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Notes from Dave: Speed and Violence at the library

My first encounters with a public library were in a slightly more innocent time, but in a much less innocent city. On Saturday mornings, the young boys of Peterborough (or at least those of a reading bent) hopped on their CCM and Raleigh bikes and beat it down to the Carnegie library in the town core. They were unaccompanied and unsupervised by adults; parents in those days did not helicopter their offspring and were probably only too happy to get them out of the house on a weekend morning. As a result, the entire city was our fair domain.

On Saturday mornings, it was the library that commanded our attention. We would arrive at the library just before 9 am and assemble in a jostling row at the side door. The children's department was up four fights of stairs and when finally the librarian unlocked the door, we'd fly by her and up.

Freddy goes to the North Pole cover image There was urgency. At that time, a great many of us were addicted to a series of novels about a talking pig, the "Freddy" books, by Walter R. Brooks. The 26 volumes detailed the adventures of a marvelous pig and a cast of hilarious animals and unsavoury humans. We weren't farm kids and might normally have thought that books about talking animals were sucky - but the Freddy series was a massive and engrossing world and we needed our weekly fix.

There was a rub. Due to demand, we were restricted to two Freddys per week, not nearly enough to satiate our habit. In fact, the furious competition meant we were in danger of not getting any books at all, let alone the particular volumes we craved that week. So my brother and I took steps. My brother - I won't embarrass him by naming him because he is a respectable professional now - was older and tougher and he would stand at the head of that 9 am lineup and hold the boys back, throwing punches where needed, cuffing and restraining the boys as long as possible. I would take advantage of the half minute or so head-start that afforded, and dash up the flights of stairs and grab the books we wanted that week. Sometimes I could do all that before the other lads had even begun their ascent. I was that fast.

Flash forward a couple of decades. In the mid-1980s I discovered that my beloved Freddy books were out of print. A librarian in Toronto told me she was trying to keep her last copies in circulation by binding them with hockey tape - how Canadian was that? Because I was trying to assemble a collection of my own, I wrote to the publisher (Knopf, in New York) and asked if they could forward my letter to the author - I had it in mind to start a club that might trade books and reckoned the author himself was the logical place to start. A few months later I got a letter in the mail (this being in the dark ages before email). It was a lovely note from Walter Brooks' widow, thanking me for my interest and
telling me that Brooks had, in fact, died some 30 years earlier. She followed this bit of correspondence up with another letter, which contained other "fan" letters that she'd received over the years.

I wrote to those fans - thinking still to informally trade copies - and then got the bright idea to start some sort of literary fan club. ‘The Friends of Freddy’ was formed. And then, like Topsy, it grewed. There are now well over 500 members in Friends of Freddy internationally, we have conventions every other year in Brooks' home turf and, best of all, Overlook Press has reprinted the entire series in hardcover. Libraries have again begun restocking their shelves. The Friends also funds a program whereby Freddy books are donated to libraries in under-funded or economically marginal areas.

This little saga even loops back to those early days of speed and violence at the Peterborough Public Library... Folks joining the Friends often write of the impact the books had on their lives, and their joy in reading them as  children. We got a letter from a fella living in southwestern Ontario and his opening lines went something like this:

"I loved the books but never got to read the entire series. I grew up in Peterborough and there was this tough kid who beat the crap out of us while his skinny little brother ran up the stairs and hogged all the good titles."

I eventually met the author of that letter but never fessed up. I think I can still outrun him and I’m certain I can call on my brother for backup. The good news for that poor sod is, of course, that the books are now readily available, and you can get the titles here in the London system. (No need to risk the surly mobs in Peterborough.) Freddy books are the kind of novels adults love reading to their children (I'd say they're best for 8 to 10 year olds); very funny, very wise, and they work on a number of levels. But, at their heart, they teach the value of friendship and, without ever making an issue of it, tolerance.

At the London Central Library, the Kids section is on the main floor, which  is probably fitting. It's good to be in residence now in this library and know that Freddy books are so close at hand - and readily available to all, without fear of violence of need for speed.