In this #LoveMyLibraryWeek, I have to say that I owe so much not only to my local library in Barnsley, but the people who worked in it. The first time we had a school visit to the library I felt as if I’d just walked onto a space age set. It had funky plastic chairs and a basement café that sold the best blackcurrant juice on the planet. I took home armfuls of books every week – and records to play. I was always in there and my pals were always in there too; it was a social hub for us. It was also entertainingly dangerous for the designers had put in a nylon carpet and a metal handrail on the stairs. The shocks were legendary and many shoutings of ‘Ow’ were to be heard as people travelling up or down to other floors were electrocuted. Ah, happy memories!
Years later, when libraries stocked books I had written, it was Barnsley library that helped to build my career. The staff there pushed local authors down the throats of any unsuspecting reader. ‘Have you tried this author? She’s very good. And she’s from around here.’ The lead pusher was a woman called Jill Craven, who became my dear friend. A woman who went to librarian college in the days when to be a librarian was a craft, and like a stick of rock, Jill had the word written through her core and no other word would have suited her better. When I had my first book published, she persuaded me to do a talk in the library. In a room set for eighty people, there were about five seats filled. Jill, being Jill, couldn’t have that and immediately went off to press-gang people in the building to come and listen. Twenty was a more respectable audience.
Jill begged stole and borrowed favours to unite authors with readers. ‘I can’t pay you…’ she’d begin. And anyone worth their salt never expected a penny because she was, as I christened her, ‘the woman impossible to say no to’. I didn’t want to say no to her anyway because I ended up owing her so much. She did everything to make every event in the library one where author and reader were equally rewarded. She’d manage to find someone to supply scones, someone else to make tea. She worked wonders with her non-existent budget and I doubt any one could have done more.
Fast forward a couple of years after my first event and I had to do my talks in the much bigger library in a neighbouring village – a ticketed do. Three hundred tickets sold within two days of them being issued and there was a waiting list of another hundred. All because of Jill Craven and her team. Authors are often impatient to get national acclaim and overlook what smaller local events can build for them: a sure solid growing readership. My die-hard readers might never have crossed my path had it not been for people like Jill.
When our library was demolished to make way for a college, Jill moved to one of the village libraries and drove the mobile library van out into the sticks. It was a vital service; she talked books with the isolated and elderly over a cuppa, giving them respite from their loneliness. And as Jill’s mum – once an avid reader – was blind, she was incredibly in tune with what was out there in audio for those who couldn’t read – or didn’t have time: busy mums who didn’t have time to pick up a book but could listen whilst ironing or driving, people in hospital who could no longer turn the pages. She had only been retired for a short time when she was struck down with a serious illness and went into a nursing home. She sent me a text from there saying that she’d been telling the nurses all about my books and had found some of them who hadn’t read me and did I have any spares that I could drop off? She was dying and still operating as my PR manager. I dropped them off of course, and when she died, anyone who had crossed her path in the town libraries wept buckets. She never got to see the multi-million pound new build library that was placed in the centre of Barnsley. Being a librarian wasn’t just a job to Jill, it was an artform, it was part of her DNA and I hope there are still special people like her being employed in libraries for whom books are a passion. And readers.
This is Romance Reading Month and if Jill had been still here, she would have been doing everything in her power to match books about hope and community spirit and love to those who needed it most. A pandemic wouldn’t have stopped her. There was only one thing that could have and it sadly did. But the legacy of her kindness lives on in my career and I was blessed to call her the dearest of friends.
MILLY JOHNSON was born, raised and still lives in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. A Sunday Times bestseller, she has written eighteen novels, and is one of the Top 10 Female Fiction authors in the UK with millions of copies of her books sold across the world. In 2020, she was honoured with the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award and was a featured author in the Reading Agency’s Quick Reads and World Book Night campaigns. A writer who champions women and highlights the importance of friendship and community, Milly’s characters are celebrations of the strength of the human spirit.
My One True North by Milly Johnson is out now, published in paperback, eBook and audio by Simon & Schuster.
Visit www.millyjohnson.co.uk for more details about Milly and her books
(Picture Credit Chris Sedgewick)