This is a The Book That piece, by Anna-Spargo Ryan.

When I was a little girl my mother worked part-time in the Law faculty at Adelaide Uni. Dad would take us in to see her for lunch, and afterwards the three of us would walk down North Terrace, along the bricks with plants growing between them to the art gallery. Some days we would stop via the museum, which is memorable mostly because of the blue whale skeleton hanging in the entrance. On other days, we would go to the city library, which at that time was a small part of a larger building opposite the War Memorial.

Every member of my family is terrible at borrowing and returning. Once, we went to Video Ezy and they told us we couldn’t borrow any more videos until we’d paid a seven-hundred-and-ninety-dollar fine (we just went to a different Video Ezy after that). I was barred from borrowing books from my primary school library. Even as an adult, I own truly dreadful movies like Music & Lyrics and Starship Troopers 3 because I’ve inadvertently bought them instead of just dropping them back to the kiosk at the supermarket. I once waited two years for my local library to have an amnesty so I could return a stack of books I’d borrowed in pre-history and admired but never read.

In the 80s the city library was a couple of brown rooms with vinyl chairs, floor-to-ceiling windows and a children’s reading corner with a little brown rug. It was a boom time for children’s literature. We read first editions of Hairy Maclary and Animalia and Who Sank the Boat? and Possum Magic and Where the Wild Things Are and John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I loved them all, of course, but especially — especially — The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

It was huge. Bigger than me, in my memory (which is often inaccurate but always enthusiastic). I poked my fat fingers through holes in cherry pie and swiss cheese and pears until we were forced to leave and I put it back on the shelf. I cried and shouted, but my family could not be trusted to borrow and return even their own internal organs, let alone a book.

So I asked my nanna to take me. “Oh yes,” I said. “Mum always lets me borrow from the library.” We borrowed it. Stamped it. Took a passing interest its return date.

I read it all the way home and all the way through dinner and I read it in bed and on the couch and in the middle of the night and over breakfast (but I was still hungry) and I read it on the way to school and at recess and during silent reading (but I was still hungry). I read it and read it and weeks and months must have passed, but I was a child so I had no concept of time and besides, no one remembered I had it. Day after day I read, until it became dog-eared and some of the holes grew little tears.

I read it for so many days that I found myself moving on to The Babysitters Club. The Very Hungry Caterpillar went in the bookcase. I read about Dawn getting her ears pierced and Stacey having diabetes and the death of Claudia’s beloved mimi. Once a month I went to Myer with nanna and she bought me a hot chocolate and a new BSC for $4.95. My bookcase filled up: yellow and pink and mint green and the occasional white Super Special. Scores of them. Whole rows. And there at the bottom: the caterpillar. I took it out, poked my fingers into the holes. Looked in the back for the due date. It was more than a year late.

“Should we take it back?” I asked my mother.

“Not yet,” she said, and taught me the finest lesson I know: if you ignore something, it will go away. 

I moved on from Kristy Thomas and began to read every horror book I could find. Christopher Pike. Stephen King. Peter Straub. The bookshelf changed colour: black and purple and fingers of embossed blood on spines. I talked to boys on the phone, wore a bra, wrote poetry in the dark. And still, on the bottom shelf, next to a couple of token Sweet Valley Highs, was the caterpillar. I took it out, poked my fingers into the holes. Looked in the back for the due date. It was three years late.

“Should we take it back?” I asked my mother.

“Sometimes they have an amnesty,” she said. “We should take it back then."

I started to read books with feelings in them. I read The Horse Whisperer and Looking for Alibrandi and Eva Luna. My bookcase changed again: stormy seasides and photos of pained young women and the men who treated them badly. I spent weekends at my boyfriend’s house, invited the neighbours to skinny dip in our pool, wrote erotica in the dark.

And then, a bombshell: we were moving to Melbourne. Kristy and Mary Anne, Annie Wilkes, John Barton et al. went to the op shop. A whole set of The Sesame Street Library. Fifteen Super Specials. Every Tree of Knowledge I’d painstakingly collected. And right at the back of the bookshelf, bent and faded and sad, the caterpillar. I took it out, poked my fingers into the holes. Looked in the back for the due date. It was eight years late.

“Should we take it back?” I asked my mother.

“I suppose we should,” she said. 

We drove to North Terrace and down to the War Memorial and stood in front of the brown building with the tired old book.

“It’s gone,” she said.

And it was. We had borrowed The Very Hungry Caterpillar for so long that the library had closed down. My mother called the council and they told her, in a pert librarian way: “You have deprived the other children this long. Just keep it.” And it went into the box and on to the truck.

I took it out, for the purposes of writing this, poked my fingers into the holes. Looked in the back for the due date. It is now twenty-three years late, here at the back of my bookshelf where my own kids can read it.

This is a The Book That piece, part of a series where writers reflect on books that have been particularly meaningul, profound, or plain-old angry-making. To read more in this series, click here.

Anna Spargo-Ryan's picture

Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan sits at her kitchen table and writes while shouting at the cats to get off the bench. She enjoys love and madness and biscuits with secret caramel bits. She has written for Kill Your Darlings, Overland, The Guardian, Seizure and other rad places, and has tricked Picador into publishing her first novel in 2016.