According to Viviani, the protagonist of Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s new novel for middle-grade students, stories help to create identity. “The combination of stories in our lives—the unique mix of stories we choose to read, choose to live—makes each of us just a tiny bit different from everyone else on the planet,” Tubb writes in The Story Collector. “Viviani knew that we are our stories.”
The year is 1928; the place is the New York City Public Library. Viviani is eleven years old and calls the library home—she was born there, in fact. Her father is the building superintendent, and his family lives in a second-floor apartment.
Viviani couldn’t ask for a more fitting residence (even if she does share it with thousands of visitors each day because she collects stories: “While others collect seashells, or stuffed animals, or stamps, story collectors wrap themselves in words, surround themselves with sentences, and play with participles, even those pesky, perky dangling ones.” Obviously, there are plenty of stories to collect in a library, especially containing eighty-five shelf-miles of books. There are also lots of things to do with books after hours-building forts and thrones, racing with book carts, scaling bookshelves, playing baseball in the Periodical Reading Room with The House at Pooh Corner and The Lost Princess of Oz as home plate and first base.
But what worries Viviani is her own story: she doesn’t have one, or at least not one as exciting and adventurous as those she reads. It doesn’t help that the new girl in school, Merit Mubarak, is from exotic Giza, Egypt, land of desert sands and palm trees, where she climbs pyramids for fun. She also wears shiny gold hoop earrings. How is Viviani supposed to compete with that?
Worse, Merit believes that made-up stories are the same as lies. She prefers the reality she sees through the lens of her camera to the hair-raising tales Viviani concocts for her friends at recess, complete with dungeons, sea monsters, and an underground river of slime. Somehow Viviani has to show Merit that stories “made things more exciting, more simple, more straightforward than real life. In stories, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end. They happened Once Upon a Time and usually ended Happily Ever After. Stories helped make sense of big feelings and unexplainable things. Story life was so much more appealing than real life, where things were messy and complicated and people called you liar.”
In The Story Collector, Kristin O’Donnell Tubb spins her own delightful yarn-though it is based in the real life of Viviani Joffre Fedeler-and fills it with period details: rides on trolley cars and the Central Park carousel; celebrities like Al Jolson, Babe Ruth, and Duke Ellington; and even a brief visit with Dorothy Parker and the members of the literary Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel. She explains the pneumatic tubes used to move book requests quickly down into the library stacks and tells the story of the famous stone lions at the entrance steps, whose names (spoiler alert) were not originally Patience and Fortitude, but Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after two important donors.
An informative author’s note accompanies the story, with documentary photos and a timeline. Chapter titles are charmingly pegged to the Dewey Decimal System. (“Pranks, Dewey Decimal 818.607. See also: tomfooleries, monkeyshines, practical jokes.”) Young fans of New York City, libraries, and life during the 1920s will be mesmerized by Viviani’s story which-given that it includes a red-headed ghost, a shocking theft, and maybe even a cannibal-turns out to be much more exciting than even Viviani could have imagined.
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.