Love Letters To Libraries: Jane Ray

Our next writer in our Love Letters to Libraries series, is the inestimable Jane Ray. Jane has illustrated over 70 children’s books and has worked with authors such as Michael Rosen, Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, Dianne Hofmeyr and Kevin Crossley Holland. She is IBBY UK’s nomination for the 2108 Hans Christian Andersen Award, alongside Melvin Burgess.

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Why I Like Libraries

A love of libraries was instilled in me early by my parents, whose own families had few educational aspirations and certainly no money for books. The local library had been crucial to their educational development and they were the first in their families not to leave school at 14 but to go on to Higher Education, and careers as teachers. So my mum took me and my sisters to our library every Thursday evening, teaching us how the library worked and how to find the books we might enjoy.

I have fond memories of that first local library of my childhood – the smell of books, the pink cardboard tickets in their little buff coloured envelopes, the rubber date stamp and the pleasure of leaving with an armful of new possibilities – Noel Streatfield, Tove Janson, Louisa M Alcott, Milly Molly Mandy, My Naughty Little Sister, Teddy Robinson… so many new friends!

There was no library at Primary school, but Secondary School had a wonderfully well-stocked library with an enthusiastic librarian and a selection of art books that filled me with complete joy! Here I discovered how a fresco was painted, the drawings of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and the illustrations of Arthur Rackham.

There was a sense of growth, of independence, in being free to select books that developed my interests in art, that began to signpost the direction I might go in. (I do also have to admit here, with suitable shame, that for a while I was a part of a group of very noisy girls at school who loved being in the library but talked and mucked about and eventually got barred… not my finest hour – sorry Mrs Brooke!)

School libraries and skilled specialist School Librarians are a vital (and vanishing) part of every school. Occasionally, usually through the unstinting fund raising efforts of Parent Teacher groups, a new library is opened in a primary school – I have been lucky enough to be asked to cut the ribbon for a few of these and they are such a joy and cause for celebration – bright, airy colourful rooms, with cushions, pictures and books, books, books…

My first experience of a proper ‘grown up’ scholarly library was when I was writing my thesis for my degree. My subject was Oriental Puppetry and I found myself ensconced among the stacks of the Library of SOAS – The School of Oriental and African Studies. It was a little intimidating until I’d worked out how to use the cataloguing system and access the books I needed, but from the beginning I was enthralled by the quietly serious atmosphere, and a feeling that what I was writing and researching mattered.

When I had my first child we spent many hours looking at picture books together at Wood Green Library in North London, somewhere meaningful to go where you didn’t have to spend any money, where the whole point was to look and be inspired and make a choice and then take that choice home with you. All three of my children were avid library users throughout their childhoods.

It is vitally important to provide a place to study for children and young people who don’t have access to quiet space at home. The social gap in opportunity is widened by such inequality and public libraries are a huge help in bridging that gap. Specialist children’s librarians also help, by creating events in libraries with authors and illustrators that give children who don’t visit bookshops, an opportunity to experience books and their creators at first hand.

I work as Artist in Residence at a Refugee Centre and the local public library is of huge value to people who have fled their homelands with nothing. Here they can read, study, research, use the internet, sit in peace and think. The freedom this represents to someone who has fled repression of thought and education is incalculable.

Libraries are not just about books – they are local cultural hubs – noticeboards full of opportunities for classes, life drawing, language classes…

As a young illustrator, it was my local library in Crouch End that gave me and a group of fellow artists, all sharing a studio, the chance to exhibit our work for the first time. Professional contacts were made and careers boosted.

In these days of prohibitively expensive university education, public libraries have come to represent more and more a place where access to education and development is free.

As important too, in my view, is the quiet and calm they offer in a world which buzzes with constant ‘noise’.

Libraries represent the best in our society – education, enlightenment, information, peace, trust – and all for free. We should treasure them for we lose them at our peril.

Jane Ray, 2018

Jane’s latest book for Boxer Books, The Elephant’s Garden was nominated for the 2018 Greenaway Medal.

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