All Mine: Hands Off

I have spoken to you before about inscriptions I find in books. But I don’t believe I’ve ever dealt specifically with inscriptions in children’s books. I don’t mean those “Happy 4th Birthday to Flopkins from Aunty Rabbit.” I mean what the kids write in their books to establish ownership.

We start young, those of us who like to mark a book as our own. Chewing on it doesn’t count: that’s just the way an infant checks out the world for edibility. But a child isn’t much older when he takes up a good, dark crayon and shows everyone whose books this is, either by adding crayon scrawls to every single page or by writing as much as we can of our name in big, round letters (at least one of which is going to be backward.) A lot of kids seem to go back to their books when they’re older—seven, say—and write their name again. This is either a touching method of re-establishing ownership, or just a way of showing the world they’ve learned to make their letters better.

A number or kids will toss in the words “My Book” and others will put in their whole address. I can count on at least one book every year in which the kid has put down her WHOLE address. This, in its longest, most traditional form, comes out as:

Wilma Flintstone

60 West Walton Street

Chicago, Illinois

The United States of America

North America

The Western Hemisphere

The World

The Solar System

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Universe

The Mind of God

Others, less cosmic in nature, develop a sense of humor. So far this year I’ve had two “In Case of Fire, Throw This In” and one “I am in Love with Miss Fortune, Miss Chance, and Miss Judged.” Some children who will grow up to be mystery writers or game show hosts play that game where you are told “For a secret message, turn to page 12” and then on page 12, are told “Now go to page 109”. This can take you back and forth through the books for half an hour until you reach the twentieth turning and find the message “Ha! Ha! Made You Look!” The ones who will grow up to be artists or movie directors do little flip books in the margins, sometimes with stick figures but more often with geometric shapes which morph from one to another.

All of these are as much ways of making the book our own as pasting in a bookplate with a bust of Napoleon on it or inscribing a classification number on the spine. (More kids like to play at being Librarian than you might think is healthy, pasting a card pocket with a card in it inside the front cover. I like to think these kids reformed and grew up to rob ATM machines instead.)

And just as many children as adults fear that someone is out to loot their library. A book which is otherwise undistinguished will have a slightly higher price than it might have, simply because I found the previous owner had written, in colored pencil, in dark, intense handwriting:

“If stealing books you like to do,

I hope you drop this on your shoe.

And when you die of broken toes,

Your soul will find to Hell it goes.

And when your soul begins to cook,

You’ll be so sad you stole my book!”

Under that was a name I intend to Google. If he didn’t win the Pulitzer for Poetry, I hope he wound up with the FBI.

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