At the end of last year, I was quite excited when author E.J. Runyon asked me to review her debut novel, A House of Light and Stone. She piqued my interest when she said that a librarian had a prominent role in the book. :)
The novel, set in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, is revealed through the clear-eyed gaze of a young girl named Duffy (short for “Defoe”).
Growing up is never easy, but for young Duffy Chavez, whose childhood is anything but innocent, the journey is particularly painful.
Swimming against the tides of her troubled family as well as her own cultural identity, she struggles with the cards she has been dealt. Buoyed up by the belief of a select few, she strives to achieve the kind of self-knowledge that comes so naturally to the ‘real girls’ all around her. As gaps in the narrative begin to fill, and the truth surrounding Duffy’s birth is unearthed, her determination to succeed is rendered all the more astounding.
E.J. sent me an e-book version — my first book to read on my laptop’s Kindle app! I have to admit, it took me a while to get used to e-book reading. The format kept throwing me off. But once I got over that — and changed the settings to more closely resemble a regular book, as seen below — I found myself getting into Duffy’s story.
It is a YA novel in the sense that Duffy, the protagonist, is a young adult. The themes, however, transcend age or audience limitations, and I found myself harkening back to my own childhood and memories as I read Duffy’s story. Yes, I cried at certain parts. I definitely can identify with the “curse of responsibility” placed on Duffy’s young shoulders. The writing is sensitive, as befitting the plot of a young girl’s quest to discover herself. This kind of novel depends hugely on how much the reader can identify or empathize with the main character, and I found Duffy endlessly interesting, a character who drew me in while also not revealing all of herself all at once.
And yes, there is indeed a librarian in the book! Duffy signs up for a summer writing course at a local public library, led by young adult librarian Miss Patricia. There are also interesting library bits here and there throughout the book that reveal, I believe, the author’s insight into library organization and structure, as well as a personal love of libraries. That made me smile. :D
Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library – Los Angeles Public Library system
The public library branch is the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library, and yes, it is indeed a branch library of the Los Angeles Public Library system, located in the Boyle Heights area — the same setting as the book.
I wrote down questions as I read through the book, as I thought it would be fun to include a little author Q+A with this review. I’m so glad E.J. Runyon was up for it!
Q: The details of the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library felt too detailed NOT to be real. Was this your public library while growing up? If not, have you been there?
A: I’d lived in 7 different houses by age 10, and the city of Boyle Heights was indeed where this one was, so I’ve used what I know in my writing. And I did walk and find many books there with my sister.
But it was only one of several that could be called my ‘Childhood library’. School libraries held just as big a pull for me.
Q: I loved Duffy’s sentiment that “I thought never being without books should definitely be on my Best Life list.” Are libraries (public OR personal) included in your own Best Life list?
A: Most definitely. Aside for those childhood libraries, before my Freshman year, I worked my first Summer work experience job in my high school library. From there I spent time working at the Public Library in town for a few semesters while in HS. And during my community college days (in my 40’s) I worked in the campus library, again as a work experience student.
Q: Have libraries or librarians been a personal influence in your life as a writer and/or editor?
A: Libraries, and the librarians in them, run all though my existence. I know the spaces and character traits well. Possibly why I added that element into the novel. There have been several, some I still remember by name and location, some I’ve not. I used to read the bound volumes of ‘Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature’ like they were novels. So I was ‘using what you know’, in my storytelling.
Q: Do you share Duffy’s and Joanna’s opinion that “we both disagreed with the Deweys about putting Buildings there [in the 700s Arts call number section].” (That made me laugh, especially after watching a recent episode of ‘The Librarians’ TV show, in which the librarian-in-training who is an art expert complained that “Architecture is just art we live in. Why doesn’t anybody get that?”)
A: Well, when you list the other subsections, you do have to admit, that both the 710s and 720s do stand out from the others. Though I can’t see any other slot to move them to.
[Editor’s note: Click here to browse the Dewey Decimal classification system in the 700s]
Q: Was Miss Patricia based on any real-life librarian in your life?
A: Not literally, not taking one person and adding her to my novel. But I did have librarians who did matter hugely in my life. Specifically at age 6/7 at Eastman Ave Elementary School, and as a teen in those early work opportunities. The Character’s name and her long red hair came from a very dear friend who passed away.
Q: Do you see Miss Patricia — a librarian and educator — as a positive role model?
A: It was important to me to make sure none of these adult characters were singularly positive or negative, which is why things go so swimmingly then so awry in Miss Patricia’s arc. If you notice, that’s pretty much my M.O. with most of the adults here.
In the mid-1960s so many younger folks were giving back to the kids in the areas where this book is set. So for that, yes, she’s a positive character as drawn.
But, she doesn’t always do things in the best possible way and that’s my writer’s option of deeper writing; by using the more minor characters as real folks with their own agendas, rather than only using their ups and downs as stepping stones to get Duffy going along her own path within the story.
This is Duffy’s story, first and foremost, but hopefully, it’s a broader painting of a time and a world, and I’ve succeeded in populating it in realistic ways.
As a reader — and a librarian — I believe E.J. Runyon did succeed, indeed, with populating her debut novel with characters and details in realistic ways. A huge thanks to E.J. for asking me to read and review her book!
If you, dear reader, are interested in reading more about A House of Light and Stone, please visit E.J.’s personal site here at http://ej-runyon.com/. The book is available in Kindle or paperback editions through Amazon.com here at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NQ8NG8G?d. And finally, click here for another review and author interview.