by Ona Gritz
In 1989, Hannah Schwartz, a former buyer for the children’s department of The Book House of Suburban Square in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, decided to open a shop that specialized in books for children. Children’s Book World quickly became a vibrant hub and crucial community resource for the children, families, teachers, readers, and writers in the Philadelphia suburb of Haverford and surrounding areas. Thirty-three years later, it still fills that role. And at eighty-five, Hannah, together with her daughter Heather Hebert, is still at the helm.
Recently, on the mild last day of January, I visited Children’s Book World with its inviting displays and shelves of bright spines, the striking mural by Renee Daily above the door, featuring a fox and a bear, each engrossed in a picture book. I’d just missed Hannah who does much of her work— special orders and backlists—from home these days. But I got to spend the better part of an hour talking to Heather who was twenty-one and just out of college when Children’s Book World first opened. She helped out in the store at first, but, inspired by her mother and her own love of art, soon opened a craft shop where, as it happens, the renowned children’s author Paula Danziger came to learn scrapbooking with the thought that she might use the skill to illustrate her next book.
Heather ran her craft shop for a decade, but after she had her first child, she came back to Children’s Book World as manager. Her first baby is now twenty, and many of the customers who were little children when Heather first returned to the store now come in with their own kids.
“They thank me for not changing the place,” she told me, laughing.
Even customers who haven’t gone on to have children often visit as adults. A few have even written their college applications on Children’s Book World. It’s the place where they not only discovered books and became readers, but had some of their most memorable experiences.
Kids in wizard costumes making friends by playing cards and reading together as they waited in line to meet J.K. Rowling. Or chatting about which graphic novel in the Smile series they’d decided to ask Raina Telgemeier to sign. Kids who got to draw pigeons with Mo Willems or dress up for the Fancy Nancy parties the store held.
Recently, the owner of Snapology showed children how to make Lego mosaics of their favorite characters. Books flew off the shelves as everyone looked for what they wanted to create.
Children’s Book World is also where some of the local schools hold their book fairs. There’s so much joyful noise in the shop on those afternoons, Heather told me, you can’t even hear the phone ring.
Something the staff noticed was that many students found the book fairs overwhelming. With so many choices, they didn’t know where to put their attention. So the Children’s Book World staff began visiting the schools to give booktalks on their favorite ten books for each grade. This, of course, requires a good deal of reading and preparation, which, Heather says, is the best kind of homework you could have.
“We feel very fortunate that we get to do this, what we love to do. That the community is so supportive, that the schools and the educators we work with are so caring about what they put in kids’ hands, and that they trust us to help them with that.”
Children’s Book World has also fostered several literary successes. Isaac Blum, who came to the store from the time he was six years old, just won the William C. Morris Award for his debut young adult novel, The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen, which was also longlisted for The National Book Award.
Katherine Locke, who, as a shy teenager, used to attend all the young adult book signings, is now a successful author of books for all ages. And Rachel Hartman, author of the New York Times bestselling Seraphina Series, worked at the store for years.
“We saw her wanting to do this, and knew how talented she was. So when other people realized it, it was fantastic.”
Heather and the Children’s Book World team show this kind of love to all their local authors and illustrators. And in Heather’s words, “We have gobs of them.”
Every year, on the first Friday in November, Children’s Book World hosts an author/illustrator evening. When Hannah started this tradition, about three years after the store opened, there were ten in attendance. Last November, there were over eighty.
“Writing is a solitary job, so it’s nice to get out there and see everybody and see what they’re doing. They get to have their night to just to buzz around about the business, but then we also bring the public in to get books. The new crop of young authors and illustrators are nurtured by the ones who’ve been doing this for a while. Just to watch those interactions and conversations is nice.”
“Can I come?” I couldn’t help but blurt, an hour in this infectious place bringing out the child in me.
“Absolutely. You’ll be on our list. We put all our local authors and illustrators on our list.”
Heather smiled at me. Actually, she’d been smiling the whole time we spoke. It’s no wonder. What her mother built, and she has gone on to sustain and grow, is rare and beautiful, joyous and necessary. Haverford Pennsylvania, thanks to these remarkable women, is home to the luckiest community of children, parents, teachers, librarians, writers, illustrators, and readers you could meet.
Ona Gritz’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, Ploughshares, Brevity, and River Teeth, and has been widely anthologized. Her recent honors include two Notable mentions in Best American Essays, a Best Life Story in Salon, and a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020 project. She is the author of the recently released middle grade title, August or Forever.