New Voice: M.G. King on Librarian on the Roof! A True Story

M. G. King is the first-time author of Librarian on the Roof! A True Story, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin (Albert Whitman, 2010). From the promotional copy:

When RoseAleta Laurell begins her new job at the Dr. Eugene Clark Library in Lockhart, Texas, she is surprised that the children of the town think the library is for adults.

She vows to raise the money for a children’s section and spends a week living and working on the library roof, even surviving a dangerous storm.

With the help of the entire town, RoseAleta raises over $39,000 from within the community and across the country.

Today if you look through the front window of the Dr. Eugene Clark Library, you will see shelves stacked full with children’s books and tables and chairs just the right size. You will see artwork on the walls, and a row of busy computers.

Best of all, you will always find crowds of children who love to read and learn inside the walls of the oldest library in Texas.

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

Tree houses, mountaintops, and skyscraper view decks – magical things happen in high places.

In October of 2000, from the fifty-foot roof of the oldest library in Texas, RoseAleta Laurell brought a diverse town together to achieve something remarkable.

Librarian on the Roof! is a modern “Little Engine That Could” story about a librarian who wouldn’t give up until the generation growing up in her bilingual rural town had a library that served its needs.

These days we expect to find computers and Internet access in libraries, but when RoseAleta Laurell moved to Lockhart, Texas, to become director of the Dr. Eugene Clark Library in 1989, she found a small town on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Ms. Laurell [pictured below] wrote, “for many young people, the library serves as their first exposure to books, reading, art and technology.”

Looking back at my own childhood in a working class community, her words have resonated with me in a deep way. I owe a huge debt to the hard-working librarians who provided my family with an endless supply of books, music, and even oil paintings, which we checked out and hung in our apartment’s entry.

When I first heard the story about Lockhart’s librarian camping out on the roof for a week, I knew I had to write it. The tale had all the elements of a wonderful picture book: a dramatic setting on the top of a beautiful historic building, an unforgettable character who was both daring and tenacious, and a community that came together to exceed everyone’s expectations.

It’s simply a great story that needed to be told and remembered. I hope young readers will be inspired to find ways to make their own communities better places.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2010, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

A twentieth-century manual typewriter squelched my first attempt at publication, back when I was eight. Somewhere I’d heard that if you wanted to submit a story to an editor, it had to be typed. I struggled to scroll the paper in straight, mashed keys together, hunted and pecked for over an hour, and covered myself in white-out. The results proved decidedly worse than my southpaw scrawl. I gave up.

But always, I wrote: stories about rocketing to other worlds, poems for homemade birthday cards, and articles about cats for my friend’s newspaper, The Cat Courier (which we sold up and down the block for five cents each).

Later, I filled journals with the complicated thoughts and feelings of growing up.

Writing never felt like an optional activity, I’m most myself when I’m stringing sentences together. But publication never seemed inevitable either. Articles and stories thrown into the submission pool were always met with silence or rejection. I failed to rocket over that impossibly high wall to the world of The Published.

In my twenties I became a nurse. R.N.s are a very practical bunch, if not by nature, by necessity. A fast-paced, demanding job where people’s lives are on the line is not conducive to dreamy, writerly introspection.

But nothing places you in the middle of the human story like critical-care nursing. I found it humbling to be intimately involved in some of the most pivotal and stressful moments of my patients’ lives. Some of their stories will be with me forever.

After my children were born, I picked up my dream of being a writer again. I began waking at four a.m. to get in at least two hours of writing each day. I took a creative writing class at Rice University, joined SCBWI, and found a critique group of fantastic writers in my neighborhood, which we now call the Will Write For Cake Friends. (We celebrate each success with generous amounts of carbs and chocolate).

And even though my engineer husband’s eyes glaze over when I ramble on about character and plot, he has instilled in me a wonderful belief in the power of persistence. He lives out the words of Winston Churchill who said “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” I’ve learned to give myself freedom to fail, because although publication may always be a gamble, the joy that comes from creating is certain.

Cynsational Notes

Here’s the poster M.G. made when she was in sixth grade for the Jeffersonville (Indiana) Township Public Library‘s book cover contest.

M.G. won 1st place, and the children’s librarian presented her with a hardcover copy of Robert C. O’Brien’s Newbery Award winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh (Atheneum, 1971).