered with what is now the Little Free Library non-profit organization, whose self-professed goal is to promote literacy and the joy of reading. Impressive.
So, to check out at what Victoria's book boxes have to offer — and because I have always wondered how it would be to go on a book tour — I decided, on a whim, to take my first novel Trina Bell's Humming Summer on a library tour of a different kind.
I travelled by foot in the early morning, thus limiting myself to book boxes within walking distance — my James Bay and Fairfield neighbourhoods are an appropriate choice as Trina Bell's Humming Summer and its upcoming sequel How To Make A Peacock Smile (expected publication May 2019) are mainly set in these areas of Victoria.
Though the tour venues were on the small side, an 'author reading' happened nevertheless: I studied the blurbs on the backs of each library's offerings to find the one most appealing to my book's protagonist and me. Trina and I visited fifteen amazing neighbourhood book exchange boxes and had a lot of fun. Please see below for the titles we met, and the selfies Trina took :)
GOVERNMENT STREET, JAMES BAY
We started our tour at The Little Library on Government Street, a well-kept book box surrounded by roses, with a nice wooden bench next to it inviting the visitors to take their time picking a read. Trina and I were welcomed by Catherine Cookson's The Fifteen Streets, one of the English novelist's earliest works (first published in 1952). Cookson wrote almost 100 books and sold more than 123 million copies — a great role model for an aspiring author.
The blurb told us: 'Cookson's irresistible plotting, scene-setting, and characterization have made her a recognized master of historical and romance fiction, and she always delivers a satisfying happy ending.' (Much to be learned from this, and it has a dashing young lad on the cover.) Also, this title is very fitting for the fifteen little libraries — on fifteen streets — featured in this post. Not a bad start for our tour.
NIAGARA STREET, JAMES BAY
Our second stop book box is located in the outside sitting area of a tiny grocery store on Niagara Street. It offers books for kids and adults (as well as a checkers game). Trina and I thought it in need of some TLC and tidying up (but that can happen when you show up unannounced).
There wasn't any discussion, though, about which title to choose: If there are talking animals, count us in! Animal Stories (first published in 1995) is a lovely compilation of short stories about cats, dogs, mice, and hedgehogs, written by Dick King-Smith, the creator of the famous and beloved shepherd-pig, Babe (the nicely-illustrated hardcover also includes an excerpt from Babe: The Gallant Pig, basis for the Oscar-nominated movie).
There is something to be said for children's stories that are able to charm kids and adults alike.
MENZIES STREET, JAMES BAY
Who did lurk in this lovely little library on Menzies Street, but Harriet the Spy. Though this beloved classic (first published in 1964) is now middle-aged, Harriet is as smart and inquisitive as ever.
Yet, she was reluctant to leave her hiding place, and so Trina snuggled up with her in this cute little book box building (not only does it have an adorable entrance but a working clock in the middle of the gable) while I enjoyed the ocean view at the end of the street.
I don't have a clue what they talked about, but it might have involved absent parents, the challenges of being precocious, making a lot of observations, and publishing a book one day.
(Maybe they also complained that the windows are getting a bit dirty.)
LADYSMITH STREET, JAMES BAY
Arriving at this well-stocked Community Book Box on Ladysmith Street (close to the cruise ship terminal at Victoria's Ogden Point), Trina and I were ready for a good mystery. When the book review quote on the back of The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman (first published in 1971) informed us that 'Mrs. Pollifax gives Agatha Christie's Miss Marple a rival to reckon with', we got excited: another female amateur sleuth, yeah! But the book cover showed a lady's hat adorned with feathers (if you have read Trina Bell's Humming Summer, you know that's an issue). Mrs. Pollifax told us, though, she uses it to hide eight forged passports when she volunteers for the CIA, so we forgave her and picked her story (which turned out to be a rather fun spy adventure). Besides, it is number three in a successful ten book series (wink, wink, nudge, nudge — Trina would really like me to finish number two in hers).
TORONTO STREET, JAMES BAY
The book waiting for Trina and me in Ruby's Cute Little Library on Toronto Street was A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (first published in 1980).
This slim Booker Prize nominee (the Penguin Modern Classic paperback has only 85 pages) deals with some of the grimmer issues of life.
The protagonist recalls the summer he spent working in a small village in Yorkshire, trying to uncover a mural in the local church. During his stay, he heals from the emotional injuries caused by his experiences in the Great War and a broken marriage. He finds 'he has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life' (quote from the book's description on the back).
Trina was able to relate to that whole-heartedly, as she knows all about transformative summers.
However, the blurb said also: 'Carr's great art is to make it clear that joy is inseparable from the pain and oblivion which unmake it: People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.'
After such serious stuff, we were looking forward to snatch happiness somewhere else and find some fluff to read around the corner.
POWELL STREET, JAMES BAY
In this regard, the book box on Powell Street (plain but functional and well-stocked) did not disappoint. Trina and I ran into The Identicals from New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand, queen of the easy, breezy beach read.
It is a light-hearted summertime story (published in 2017) about twins who couldn't be any less alike, and takes place on two islands off the east coast of the USA. Summer, beaches, islands, sisters — yes, please! (Although we were not really in need of a novel to transport us to a summery island shore, as it was August and we were about ten minutes walking distance from our favorite beach at Clover Point.)
Trina wondered if there would be sea glass mentioned, and pointed out that the topic of estranged twins is also found in Trina Bell's Humming Summer.
MICHIGAN STREET, JAMES BAY
This nice little venue on the grounds of South Park Elementary School (please note the fancily decorated pole) offered us One Hundred Million Hearts (published in 2003) by Canadian writer Kerri Sakamoto. The story deals with the experience of Japanese Canadians, but I have to admit Trina chose the book solely for the picture of a cherry blossom on the dust jacket.
Haven't we all judged a book by its cover before? Trina had a good reason, of course. As you might know, her friend Sweet Pea is a cherry blossom nectar loving hummingbird enamoured with Victoria's ornamental Japanese cherry trees.
To quote Sweet Pea here for a moment: “Only in very few places outside of Japan can you find a comparable splendour and variety. Some of them are over one hundred years old. The early kinds start in March, and throughout spring, canopies of blossoms adorn the city until the wind takes down the last flowers in May. Imagine sidewalks lined with petals as if a swarm of little flower girls has prepared them for a special couple. Oh, the different tints and colours. Most trees bloom in cream white or light rose, others in luminous shades of pink. A feast for the eyes. And when you look at them closely, you discover their individual beauty. Commonly there are five petals to a cherry blossom, but some species have tufts of blossoms consisting of ten, twenty or more tender petals. Isn’t that delightful?”
Ahem, yes, thank you, Sweet Pea.
(As Trina's friend Moss wisely pointed out once, "Please, don't start her on cherry trees!")
MARIFIELD STREET, JAMES BAY
There was a notable encounter in the Book Exchange on quiet Marifield Street, shaded by an evergreen tree: Trina met the first novel ever written in Canada — and indeed in North America!
The History of Emily Montague was penned in 1763 by English author and playwright Frances Brooke when she visited her husband, who at the time was chaplain to the British garrison in Quebec. An example of 18th century epistolary romance fiction (yes, Trina, it's letters people send to each other, 228 in this case), it brims with witty and lighthearted reflections and observations of life in Canada at the time, and descriptions of its overwhelming, awe-inspiring nature. The book is of great historic value, though its views on many topics are quite outdated today.
Trina loves books that feature the names of the protagonists in the title, and as Trina Bell's Humming Summer is my first novel written in Canada — and indeed ever! — this pick was a no-brainer.
BATTERY STREET, JAMES BAY
A hummingbird squealed above our heads when we arrived at the little library on Battery Street — as if to announce this helpful and hilariously appropriate find: Birding Basics (first published in 2002), written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley, the American ornithologist who has created many 'indispensable resources for all birders seeking authoritative and portable guides' as the blurb informed us.
That surely puts him in a league with the greats in the field, René Primevère Lesson and John Gould, two outstanding ornithologists, writers, and bird painters from the 19th century.
In Trina Bell's Humming Summer, Trina learns about them and their books when she meets Professor Finch (who is obsessed with hummingbirds and becomes her prime suspect).
We also wondered if the guide had been bought at Featherland, the wild bird store owned by the parents of Trina's friend Kiwi, who takes Trina birdwatching and gives her a hummingbird feeder as a gift.
To get to Fairfield we now had to walk through Beacon Hill Park. Trina and I decided to do a bit of birding and watched the peacocks strutting up and down the road by the petting zoo. On the woodchips by the goat enclosure, Trina found a pretty tail feather. At the park's bandstand, we stopped for a little impromptu picnic and shared a blueberry muffin.
It wasn't quite as good as the ones that Trina's friend Millicent bakes, but tasty enough.
Then we proceeded to Fairfield, where we started the second part of our little tour.
Trina feels truly at home here as her first adventure in Victoria happened in this very neighbourhood.
COLLINSON STREET, FAIRFIELD
At the Book Exchange on Collinson Street, Trina and I decided to take two titles (the little library was chock-full of good stuff for kids and adults, so it deserved the honour).
First is How Do Dinosaurs Count To Ten (published in 2004), a fun board book from bestselling, award-winning team Jane Yolen (author) and Mark Teague (illustrator).
We chose it because this neat little box on the premises of an apartment building was the tenth stop on our tour.
We also picked Teens Talk Tough Times of the Chicken Soup for the Soul variety (published in 2008) — inspirational stories about young adults coping with life's challenges — with a nod to Trina's friend Kale (a boy hiding in Beacon Hill Park because of his sensitivities to light and smells). Of course, Trina has had her own tough times growing up motherless and with a father who showed no interest in her — that is until they came to this amazing city. You can find out more for yourself when you read Trina's story.
KIPLING STREET, FAIRFIELD
Trina and I couldn't believe our eyes. A surprise was waiting for us at the Neighbourly Exchange on Kipling Street. Some of you may know already that Trina found a copy of the Manual of Seamanship, shortly after she arrived in Victoria for her first summer.
In that instance it happened to be volume one, the handbook for young seamen and cadets in the Royal Navy (printed in 1957 by Her Majesty's — the Queen of England's — Stationary Office), left by an unknown person (no doubt, a seafaring man) in the laundry room of the Royal Commodore, the apartment building Trina stayed at. This strange discovery made her aware of the fact that the Commodore might in reality be a cruise ship. She used to study it every evening before she went to sleep in case she was shanghaied during the night.
And here we were, staring at volume two: The reference book for 'ratings seeking advancement and for junior officers'!
To make things even eerier, the book box swayed whenever we touched it like a boat in heavy weather (its pole seemed not securely anchored in the ground). We almost got seasick looking at it, so we snapped the photo and took off to the next little library.
BROOKE STREET, FAIRFIELD
The cute little barn-shaped book box on Brooke Street unfortunately did not offer much we cared for, and so Trina and I settled on another title for younger readers. And who could resist the heart-melting expression on the face of the dog on the cover? Chocolate-brown eyes, sweet and pleading, looking much like Trina's three-legged friend Moss's when he is asking for a treat.
Hound at the Hospital (published in 2004) is number thirty-five in the Animal Ark series, which reminded Trina of Victoria's Wild Arc, a rehabilitation centre (think animal hospital in the woods) for wildlife in distress.
Moss had his own experience with rehabilitation after he lost one of his front legs due to — oops, that is a secret I should not give away.
OLIVE STREET, FAIRFIELD
At the Olive Street Library (cunningly constructed using the top part of an old dining room hutch), we felt a little wistful now that our tour was nearing its end. As I browsed the enormous stock in this giant book box, Trina made me a present. For a Very Special Person is a small volume of quotes about friendship (compiled by Aileene Herrbach Neighbors, published in 1976), in astoundingly pristine condition given its age.
It says on the front flap: 'A collection of tributes to faithful friends who have touched our lives in many beautiful and unforgettable ways.
These expressions of joy and gratitude provide a wonderful opportunity to put our own feelings into words.' Aww... Thank you, Trina.
The subtitle quote states: 'Some people make the world brighter just by being in it.'
That's certainly true for Trina and her friends.
CAMBRIDGE STREET, FAIRFIELD
When we arrived at the lovingly painted and decorated little library on Fairfield's Cambridge Street (with an ocean view), the unexpected happened: We got Kidnapped !
But fear not, those of you who read her story know Trina is somewhat experienced in the field (after all, she was hired to solve a curious case of 'birdnapping'), and being in a little boat at sea does not frighten her much anymore either.
So she spent a while inside the box with Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel (first published in 1886), and I walked the few metres up the road to Dallas Road. There I sat down on a bench and took in the great view: the morning sun bouncing off the bright-blue Juan de Fuca Strait and the majestic Olympic Mountains behind it.
I also mused on the book cover of Kidnapped (as I moonlight as cover designer, I must tell you that orange on orange is not a smart colour choice).
COOK STREET, FAIRFIELD
We concluded our tour in the heart of Cook Street Village with a 'big' meeting in the Little Free Library. The Best of James Herriot: Favourite Memories of a Country Vet welcomed us there, a splendid hardcover (almost too large for the tiny book box) containing a collection of the famous semi-autobiographical stories by British veterinary surgeon and writer James Alfred "Alf" Wight. He started writing at the age of fifty (I love accounts of successful writers who took up the pen later in life). In 1970 his first volume was published, called If Only They Could Talk.
Here Trina nudged me. "But they do," she whispered to me.
"Yes, I know. But maybe not where he comes from," I answered her under my breath.
Anyway, we took James Herriot and his stories out for a hot chocolate and a Nanaimo bar in Trina's favourite coffee shop at the corner of Cook and Pendergast, and passed the rest of the morning talking about All Creatures Great and Small.
Trina and I hope you enjoyed our tour as much as we did, and agree with us that little free libraries are a wonderful enrichment for any neighbourhood. If you have one close to where you live, please share some of your books — and if you don't, maybe you could take the opportunity to be a pioneer and build one. Book lovers will thank you. To learn more about the non-profit Little Free Library movement, please visit: littlefreelibrary.org