The Book That Wasn’t
by Sally Sultzman
The school library is as close to a refuge as you get, but the librarian still looks at you like she knows there’s something off about you, and you hate that she might be right.
Then one day, the day, that day, that librarian is gone, replaced by a sub that looks…familiar. But not really, she’s definitely not the kind of person you’ve ever seen in your small town before. And she puts specific books into your hands. Very specific books. The kinds of books you could never ask about out loud, certainly not of the regular librarian because then she’d know she was right about you and tell your parents, and that–you don’t think you’d survive that.
But this librarian sub–old, tall, and imposing with wild white hair and a generous smile–just knows what books other kids also want, but those books are never as…personal as yours are. She gives you kind smiles and says things like, “You’re doing so well, just hold on a little bit longer,” as she gives you another book that you’re not allowed to read, not even allowed to know exists, and it… it helps.
Some of the books she gives you–they’re weird. They talk about things like ‘cell phones’ or ‘internet’ without explaining what they are, but the stories themselves? Ah, you understand those.
Especially from this one author, Jamie Lee. It’s almost like they know you personally, know exactly what you needed to hear, know what you need to believe in if you want to survive this school, this town, your family. Not just survive. But that you might one day be…happy.
Your favorite is The Book That Wasn’t, about a boy who isn’t, whose loved ones don’t, who stumbles into a magical land that isn’t, and it’s only when the hero stops being who they aren’t and starts being who they are that they find their own kingdom, true family, and happily ever after. Oh, yes, that’s your favorite. You must read it once a week, if not more, gaze lingering over the illustrations, the promise they hold. The whole story, it feels like a promise the author made just to you. Hold on, the book says. Jamie Lee says to you. You’ll get there.
You desperately want to believe it, so you do.
When you ask the librarian sub–because she gave them to you to read, so you feel safe asking–she says of course she’ll hold onto the books for you, she knows they can’t go home, of course not, and maybe it’d be best if other kids didn’t catch you reading them, but here in the library, it’s safe, the books are safe, the librarian sub is safe, and, most of all, you are safe.
It’s like…you’ve been holding your breath your whole life, and now you’re gulping down huge lungfulls of air for the very first time.
One day, the librarian sub stops you. “I’ll be going soon,” she says, warmth in her voice. “But you’ll be okay now, won’t you?” And you will be. Heart in your throat, you ask if you can keep the books? And this librarian sub, she looks at you with sorrow, with understanding. “The books…others need them, too. But they’ll never leave you. When you grow up, maybe you’ll write the same kind of books, the ones you needed when you were the reader. Will you do that?” And you promise that you will, of course you will.
The last thing the librarian sub does before she leaves is write down the name of your favorite secret author and your favorite book on a piece of paper. “Keep this with you,” she says, sliding it across the table to you. “One day you’ll understand why.”
You never see her again.
You keep reading, of course, all those assigned ‘classics’ that don’t speak to or for you. You search for yourself in all kinds of stories but you’re the villain, the misguided, the victim. Always the victim.
You put your head down and keep your mouth shut, especially on Sundays, and somehow, you graduate. You go to college far, far away from your hometown and your family and that school library where, briefly, you caught a glimpse of a life you didn’t even know you could dream about. You take a small step towards that future. You go to the university library and pull the small piece of paper with the name and title out of your wallet, and you search for those names, but…
You get no returns. Not for Jamie Lee, not The Book That Wasn’t.
When you ask the librarians for help, they can’t turn anything up, either. It’s like that book doesn’t exist.
But it does. You read it. That librarian sub–she gave it to you. She held it safe for you. Like…like she knew.
But that’s not possible, is it?
You make it through college and get a job in a city. You dream a little bigger, live a little larger. You find someone who sees the real you and encourages you to take another step towards a future that, a long time ago, a book that never was showed you could be possible.
Your new friends don’t run and hide, they don’t mock and belittle–they shower you with love and affection. When your parents tell you you’re not welcome home anymore, you visit your new friends instead, and suddenly the holidays are full of love and laughter and you wonder: was it always supposed to be like this?
And when you lose your job because your boss and coworkers are not your friends and never were, your new family rallies around you and helps you get another job, this time with a different name, one that matches your outsides better, and you don’t tell them it’s not really your name, but the name of that author from that book and you’re only borrowing it. For now.
Except Jamie Lee feels real. It feels right.
You keep checking for that name, that book. You remember other books by that author, titles coming to you in dreams, but they don’t exist either. You ask everyone if they’ve heard of The Book That Wasn’t, but they haven’t.
The person who falls in love with you, a quantum physicist, is the first person you tell the whole story to, including the mysterious librarian sub, and instead of laughing with you when you try to laugh it off, all they say is, “I’m glad she was there for you when you needed her,” and that’s when you fall in love with them, too.
But you keep looking, anyway. You check at libraries and bookstores, new and used, but no one has ever heard of Jamie Lee or those books. So you start looking for similar stories that you might’ve confused with this one you’re thinking of, but…there aren’t many. Instead, when you find yourself in a book, you’re still the villain, the victim, the misguided.
But you’re not any of those. And you know there are kids who need those books. You sure as hell did.
You’re almost fifty when your partner smiles gently in the morning and kisses you goodbye early—“the results we’re getting , babe! It really might be possible!”– on their way to the lab and you go to shower. Almost fifty means it’s been almost thirty-five years since that day that changed everything so long ago. You’ve spent well over half your life trying to track down an author and books, none of which exist. The paper that lives in your purse is now fragile with age, the writing faded almost past the point of legibility, and as you shower the body you’ve long since come to love, you wonder–not for the first time–if you imagined the whole thing in a fever dream or if The Book That Wasn’t ever really was. And then…
Then you catch your reflection in the bathroom mirror, your hair streaked with white, a badge of honor you’ve earned, and with a start, you realize that you spent all these years looking for the wrong person, when you should’ve been looking for the other person in the middle of your memories.
The librarian. The substitute librarian. The one who put the books into your hands and gave you room to breathe, space to dream, a future to reach for.
Because you’ve found her.
She’s staring back at you, that woman from so long ago who knew exactly what you needed.
Books written by an author with your name.
The very books you needed to survive.
The woman in the mirror isn’t quite the same as you recall. She’s not as old as the librarian sub was, her hair not all white, the lines not as deeply embedded into her skin. Not yet, not for another ten, maybe fifteen years. That might be how long it’ll take before the love of your life perfects their work at the lab -, before it’s safe enough for you to…travel.
But you understand now.
You understand everything.
That librarian sub made you promise to tell stories for kids like you used to be, who were buried alive by family or tradition or religion and all you need to do is give them a shovel.
All you have to do is keep your promises to her.
To the child you used to be.
Luckily, you know exactly what to write.
Time to make The Book That Wasn’t into a book that is.
And will be.
I knew the moment I read The Book that Wasn’t that we had to include it for Banned Books Week this year. I love that it illustrates how essential good and empathetic role models in positions of authority, including librarians, are so important to the development and mental well-being of children, and that what one reads and experiences in youth can stick with a person throughout life. There is joy in discovery that others get you and are looking out for your best interests because they understand how important it is to see yourself reflected in life, community, and culture.
I also love the message of perseverance, perseverance in the search for the identity of the author and of the main character. I was delighted when we discover that the main character and the author was one and the same. They kept their promise to themselves, knowing, that with the experience of their struggles in life, that not only can everything turn out well, but that it can for others too. A joyous discovery indeed.
Many of the reviewing editors from Cast of Wonders remarked that they saw themselves in the main character – a true mark of the success for this story.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Julia Hawkes-Reed is a Unix hacker by day. By night, too, if it’s been one of those sorts of weeks. Her origin story involves finding the big yellow Gollancz hardbacks in Winchcombe public library, the ‘Making a transistor radio’ Ladybird book and the John Peel programme. The 2006 Viable Paradise writer’s workshop was something of a life-changing experience, and she has been quietly emitting stories of varying length since then. One of those stories can be found in the anthology ‘Airship shape and Bristol fashion II’. She is fascinated by cold-war architecture, islands and stationary engines. Julia does not own enough synths or tractors.