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The Power of Libraries and an Encouraging Mom

Author Raj Tawney

Raj Tawney is an essayist and journalist who often writes about family, food, and culture from his multiracial American perspective. His debut memoir, "Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience," was recently released. His second book, "All Mixed Up," a middle grade novel, will be released fall 2024. We're happy to have Tawney share with us the impact that libraries have had on his life and career.


I received my first library card on my seventh birthday. I can still remember the shadowy woman in glasses standing behind the tall counter handing me a small rectangular paper coated in laminate. I’d gotten to know her polite smile and greeting each week when my mom, Loretta, and I would visit our local Long Island branch so she could fill up on Agatha Christie novels and I could explore the children’s book section––a basement-floor treasure trove of tales I couldn’t wait to devour. “Go ahead, pick out a book,” Mom would tell me, giving me my first taste of freedom to choose anything I’d like without discouragement.

For Mom and me, the library was the entire world, just down the road from our house, offering limitless adventures without having to leave our town. Each time we entered the automatic double-doors, whether to browse or return a book through the book-drop flap door (which she’d sometimes allow me the honor of doing), she’d find a reason to pop her head in and rummage alongside her fellow bookworms. Between the bookshelves, we felt like we belonged.

Walking into a library was a rite of passage, and my mom had been a devotee to its way of life since her mom first brought her as a child in the Bronx where she grew up. When I received my first juvenile card at seven years old, I felt like I was being welcomed into a special club where I could explore who I am without judgment––as long as I kept my voice down. 

I was never a strong academic student, but poor grades didn’t stop me from spending free time at my school’s library or at a nearby branch, reading and absorbing all I could, trying to determine where I fit into the world. The resident librarians never kicked me out. As a multiracial American––of Indian, Puerto Rican, and Italian descent––I never felt I fit amongst my peers. But in books, possibilities were limitless. From James McBride’s "The Color of Water" to Sherman Alexie’s "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" to J.D. Salinger’s "The Catcher in the Rye," and so on, I learned that humans didn’t just exist in one shade or mold but were complex and flawed and often lived in gray areas of society. 

Does it sound silly that I didn’t dream of playing for a sports team or driving an expensive car? Instead, I fantasized about sifting through a large, mahogany card catalog to discover my name living inside. I wondered what it would be like to have strangers read my words and consider the person who wrote them. 

Three decades later, when my debut memoir "Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience" was released, I was afraid to step into any library. It’s tough to explain. I suppose I was worried I wouldn’t find my book living inside. Sales and adulation didn’t matter that much to me. All I cared about was to exist on a library bookshelf, cementing my place in an institution that helped develop me into who I am.

A few months after its publication, I found out The New York Public Library (NYPL) chose "Colorful Palate" as their "Book of the Day." I choked up when I found out the news, sitting next to my wife in our home in South Florida, then called my mom and we both sobbed over the phone. It was an important moment, more so for my mom. I felt like it was my gift to her. Without her encouragement and all of those years spent inside of community libraries, wandering and daydreaming, I wouldn’t have had the guts to believe in myself.

Last weekend, I finally made my way to NYPL. I walked from Penn Station, through Bryant Park, around the corner, and up the stone steps—around 15 minutes in the pouring rain. My shoes and socks were soaked, the top of my head and overcoat drenched. Having moved away from New York a few years earlier, I forgot how important it is to carry an umbrella even if the forecast is 50/50.

I stood at the entrance in my own puddle. My water-logged feet squished over to the information desk as I asked the clerk if they had my book in stock (though I didn’t tell them I was the author). Polite as always, they wrote down the card catalog number and I made my way to the canyon of shelving. There it was under “New Nonfiction," perfectly sandwiched between other titles, plastic wrap covering its shell. I pulled it off and held it in my hands, becoming emotional once again. It was a moment to savor.

I turn 37 years-old on April 3. On my birthday, I’ll be attending the Public Library Association's 2024 Conference to discuss my debut middle-grade novel, "All Mixed Up." Thirty years ago, when I received my first library card, I could never have imagined I’d be chatting with librarians from around the country about a book I wrote for young readers like me. 

I’ve come to learn that if you want to make a change in the world, you’ve got to carve your own path. But first, let a loved one or librarian lend a helping hand. I was lucky to have both.

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