Walking hand-in-hand, Helen Byerly has led two generations of children through the Normal Public Library.
Helen first started coming here more than twenty years ago, when her family moved from the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst to Bloomington. Towing along her three daughters, now all in their twenties, she made a pilgrimage to the library on a weekly basis.
“We would always come home with a big bag of books,” Helen said. “It was great for them to get an opportunity to check out all of the books by their favorite authors, from Rosemary Wells to Alexandra Day.”
As her children grew older, they became less interested in clamoring up to read in the library’s old loft or auditing pioneer life with Oregon Trail. And so, for a time, Helen’s relationship with NPL waned, and she returned but rarely for the occasional magazine or audiobook.
But that all changed on November 7, 2011, when Helen became a grandmother. Now five-years-old, little Makayla Byerly chatters constantly and bounces on her toes, as her grandmother leads her upstairs to NPL’s Children’s Department. Helen seems entirely at ease, grip firm but gentle around Makayla’s hand, as the full-time grandma continues forward placidly, the little girl whirling around her like a tiny tornado that never quite touches the ground.
But Helen was not always so nonchalant about her newfound responsibilities. When her daughter returned to work full-time shortly after Makayla was born, Helen suddenly found herself the full-time caregiver to a toddler--20 years after she last had one of her own. Desperate for productive ways to fill the long days of babysitting, Helen turned once again to the Normal Public Library.
“This place has been very important to her,” Helen said. “I would say this is the one place I consistently brought her every week.”
Aside from classes and events, NPL has allowed Makayla to explore a diverse set of interests, from dinosaurs to sea creatures to Native American culture.
“I like to read everything here, even if it’s something I don’t even know about,” Makayla said, practically vibrating with enthusiasm.
In the past, large portions of their time at the library were devoted to the Discovery Room, a children’s play area stocked with puppets and models and dominated by a large playhouse.
When asked about it, Makayla solemnly declared that she was “too busy finding books” to play there anymore. But not twenty minutes into their visit, Makayla scampers past the forest of iPads that make up the tech playground and makes a beeline for the Discovery Room, drawn by the sound of children’s laughter.
Helen heads to a bench on the far side of the play area, to settle in and watch as Makayla drags several puppets into the playhouse—returning only to offer a fluffy stuffed rabbit to an older girl stationed at the trainset. “May you be the bunny, because I’m going to be the camel?” Makayla asks, high voice serious.
The discovery room is a recent addition to NPL that didn’t exist when Helen’s own children visited, but she appreciates its resources and size. “I think Makayla will always love going to the library, because of all her great experiences here,” she said.
Makayla has trailed back to her grandma, clutching the camel hopefully behind her back. Helen tilts her head knowingly. “You want me to be the camel?”