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Those Book Women

During the Great Depression, to help aid and educate the people affected in eastern Kentucky, one of the parts of Appalachia which was hit the hardest, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt started the Pack Horse Library Project. A group of librarians, mostly women, would ride up to 20-mile routes in the Kentucky mountains delivering books to people and families.

I first came across ‘Pack Horse Librarians” when I read ‘THAT BOOK WOMAN’ by Heather Henson, Illustrations by David Small and I was absolutely fascinated and full of admiration for what they did.

Cal lives with his family high up in the Appalachian Mountains. He sees no point in the ‘chicken scratch’ he finds in books that his sister Lark, stares into, stony-still. Cal much rather help his father doing work a boy needs to do, like ploughing the fields and bringing the sheep home.

His sister Lark is the ‘readenest’ in the family, and it is she who is delighted when the Book Woman visits to bring them books to read……and much to his surprise refuses to take anything in return for her services. This befuddles Cal who cannot figure out why a woman….one that wears britches, would venture out to the remote mountains, come rain, snow or shine, just to bring them books to read.

“I stand a spell to watch that Book Woman disappear. And thoughts they go a-swirling ‘round inside my head, just like the whirly-flakes outside my door. It’s not the horse alone that’s brave I reckon, but the rider, too. And all at once I yearn to know what makes that Book Woman risk catching cold, or worse.”

So Cal reaches out to his sister Lark to teach him how to read. Lark doesn’t laugh or tease, but quietly sits with him and reads.

When finally it is spring, after a long and arduous winter, the Book Woman returns. Mama offers her a simple gift of her Berry Pie recipe for making two readers out of one in her house. Cal wishes there was something that he could gift her, but all she asks for is that he reads aloud to her. He does, from one of the new books that she had just delivered. The best gift that any Book Woman, Teacher or Librarian could ever receive.

This is a beautiful, moving story peppered with colloquial and occasionally homespun words which gives authenticity and lends itself to interpretation by the reader.

Wonderful earthy illustrations and the expressions on Cal's face from his initial scowls and suspicion to wonder and respect.

Do read the history behind these real life Book Woman……such an amazing initiative, such dedication.

I also enjoyed Jojo Moyes novel 'The Giver of Stars' in which five women become Kentucky horseback librarians and find their lives transformed along the way. Although the characters in Moyes’s book are fictional, her story is inspired by the experiences of actual librarians who faced rough land, harsh weather, and challenges in their communities.

Says the author:

Horses and books are two of my favorite things, so that immediately grabbed my attention. But it was the images that accompanied the story that really stood out: young women, their saddlebags full of books, preparing to ride out in vast and often unfriendly terrain or reading to families who had nothing.

Wonderful tributes to all the people who work at connecting children and books.

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