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LIBRARY MYSTERY:

Who Stole Frank Yerby?

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LIBRARY MYSTERY:

Who Stole the Frank Yerby Book?

by Jim Trelease © 2013

Most of us enjoy looking at the out-takes that frequently run with movie end credits these days, scenes that had to be cut but still were worthy of a tag-on performance. Every author has experienced the same dashed feelings when space or other considerations required him or her to slash a favorite scene or anecdote from a manuscript. Until blogs and the Web came along, there was no way for authors to attach them to the end pages.

Here, therefore, is my favorite anecdote that didn't make it to the finish line of my seventh edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook.

old bookshelf

"R"ECENTLY the author-entrepreneur Seth Godin offered the following definition of the modern librarian: "The librarian isn't a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user."1

For the most part, Godin was on target, although secondary librarians working with students who want to do just "enough to get by" might demur over the last part. I personally would add two more qualifications to the definition: spy and people-reader. In support, I offer the following anecdote from NPR's 2009 "Story Corps" files in which Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Olly Neal told his daughter how he went from operating on the fringe of delinquency to college and law school. ("Story Corps"2 is part of a national oral history project associated with the Library of Congress.)

Neal's story began one day in the high school library in segregated Marianna, Arkansas. At this point in his life he was the epitome of "at-risk": One of thirteen children in a home without electricity, daily tormentor of teachers (he loved calling them by their first names and reducing them to tears), with a history of shoplifting and using his mouth more than his brain. On this occasion, Neal was cutting class and hiding out in the library when he spotted a book on the shelf by Frank Yerby, at that time a little-known black author of adult novels. Between the risqué cover and text, Neal was intrigued enough to want more. There was a problem, however.

If he took the book over to the library checkout counter, the girls attending it would notice and surely tell his peers that he was taking books out. "Then my reputation would be down, because I was reading books," Neal explained to his daughter, Karama. "And I wanted them to know that all I could do was fight and cuss."

magnifying glass over book coverIn keeping with his established shoplifting talents, Neal stuffed the book under his coat and walked out. When he finished it, back he went to return it, only to find another Yerby novel in its place. "So I thought, 'Maybe I'll read that, too.' So I took it under my jacket," Neal said. "Later, I brought it back, and there was, by God — there was another book by Frank Yerby! So I took it."

All together he read four Yerby novels that semester and a habit was formed that lead to newspapers and magazines and eventually to college, law school, and a judgeship. Lifetime readers often meet one book that towers above all others, a volume or author that "hooked" them so deeply they were pulled for life into the ocean of deep reading. Neal, an African American, had no idea Yerby was the first African-American to write an American bestseller, the first to sell a book to the movies, and the first to become a millionaire from his writings (55 million books sold). Langston Hughes got the attention and fame, but Yerby got the sales and money. All Neal knew was a good story when he met it, sometimes helped by a risqué cover.

But Neal was ignorant of something else as well, something he wouldn't discover until a high school class reunion years later when he chanced to meet his former teacher-librarian, Mildred Grady. To his surprise, she clearly remembered the Yerby incident. "She told me that she saw me take that book when I first took it. She said, 'My first thought was to go over there and tell him, Boy, you don't have to steal a book, you can check them out—they're free!'" (Grady had established the school's library a few years earlier.)

It's here that the librarian-spy becomes a people-reader. Neal explained, "She realized what my situation was—that I could not let anybody know I was reading." But she also recognized an open window of opportunity. "She and Mrs. Saunders would drive to Memphis and find another one [Yerby book] for me to read—and they would put it in the exact same place where the one I'd taken was. You've got to understand that this was not an easy matter then— because this is 1957 and '58," Neal said. "And black authors were not especially available, No. 1. And No. 2, Frank Yerby was not such a widely known author. And No. 3, they had to drive all the way to Memphis [50 miles] to find it."3 She also paid for the books out of her own pocket.

There are incalculable benefits from a librarian or teacher who knows what their students are reading, who knows Billy is crazy about the Alex Rider series and when she sees in the catalog that the next book is out, exclaims, "Hey, Billy—good news!" On such solid ground is built a lifetime reader. And as Olly Neal knows, it also creates a lifetime debt to that librarian or teacher. And one more thing: The reading seldom stops at one generation. Neal's daughter Karama owns a doctorate in genetics.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Seth Godin, "The future of the library," Seth Godin's Blog, online at http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/05/the-future-of-the-library.html.
  2. Online at http://storycorps.org/.
  3. Judge Neal's conversation with his daughter Karama can be heard online at http://storycorps.org/listen/stories/judge-olly-neal-and-his-daughter-karama/. See also Nicholas D. Kristof, "How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal," New York Times Op-ed, January 22, 2012, p. SR13.
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