written by librarian Linda Ludke
Anyone who works in a library will undoubtedly have stories to tell about memorable items dropped off in book return chutes — in addition to books. At London Public Library, my finds throughout the years have included bacon used as bookmarks, misplaced dentures, and a squashed straw hat.
But nothing tops the absolute thrill of discovering an unexpected, heartfelt, handwritten note addressed to library staff like these recent treasures:
These letters mean the world to us. This past year and a half has been challenging and ever-changing, as we’ve moved from curb-side pick up to virtual programming to welcoming our community back in person. Library staff are so grateful for the ongoing support we’ve been shown. We thank everyone for their patience, understanding, and appreciation.
This year, Ontario Public Library Week is celebrated from October 17 – 23. It’s a time when libraries and library partners raise awareness of the valuable role libraries play in all of our lives: a place of connection, belonging, and community. London Public Library is inviting everyone to slip a little note through a book return chute, letting us know why your library is special to you.
Letter writing and letter receiving both have many undeniable charms. I’ve never outgrown my childhood proclivity to run to the mailbox every day and peek inside with great expectations. There are many epistolary surprises waiting for you to read on library shelves too. Check out these noteworthy Canadian children’s books that celebrate letter writing, mail art, and the connections they foster:
Away is an ingenious picture book by Emil Sher that is told entirely through sticky notes. The loving correspondence between a mother and child is found everywhere, including on the refrigerator door, backpack and calendar. Small details of everyday life, as well as big concerns over going to sleepover camp for the first time, are readily relatable and captured in pithy snippets: “Lunch is in the fridge”; “You won’t be gone forever. Just two weeks.” This family is never too busy to offer words of support and encouragement. There are lots of detailed scenes to pore over in Qin Leng’s ink-and-watercolour illustrations. Students could imagine more conversations between the characters and add their own sticky-noted dialogue.
Mindfulness and Gratitude
Writing a letter by hand requires time, thought and our full attention. With no pinging notifications or instant messages to distract, you can focus on the simple joys of being in the moment. The Pencil, a captivating picture book by Susan Avingaq and Maren Vsetula, illustrated by Charlene Chua, is based on Avingaq’s childhood memories of growing up in an iglu. Susan loves watching her mother write letters to people in neighbouring camps. Anaana has one pencil and keeps it in a special box. Susan realizes the significance of the pencil and when given the opportunity to use it, does so with reverence and respect. The importance of using things wisely and appreciating what you have is clearly conveyed. Students can pick up a pencil and reflect on what they are grateful for.
Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word
The Sorry Life of Timothy Schmoe by Stephanie Simpson McLellan, illustrated by Zoe Si, is a picture book told through apology letters written by a little boy who makes a lot of blunders and gaffs. Timothy, like all of us, can at times be too honest (“Dear Aunt Gladys, I’m sorry for saying I didn’t like the sweater you knit for my birthday. I said that because Dad says I must always tell the truth”) and too impulsive (“Dear Sarah, I’m sorry for shooting marbles across the floor of your ballet show. I was trying to copy those things you were doing with your arms and forgot about the marble in my hands”). The child faces up to his faux pas and is unconditionally loved by his family. Students can brainstorm situations in need of an apology and discuss actions that would show the other person you are sorry.
Remembering Someone You Love
In Always With You by Eric Walters, illustrated by Carole Liu, a little girl knows that although her grandfather is “gone,” he is still very much a part of her life. Emily sees reminders of him everywhere, from a framed photograph on her bedside table to an envelope addressed to her in his distinctive handwriting, given to her upon his death. Readers share the experience of opening the letter by lifting a large, sturdy flap to reveal an encouraging message of comfort written on the page underneath. As the years go by, Emily’s parents deliver more of Grandpa’s pre-penned letters and meaningful gifts at various life milestones. This picture book takes a sensitive and supportive approach to a topic difficult to comprehend and reconcile. In an author’s note, Eric Walters relates his personal inspiration for this book, along with the hope that readers will “remember someone you love and all the ways they are still with you.”
Lest We Forget
Long after they have been sent, letters can be preserved, reread, and live on forever. During the First World War, Lawrence Rogers fought overseas and exchanged hundreds of letters with his wife and children back home in Quebec. His daughter sent him her stuffed bear to offer comfort and protection. “Teddy” stayed beside Rogers until he was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele on October 30, 1917. The moving picture book A Bear in War by Stephanie Innes (Rogers’ great-granddaughter) and Harry Endrulat, illustrated by Brian Deines, is based on the family’s wartime letters found inside a large suitcase. “Teddy” is on display in the Canadian War Museum for students to view (online as well). The Canadian War Museum is offering virtual school programs free of charge for the 2021-2022 school year.
Dear Future Reader
Sometimes it can be easier to reveal your true self in an anonymous letter than in person. In The Undercover Book List by Colleen Nelson, book-loving Jane and class prankster Tyson seem to have little in common, but a strong friendship is forged through secret bibliophile messages left inside a school library book. Nothing beats the joy of sharing book recommendations and after reading this unputdownable middle grade novel (with backmatter that includes a booklist of all the titles swapped by Jane and Tyson), students could leave notes for future readers inside their select favourite library books.
The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster by Cary Fagan is a striking artistic creation, in so many ways. Eighth-grader Hartley Staples is trying to keep it together after his older brother runs away from home. A welcome reprieve from all of his troubles comes in the form of handmade postcards with cryptic typewritten messages that he serendipitously finds around town. Hartley not only embarks on a coming-of-age journey, but also on a quest to collect the complete, numbered series and meet the mysterious artist. In this gem of a novel, connections are discovered in unexpected places, and the full-colour, collage illustrations of the limited-edition postcards that Hartley finds are sure to inspire students to write, create, and send their own missives into the world.
Random Acts of Kindness and Art
Performing a random act of kindness – like surprising someone with a letter – is a guaranteed mood booster for everyone. Sneaky Art: Crafty Surprises to Hide in Plain Sight by Marthe Jocelyn offers a plethora of playful ideas on how to leave out-of-the-blue, artful installations for people to discover. The next time you want to spread the word about your favourite books, give Jocelyn’s “Library Shouts” activity a whirl. Cut out a speech bubble shape from card stock, add your message (like “Best Book Ever!”; “Read Me!”) and stealthily tuck the shout outs into books on library shelves.
Linda Ludke is a Collections Management Librarian at London Public Library. She reviews children’s books for Quill & Quire, CM: Canadian Review of Materials and Canadian Children’s Book News. Linda loves writing letters — she can be reached by snail mail at London Public Library, 251 Dundas Street, London, ON N6A 6H9 and promises to write back.