Review of the Day: The Story Collector by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb
From 2007 until about 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of working in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of New York Public Library. It’s one of those parts of my working life I look back at with a little bit of amazement. For only one time in my life I could essentially say to someone, “You know that library with the big stone lions in front in New York City? Yeah. I work there.” Initially I worked in the Children’s Center at 42nd Street where I held Literary Salons, worked alongside the original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals, and conducted tours of the whole building. Well… not the WHOLE building. There are places down in the deep stacks below the building where no one really goes, and you can bet that some colleagues and I took the time to explore them thoroughly over the years. Later I would work in the building in my new capacity as the Youth Materials Specialist, and it was then that I started visiting library branches all over the city, only to encounter again and again the abandoned library apartments they housed. These were full working apartments housed within the libraries that used to belong to the maintenance workers of the library system, now no longer in use. After a while, I began researching them more thoroughly, looking into their residents, how long they were operational, and the stories associated with them. One such apartment, located on the Mezzanine level of the main location, housed a whole family of kids. You can read news articles from the Times about how they’d play baseball in some of the rooms, raise pigeons on the roof, and how their father would try to scare them with stories of a red bearded ghost. Now all that rich fodder has been turned into a middle grade novel, made under the auspices of New York Public Library’s new imprint with Henry Holt & Company. And happily, it is not only a rip-roaring tale of mystery and ghostly possibilities, but also one filled with a lot of fun and true facts about the time. Got a kid who wishes they could live in the library? Reading this book is the next best thing.
Ever wanted to live in a library? Imagine that you did. It’s the 1920s, Viviani’s spent her whole life surrounded by the gilt and marble of the main location of New York Public Library with her siblings, and life is pretty sweet. She spends her time dodging the creepy janitor Mr. Green and trying to spot the ghost, Red, that her father told her about. Then she meets a new girl at school who doesn’t believe her wild and outrageous stories or even that she lives in a library! Worse, an expensive stamp collection on display has been stolen and no one has a clue where it went. It’s up to Viviani, her new frenemy Merit, and her friends and sibs to uncover the multiple mysteries hidden behind the library shelves.
It is one thing to write a mystery for kids, but it is another thing entirely to play fair when you do. Now I love The Westing Game, don’t get me wrong. That book has more going for it than a pack of Agatha Christies, but don’t ever sell me on it being a tried and true mystery novel. To my mind, a real mystery novel gives a kid the chance to solve it on their own. Not in some Encyclopedia Brown way where they use their knowledge of trivia to solve the case, but where they pay careful close attention to what the author’s laying down and put the clues together. A mystery author, therefore, must walk a fine line. On the one hand they need to place the clues throughout the text. On the other hand, they can’t make them too easy. If you give too much of the game away, it’s going to be a problem. In The Story Collector I am happy to report that Ms. Tubb does an excellent job of this. As an adult I could pretty much figure out the villain of the piece. That means that a couple sharp-eyed young readers will do the same, while others are completely flummoxed by the reveal. In other words, it hits the mystery sweet spot.
As for the book itself, it’s definitely going for that sweet spot of living in a public building (ala The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which many a recommendation blurb has cited) with the Nancy Drew-ish vibe of a spunky young woman solving a mystery with a slight supernatural bent. Now Tubb is no stranger to conjuring up strong characters and plots. She’s one of those middle grade authors that makes it look effortless. What’s important in this particular case is that she also needed the idea of living in a library to sound like fun. I know that sounds ridiculous at the outset, but when an author comes up with a cool premise it can be difficult to hold onto that kernel of cool (cool = living in a library) when you have to wrangle character arcs and development, a mystery, and a sense of time and place. Ms. Tubb juggles all with such ease, it’s enough to give a gal envy.
The trouble with working for the New York Public Library and then handling a book of this sort that is that there is too much information in my brain. As I watched Viviani navigate the lower levels of the main location, I was consciously aware that my position is odd. Almost nobody else is going to know where the door to the lower levels is precisely located, after all. Once I was able to compartmentalize that information, I could really settle down to enjoy the book. I read an early galley of this book prior to publication, and to my delight several mistakes that I found in that book were corrected for the final publication. Clearly somebody somewhere was copy editing this thing incredibly well. Bravo, faithful fact-checkers!
The last library apartment in the NYPL system didn’t fall out of commission until the turn of the new Millennium. Even before that happened, though, many of the apartments fell into disrepair because they aren’t ADA compliant (and many are potential fire hazards). Viviani’s home on the Mezzanine of the Schwarzman Building is all office space and currently houses whole rows of cubicles, albeit cubicles with killer half-moon windows that look out upon the city. The era of the library child may have passed but with books like this one it’s possible that the romance of their lives may only be beginning. A mystery that plays fair with its tropes and gives as good as it gets. Here’s to many more future books about kids living in libraries.
On shelves August 28th.
Source: Galley and final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network