AAPI heritage month, B&N Reads, Guest Post

Books Were Our Childcare: A Guest Post from Juli Min

To a young kid, there are few places quite like a bookstore. High shelves lined with countless adventures, a day at the bookstore could take you atop a dragon in the sky or all the way back in time. Juli Min, author of Shanghailanders, recounts her experiences as a child in her local Barnes & Noble and how it made her the writer she is today in an exclusive essay. Here’s Juli, in her own words.

Shanghailanders: A Novel

Hardcover $28.00

Shanghailanders: A Novel

Shanghailanders: A Novel

By Juli Min

In Stock Online

Hardcover $28.00

With a cosmopolitan scope that takes readers from Shanghai, to Paris, to Boston, Shanghailanders is about love and family with a dash of magical realism. There’s something here for every reader.

With a cosmopolitan scope that takes readers from Shanghai, to Paris, to Boston, Shanghailanders is about love and family with a dash of magical realism. There’s something here for every reader.

As a mother of two young children, as the summer draws near, I am inundated with planning: summer camp, summer daycare, travel, travel-destination childcare, and so on. As a writer with a novel coming out this spring, I am also weighing which stretches of weeks I’ll have the time and childcare coverage to write and which weeks I should preemptively accept defeat. The planning is endless, coordinating with friends and schoolmates and relatives. Not only that, but as the climate changes, and summers have become more and more unbearably hot here in Shanghai, where we’ve lived for nine years, our options have become increasingly dictated by weather, and climate patterns, and of course the politics of post-Covid international travel fees.

This endless planning and narrowing down of choices was not my family’s reality when I was growing up in New Jersey in the ’90s. Raised by my single mother, with a little help from our extended relatives, my older sister and I had fewer options for the summer, none particularly glamorous. After school let out in June, we frequently watched TV all morning in an empty house, got picked up by grandpa after lunch, and hung out at the closest Barnes & Noble from about noon to 4pm, when my mom got out of work. We did this for two or three years, when we were probably around the ages of 7 and 9.

Barnes & Noble was our summer activity; books were our childcare.

I have some very vivid memories of those days. At the venue we frequented, there were two large plush armchairs in classic Barnes & Noble striped green and brown and crimson. They faced one another in a secluded reading area, set off by tall bookshelves. My sister and I, both skinny little things, would run to those chairs as soon as we were dropped off. If both chairs were free, we settled in, one each. If only one was available, we squeezed in together, our legs dangling straight off the cushion, unable yet to touch the ground. Our bony hips vied for space on the single seat. Our elbows clashed as we turned the pages in our respective books. As soon as the opposite chair was vacated, one of us ran right in, settling down for a long afternoon.

I remember sitting in one of those armchairs reading Where the Red Fern Grows, weeping silently as I finished the book. I remember picking Julie of the Wolves off the shelves based on the cover illustration of Julie, an Alaskan character with a distinctly Asian face, one that I felt looked similar to my own. This was one of my first experiences feeling representation through literature. It didn’t hurt that my name was also “Julie.”

I remember taking afternoon naps, lying sideways on the chairs, our heads resting on one arm, our feet dangling off the other, a book open and covering closed eyes. No way would we surrender the prime real estate of those armchairs, not even for a more horizontal napping surface. I remember also full days at the bookstore, my mother dropping us off before work in the morning and picking us up after, a lunch of McDonald’s or Burger King delivered quickly by my grandfather, who might have been busy with his other grandchildren that day.

I remember one afternoon, I was lazily walking around one of the adult sections (I sometimes took long, meandering walks, leaving my armchair guarded by my older sister, of course), when my eye was caught by a series of books written by the same author. The covers were colorful, dramatic, attractive. I opened one of them to a random page—a scene where two people were snorting cocaine and then had sex on an office desk. At eight years old, I had no idea what this white powder was, what those gyrating movements were. I had a vague sense that something illicit and sensual was happening. I crouched down and sat on the floor of the aisle, making myself hidden, invisible, flipping hungrily through more of those books. It was only when I was older, when I became aware of the existence of drugs and sex, that I realized I’d been exposed early, probably much too early, by lovers in a Danielle Steel novel.

Was this dangerous? Was this irresponsible? I refer less to the Danielle Steel exposure than to the fact that two young girls would spend hours alone at a bookstore for days on end.

Yes, obviously.

Does my mother regret bringing us there?

When we talk about those days, she shakes her head with shame and says, “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was desperate.”

Why didn’t we just go to a library?

I’m not sure. Maybe the appeal of new, beautiful books, thoughtfully and artfully displayed, was something that made a trip to Barnes & Noble feel more momentous, valuable, interesting, to us and to my mother. (Or maybe if we were in the town library, someone would have recognized us and called the authorities.)

I could argue that we were victims of a society that offers little help to working parents. I could argue that we were abandoned, by our mother, our community. That we were left vulnerable to risks that no children should be subjected to. And indeed, if something horrible had happened, this would be a very different kind of essay.

But it isn’t that kind of essay. I remember those summers fondly. Those were long hours in the presence of books, traveling to foreign places like the Ozark Mountains and Alaska, Narnia and Terabithia. Reading and writing have always been my favorite activities. At B&N, I explored, I cried, I was exposed, I was stunned. I lived so many lives in those summers, I felt so many feelings in that familiar armchair. I learned how to combat boredom, how to fend for myself, how to contort my body into all kinds of comfortable positions for long periods of time. I learned, in short, most of the skills it takes to be a writer.

I will always be grateful to Barnes & Noble for raising me when I needed that care, for providing endless stories and adventure, and for lending me that soft, welcoming seat in the world of books during the early stages of my reading and writing journey.