A World Book Day Reflection: The Summer an Arsonist Burnt All My Books


A detail from the Ballantine Books edition of Ray Bradbury’s cautionary classic Fahrenheit 451

Books are my Precious.

Books are my treasures, my precious, my greatest love in life perhaps. I wish I still had my beloved books from childhood. But I don’t. Someone set them on fire. Deliberately. This post is an impromptu one: inspired by World Book Day, I have been sharing on Twitter images of my favorite childhood books. The fact that I must resort to Google for pictures leaves me very sad.

From the Great Society to the Bluegrass State

My older sister attended the University of Dayton in Ohio, where she was a member of the Campus Ministry’s UD Community Action Group, otherwise known as UDCAG. As a member of UDCAG she participated in their Summer Kennedy Appalachia Program, an initiative inspired by LBJ’s Great Society that aimed to eradicate poverty and promote education in rural Kentucky. It was in the 1980s that my sister served with UDCAG and one year she convinced me to lend her all my old children’s books for their makeshift library. This was a considerable haul for I was an avid reader as soon as I could make out “an” and “the” and it took a ton of convincing for me to agree to the loan-out. Going by the timeline on the UDCAG website I figured out this would have been the summer I was 10, which meant I had outgrown most of these books but being a hybrid between a bookworm and a packrat (as well as the baby in the family) I was disinclined to part ways with my juvenile library. Negotiations commenced, bargains struck. It was agreed that I would get the books back at the end of the summer. And thus the tomes were packed in the ubiquitous plastic milk crates that made up my sister’s collegiate world. Off they went to the Bluegrass State. I blithely waved, now proud that I would be helping the less fortunate. Goodbye Say Hello Vanessa! So long Richard Scarry! See you in the fall! It was not to be.

“1988—the barn burnt down and a new barn was built”

The above heading is an entry from the Appalachia Program website (link in last section). It wasn’t the only fire they suffered. The timeline reveals a history checkered with acts of vandalism and specifically arson. According to my sister, there were folks around there that didn’t care for UDCAG’s interfering and made it known via gasoline and match. It amazes me to think all my books are gone because people felt so threatened by these college students, these “outside agitators”. My Richard Scarry set was never a threat to them, but books often do seem scary to people, don’t they? Books are targeted when people are scared of people and things and ideas they don’t understand.

Today I Honor Lost Books

On World Book Day I take a moment to stop and remember all the books tossed on the flames –books burned for heresy, books burned by the Nazis and the KKK, books burned and banned during the Red Scare. Maybe somewhere in the world there’s a book burning now.

I take a moment to remember….

books, childrens books

Say Hello, Vanessa by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, Illustrations by Lillian Hoban

books, childrens books

The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway

books, childrens books

The King’s Tea by Trinka Hakes Noble

And I remember and rejoice in the memory of all the other beautiful books that burned in the fire that summer –especially my Richard Scarry set! I couldn’t find a picture online of the exact boxed collection I had but I can see it in my mind still.

An UDCAG Epilogue

Recently my sister confessed that she had lied to me that summer. While my books had indeed been lost in that fire, she never had any intention of returning them to me in the first place. Being a mature adult now I don’t hesitate in saying to her, “You are evil. You must be destroyed. And furthermore I am glad I tore up your homework assignment that time you wouldn’t let me use your super cool multi-colored crayon pen!”

But between you and me, readers, I really do wish she’d been able to leave those books in Kentucky, safe and sound.

Happy World Book Day!