I was raised by librarians. It’s like being raised by wolves, but wilder. When Toronto’s librarians went on strike this spring, I went down to the picket line by City Hall and told them fairy tales through a megaphone. It was a small way of thanking them for running the greatest municipal library system in the world and, more personally, for turning me into a storyteller.
My love affair with the Toronto Public Library began when I wandered into Boys and Girls House Library in l972. I had moved to Toronto from California and got a summer job at Bolton Camp. I went to the library to find folk tales to read aloud to my semi-feral campers.
Although I had never worked with kids before, I had spent time in a California jail after protesting the Vietnam war, been bonked on the head by a French cop in Paris after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, hitchhiked the West Coast many times, and studied Homer and Chaucer in university. None of these varied political and scholarly experiences had prepared me for my miniature lords of misrule. Luckily, I discovered, they loved to listen to fairy tales – the longer the better.
One night, as we sat around the campfire, I had a revelation. The counsellor was spinning a yarn about Old Man Bolton. He was our local axe-murdering ghost who, after chopping everybody up, had escaped into the forest surrounding the camp. There, the counsellor quietly told us, Old Man Bolton was still limping around culling stray campers.
I was amazed to see that my boys had been transformed into the world’s greatest listeners. A window of time opened, and I understood that my lads hearing summer camp ghost stories were no different than the audience of Greek royalty who heard Homer chant the mighty epics. Even in 1973 the story fire was still burning, the art of storytelling was still alive, and humans – especially my grubby, ardent, hero-hungry boys – had not lost our passion for word-of-mouth stories.
I was hooked. The problem was, although I wanted to learn the storyteller’s mysterious art and even had my own captive audience, I was painfully shy, extremely forgetful and didn’t know any stories.
So I did what people have always done in case of emergency: I went to the library. On my days off, I would drive down to Boys and Girls House and come back to camp with a stack of stories, which I would read aloud at night.
One day that summer, the moment of truth arrived. I’d learned a folk tale in my head and tried telling it to my boys without the book. It began well enough. “Once upon a time there was a king and a queen, and the king went blind. He called his three sons and said, ‘Go find a cure for my blindness.’ ” The first two princes sallied forth, but the third, a lazy, good-for-nothing lad, went out into the garden to nap under his favourite apple tree.
I was just about to tell my boys how this third prince has a hero’s dream, when Frankie, my chief troublemaker, decided it was a good moment to let loose a great and cabin-shaking fart. Pandemonium ensued.
I was so mad that, breaking every rule of camp counselling and child-tending protocols, I threw him out of the cabin. Then I continued the story as Frankie banged on the door and yelled that Old Man Bolton was going to chop him up.
Despite the commotion, the remaining boys heard how the third prince listened to his dream, rode forth on the quest-road, conquered evil, got help from his horse of power, married the fairy firebird, and cured his father’s blindness. It’s a hell of a story, and my boys – except Frankie – spent the next day retelling it to each other and trying to spot stray firebirds in the woods.
After that summer I became a librarian groupie. My fierce, passionate, story-loving librarians taught me that when a story is told it’s more important for the listeners to see the story than the teller. I learned that, in a world where people think memory can be bought on a chip, the word-of-mouth and the word-of-heart still matter. You can’t double-click on wisdom. Most of all, they taught me that the listener is the hero of the story.
My bad boy, Frankie, was the third prince of my story. All the daydreamers, the kids who get sent to the office each day, the unregarded kids from the poorest parts of town – and, yes, even that brat who makes rude noises instead of listening politely – all may have the qualities of a hero, if only we can see it in them. Librarians would never have kicked Frankie out of the story-circle. If he doesn’t hear the stories, how will he learn that he, too, may one day seek and find his own firebird?
After that summer, Toronto’s public libraries became my second home, and the city’s librarians my teachers, mentors and friends. Bolton Camp has since closed down, and Boys and Girls Housemoved around the corner. Our librarians, in their quiet and courageous way, went on to make the Toronto Public Library the best in the world. And, with their encouragement, I filled my head with folk tales and set out on my own storyteller’s quest. As for Frankie, I look for him in every audience. I still owe him a fairy tale.
Dan Yashinsky lives in Toronto