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December 11, 2020


Janet Skeslien Charles is the author of THE PARIS LIBRARY, which releases on February 9th. During World War II, the librarians at the American Library in Paris defied the Nazis in order to hand-deliver books to Jewish readers. She first learned about this incredible true story when she worked at the American Library. In her holiday blog post, Janet recounts how family, reading and bookstores made all the difference to an impatient teen who wanted to leave home, and how she now longs to return to those simple days.


Growing up in rural Montana, everything seemed far-off and out of my grasp --- even the closest bookstore was 90 miles away. At Christmastime, when my family drove to Great Falls to buy presents, my sister and I were excited. She wanted model horses, I wanted books. We sprawled out in the back of the Suburban. Dad barreled down the road; we flew past icy fallow fields. Mom reminded us to enjoy the scenery, the same way her father had told her to close her comic book and look out the window. In the mall, next to Posh Taco, the bright lights of B. Dalton beckoned. Seeing the gleaming books in the window display felt like heaven, like I’d finally arrived.

As a teen, the greatest gift my parents gave me was five bucks. Back then, that amount would get you two paperbacks. From SWEET VALLEY HIGH to A SPELL FOR CHAMELEON, I remember the pleasure of discovering each foreign land --- whether it was the realm of Xanth where inhabitants could cast spells, or Southern California where twins Jessica and Elizabeth reigned. I could spend hours in the bookstore. Near the cash register, my parents and sister thumbed through books patiently while I made my choices.

At school, I felt like an outsider. Classmates called me “red,” partly because of my hair color, partly because of my fascination with Russia. I wasn’t good at sports, though I wanted to be. A lot of my friends started drinking, and I didn’t want to. My family’s presents of books, magazines and music got me through tough times, when I felt I didn’t belong, when I wanted out. For Christmas, my Aunt Diane got me a travel pillow that had a compartment for books. Inside was a copy of NANCY AND PLUM. I read it so many times that the novel fell apart in my hands. I dreamed of travel, and that pillow was a promise. My Uncle Robert made me mixtapes with songs like Grace Jones’ glorious rendition of La Vie en Rose. He also introduced me to Andy Warhol through a subscription to Interview magazine. Its vivid covers --- with paintings of artists like Cher and Cyndi Lauper --- were a monthly reminder that the real world was out there, just waiting for me.

Now I live in Paris, where the closest bookshop is just six blocks away. As a small-town girl, I struggled when I arrived in Paris. Luckily, I soon found a community of booklovers at the American Library in Paris. While researching my novel THE PARIS LIBRARY, I taught English and creative writing. My goal was to instill a love of stories and of language in my students. To get them reading and to keep them reading --- the same gift my family gave me.

As a teacher, I often heard French parents criticize their children’s taste in reading --- from Pikachu to Harry Potter --- insisting these were not “real” books. I’m grateful that my parents trusted me to make my own choices and let me enjoy them.

In this difficult time, with so much anxiety and loss, I look back on my teenage years with longing. After years of scrutinizing each political analysis, each tweet, I’d love to return to the insouciance of cracking open a book in the backseat, to the blind faith of knowing we will get where we need to be. Now I live close to a bookstore, but am far from family. It’s been over a year since I’ve been to Montana. I miss home. What I wouldn’t give to be with my parents and sister, talking and laughing as we tear down the road to buy more books.