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Library Lights: A grandmother, with a librarian's help, changes her grandson's life

Homemade audiobooks instill a love of reading

I spent years as a children’s librarian, and very much miss those days. This week I got a flashback from a patron that I still remember vividly. A feisty, yet utterly sweet patron from my days of working with Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs picked up her phone to call me.

You could just always tell that Mrs. Hatter was one of those people you want to know better on a personal level as her eyes seemed to sparkle.

If I could #fiercegrandma back then, I know I would; she was a cheerful force to be reckoned with and cared deeply about her grandchildren.

Mrs. Hatter had discovered that one of her grandsons, 7-year-old Andrew, did not want to read. He was evidently quite adamant about it, and the fierce “Gomma,” a nickname for Mrs. Hatter, was having none of that. Together, Gomma and I teamed up to see what could be done about this situation.

Gomma visited the library frequently to browse the shelves and get recommendations about what books might intrigue Andrew.

If our department got something we thought would fit the bill, we would excitedly hold it for her. She tapped into stories of adventure, ones that would appeal to a young and free-spirited boy. She read for hours into a tape recorder and would send the book and the tape to Andrew.

Books by Jean Craighead George were a favorite, and “My Side of the Mountain” and sequels were a top hit to give you an idea of what direction we chose to go in. I picked books that seemed to perhaps be reflective of the spunk I thought Andrew had, and Gomma would update me on his progress.

As I spoke with Mrs. Hatter this week, she told me that Andrew had always called me Miss Librarian.

Through her efforts, Andrew became a boy that couldn’t wait for the next tape and began to devour the books that were sent. He became fascinated with falcons – a core feature in the My Side series – and learned all of their species details. He became a fluent reader as his love for the outdoors grew.

This week Gomma called me and credited the library with much of the success, and I reminded her how diligently and passionately she had intervened for her grandson. Through the sharing of stories, Andrew and Gomma were connected, despite miles apart. Today as a 20-something he still likes to listen to his tapes.

This week I spoke with Andrew for the first time. I did have tears in my eyes as I held the phone up to my ear, ironically while I was shopping for flowers and plants.

Today Andrew is living in California and works for Tesla, his passion for the environment carried him into manhood and he is an energy adviser. He said that the Gomma tapes had made such a difference in his life and because of them he developed a love of learning, reading and exploring the world. I described his Gomma, and how much I felt that she loved him, to plot and plan with such a determined attitude. These days Gomma still lives in Illinois, and remains a passionate library user and keeps proud tabs on all of her grandchildren. I have used the story of Gomma before when I teach about library services and later on used many of her selections with my own wild boys.

My takeaway from this is to know that the work that librarians do is valuable. As we go about our days we might not realize that we are changing people’s lives, but it may be that one book or resume workshop or program that makes an impact. I may have chosen a career that will never land me on the Fortune 500 list, but I wouldn’t trade a million dollars for receiving a phone call like that from both Gomma and Andrew. It means something. And if you are reading this and need help reaching somebody in your life, just visit us here at the library. I bet we can find something wonderful on our shelves for you as well.

Shannon Halikias is the director of the Sugar Grove Public Library, a professor at College of DuPage, leads a local writing group and is an active outdoors lover with two rowdy boys. You can reach her at Feedback on this column can be sent to

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