“You surrender. You open the book and disappear
into someone else’s life.”
That’s the start of a poem, “Many Stories,” written by South Pasadena’s official poet laureate (yes, the city has one), Ron Koertge, in honor of “One City, Many Stories: Exploring Common Ground” — a citywide reading event sponsored by the South Pasadena Public Library.
The project, which began Sept. 14, is a ray of sunshine in the midst of the cloud cast over the city, and will continue through Nov. 1. If you haven’t participated, a great place to be introduced is a special virtual author’s night next Tuesday, Oct. 27.
The virtual author night, moderated by Koertge, features award-winning writers Danzy Senna and Sherri L. Smith. The session begins at 7:30 p.m. and is open to all. You can join in by finding a link on the library’s OCMS webpage: southpasadenaca.gov/ocms.
The goal of the “One City, Many Stories” program is to explore and discuss four other book titles in separate virtual sessions, and look at books in a thematic way — relying on a theme rather than a specific book.
The library has selected three topics for this theme: different racial, cultural and ethnic experiences; the environment and us; and reconciling the past with the present.
“In this time when there is so much dividing us, it is nice to focus on what is bringing us together,” said library Director Cathy Billings. “It has been the right thing for right now.”
Smith, whose latest novel is “The Blossom and the Firefly,” agreed that this is a particularly good time to use books as a way to bring people together.
“The topic ‘Exploring Common Ground’ is vital in these divisive times where politics and race have hit yet another boiling point,” Smith said. “Even our media is siloed in a way that keeps us from understanding our commonalities.
“The self-isolation required by the COVID-19 pandemic can serve to heighten this even further — or it can work as a time of incubation and connection through great offerings like ‘One City, Many Stories,’” she continued. “When we are finally able to leave our individual corners of the world, it would be nice to come out connected rather than swinging.”
Other cities have had similar programs. South Pasadena was initially going to have “One City, One Story,” which had been in the planning stage for about two years. That planning went out the window when the pandemic came in, and the result is more topics and more books to read.
“We have had a very positive reaction,” Billings said. “People appreciate the concept where the library has provided a platform for people to come together.”
The library has frequently had big crowds for its author nights, and the first of the four virtual book sessions — a graphic novel in a comic book format on the life of civil rights icon John Lewis — drew eight people out of a possible 15 who could sign up for the session.
“The discussion went well because everyone gave their own experiences with the civil rights movement,” said group moderator Cindy Finder, who has been a part-time children’s librarian for more than five years. “The general consensus was that the book brought out a lot of history that most of us didn’t learn in school.”
Bianca Richards — who is also president of the library board of trustees — liked the virtual format and the experience she got from the first session.
“These are really easy to put on,” Richards said. “They are like a wonderful book club without the hassle of cleaning your house or having to make refreshments.
“It was a lively group — all different ages from different parts of the country — so each person brought some new experience to the discussion.”
The library has offered suggested titles, which are connected to the theme. These can be found on Goodreads, a web-based gathering place for readers. There, participants will find the library’s suggested reading list and information about each title, as well as links to book group discussion guides, the library catalogue and other materials of interest to each title.
Information on the discussion sessions, and other material can also be found at southpasadenaca.gov/goodreads.
Teens, ages 13 and up, are participating in the “Teen One City, Many Books” program. A teen advisory board came up with its own approach to the program.
The final group activity of the program — the virtual author night — features Senna, author of five critically acclaimed books of fiction and nonfiction. Her first novel, “Caucasia,” was named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.
The other featured panelist, Smith, is the author of seven award-winning young adult novels, including the 2009 California Book Award Gold Medalist “Flygirl.” Koertge was appointed by the City Council as the first South Pasadena poet laureate in 2018. He is the author of 10 acclaimed poetry collections and a two-time winner of the PEN Literary Award for children’s literature.
Zoom sessions “can be quite fun,” Smith said. “I find it’s easy to have a conversation with the other participants, and they can be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise isolated time.”
‘Many Stories’ A poem by Ron Koertge honoring South Pasadena’s “One City, Many Stories” program You surrender. You open the book and disappear into someone else’s life. You’re just along for the ride. The story has you by the hand and won’t let go. You want to hold on. You’re in Paris, or the back seat of a Chevrolet or a house with a hidden room. You’re not scared or you’re scared just enough. You’re in love. You’re betrayed. You’re starving after that trip through the forest or deep into space. There’s a wolf, there’s an anarchist, there’s a train that never stops, there’s an evening by the fire. Someone asks, “When are you coming to bed?” One more chapter. Three more pages. Two. You can’t wait to see what happens next.
RESIDENTS TO LIBRARY DURING PANDEMIC
The COVID-19 pandemic may have physically shut the South Pasadena Public Library, but if anything it has caused an explosion in the institution’s use by the community.
“Online statistics from March through the end of June went through the roof,” said library Director Cathy Billings. “The number of e-books checked out doubled.”
Billings explained that the library spent an extra $25,000 on e-books and e-audio books in response to the pandemic. Of that money, she said, $20,000 was reallocated from the regular book budget and $5,000 was grant funds from the California State Library’s CARES Act allocation.
The spending helped to buy additional copies of books in high demand, like Ibram X. Kendi’s topical “How to Be an Antiracist,” Billings said.
Billings said that since 2017, the library has really built up its e-book collection.
Starting in June, the library began a program through which patrons could place a hold on a book and then pick it up at the library. Billings said that since the program began there have been a total of 24,239 items on hold. There were 478 holds during the Columbus Day weekend.
“It’s great,” Billings said. “It is fascinating to see the books [taken out] after the death of George Floyd that addressed that kind of problem.”
The library director also said the film streaming program went “through the roof” and that other online services were also in high demand.
Cindy Finder, part-time children’s librarian, said parents have been checking out 10 books at a time — something that is not unusual when the library is open.
“It is keeping the librarians pretty busy and the parents seem pretty happy with the service,” Finder said.
The children’s librarians are recording “story time” and putting it up on the library’s YouTube channel at 10:30 a.m. every Monday. The children have been delighted to find some of the same routines they loved when they attended the library, including the “Hello” song and finger puppets.
“We miss seeing the parents with their children,” Finder said, “but it’s the best we can do. I miss seeing the children at the reference desk asking for books and seeing the real little ones in the playroom.
“That’s how they get interested in reading,” she added. “It starts with having fun [at the library] at an early age.”