"The Library" is part of Making Magic, a limited series of original short stories from The Paper Mouse team. We hope these stories will amuse and transport you.
It began by chance.
Francie was sniffing around the baseboards in the corner of the library, where she sometimes found bits of something golden and crunchy. She had paused in the shadow of a hulking armchair, inspecting an oat, when she heard a voice.
“The Trunchbull was sitting behind the teacher’s table staring with a mixture of horror and fascination at the newt wriggling in the glass. Matilda’s eyes were also riveted on the glass. And now, quite slowly, there began to creep over Matilda a most extraordinary and peculiar feeling.”
Francie dropped her oat and peeped around the chair. There was a foot poking out over the arm of the chair, clad in a blue shoe with yellow laces.
“The feeling was mostly in the eyes. A kind of electricity seemed to be gathering inside them.”
Francie had never heard anything like it before. The library was usually very quiet, only whispering with the sounds of shuffling paper, throat-clearing, and muffled footsteps, punctuated by the hourly chiming of the clock. Francie was just a pup and hadn’t been out in the library for many weeks, but she knew its sounds well enough.
She crept a little further around the chair and saw the rest of the person draped over it: a little girl. That is, Francie’s parents would have said she was a little girl, by human standards; to Francie, she was a proper giant. She was lying sideways across the armchair in a way that bigger humans never did, with a book upright in her lap, reading. She had dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin, and her clothing was bright, bright, bright.
“A sense of power was brewing in those eyes of hers, a feeling of great strength was settling itself deep inside her eyes.”
Francie sat by the chair, forgetting that she was visible, listening to the girl read, until the clock on the wall rang four times and she remembered she was out in the open and scampered home.
Francie’s family, along with all the other library mice, lived behind the baseboards, where the heaters kept the walls cozy in winter and the brick walls outside stayed cool in summer. Their home was a snug corridor that ran the length of the library, filled with snug nests of paper and fluffy insulation nestled between the wooden studs, and dotted with plenty of holes in the baseboard where the mice could slip in and out.
That night when the library was quiet, Francie and her parents went out to scavenge, as usual, for anything good that had been dropped during the day: crumbs dropped by rule-bending readers, forgotten scraps of paper for padding their nests, and any little placatory offerings they could collect for Nobb, the resident mouser. Francie found herself a couple of peanuts—a real treasure—but she kept drifting back toward the armchair where she’d sat listening that afternoon. She could still hear the girl’s voice echoing in her head.
A few days later she heard it again. This time Francie was inside the wall near the armchair (she’d been lingering there, dozing). When she heard the voice, she sat bolt upright, quivering, and pressed her ear to the wall.
“The BFG,” said the voice. “By Roald Dahl.”
Francie ran for the nearest hole and poked her nose out of the baseboard.
“The Witching Hour,” continued the little girl. “Sophie couldn’t sleep. A brilliant moonbeam was slanting through a gap in the curtains. It was shining right on to her pillow.”
For an hour or more Francie listened, mesmerized. The girl read about another little girl named Sophie, and a giant who stole her away, right out of her bedroom window. The giant ran away with Sophie to a cave beneath a mountain, and she thought he would eat her for breakfast, but he turned out to be called the Big Friendly Giant and they became friends.
As she listened, Francie crept closer and closer to the girl’s chair, forgetting to watch out for Nobb or the librarian, Mr. Crowley. She sat bespelled, in plain sight, listening intently. Until the clock on the wall struck four again, and the girl in the chair looked up.
If she was startled by the sight of a mouse sitting and watching her, she did a good job hiding it. Her eyes got a little wider at the sight of her audience, and her voice got a little higher, but like a good performer she went boldly on with her narration. She even turned toward Francie in her chair a little.
When she came to the end of a chapter called “Snozzcumbers,” the little girl put the book aside. Slowly, cautiously, she bent down to look at Francie. “Do you like this story?” she asked.
Francie trembled at being addressed directly, but she nodded her head, the way she sometimes saw the humans do when Mr. Crowley told them where to find a particular book.
“Can you read?”
Francie shook her head.
“Have you listened to me read before?”
The girl considered her a moment.
“My name is Laila,” she said at last. “What should I call you?”
Francie wished she could speak human, but her parents told her the humans didn’t know how to listen properly.
“Are you a girl?”
Francie nodded, and Laila smiled. “Can I call you Sophie?”
Francie thought of the little girl from the story, becoming friends with the big friendly giant. She nodded.
After that they read together often, whenever Laila came to the library. First they read their way through all of Roald Dahl’s books. Then it was adventure stories, of young ladies becoming knights and siblings popping through wardrobes to find magical lands and hobbits having adventures with dwarves. Later, they tried other things. Francie liked histories, but they made Laila drowsy. They agreed that poetry was unfathomable, though Laila liked reciting rhyming poems from long ago and Francie enjoyed the cadence of her voice, rising and falling. Francie secretly liked the love stories that Laila read now and again, but Laila would make faces if there was too much kissing.
When Laila noticed that Francie was skittish about sitting in the open, she found a new armchair in a quieter corner where Francie could listen without worrying. At first Francie kept to a cautious distance on the floor nearby, but she grew bolder and bolder, until one day she shimmied right up the arm of the chair to sit in Laila’s lap, her friend giggling at the feel of Francie’s tiny paws.
But there were close calls. Mr. Crowley, the librarian, a thin, humorless man, nearly caught them once or twice. Francie just had time to dive into the cushion of the armchair as the tips of his polished shoes appeared at the end of the row. Mr. Crowley hated mice, and Francie had seen him once throw a book at her cousin Edmund and very nearly hit him. And Mr. Crowley worshipped books—so that tells you how much he hated mice.
Then there was Nobb, the big, fluffy ginger cat Mr. Crowley had brought in “to keep those vermin out of the stacks.” Francie wasn’t so afraid of Nobb as she was of Mr. Crowley. Grandfather had made a sort of truce with Nobb: the mice, who after all preferred grains or nuts, would gather any bits of meat they found in the library for him—bits of bologna and roast beef that fell out of the patrons’ inevitable sandwiches, in spite of the No Eating in the Library signs; bits of jerky and turkey and tuna—and the cat would leave them alone. They all profited: the library was kept clean, the cat was kept happy, and the mice were kept safe. But that didn’t mean they much liked the big ginger; there was no getting over nature entirely, and Francie still felt a little thrill of fear when she smelled him coming or saw him curled up on a cushion, one slitted golden eye on the activity around him. And, after all, if Mr. Crowley saw a mouse and dropped Nobb in front of them, he’d have to do his job. Still, Francie didn’t feel much fear while Laila sat placidly by her side.
When Laila began school in the fall, they read The Giver for her English class. Then she had a paper to write on ancient Greece, which meant Francie got to indulge her taste in history for a few weeks as they researched together. “Sophie,” Laila said to Francie, “I don’t know why you like this stuff.” But Francie clambered onto her lap and looked at her expectantly, whiskers quivering, and Laila laughed and said, “At least one of us is enjoying this,” and read on.
As fall faded into winter, Mr. Crowley started to frown on Laila’s presence in the library. He had noticed her habit of reading aloud, which was evidently not encouraged in humans past a certain age. He began to walk up behind her at odd moments, shushing her loudly. This was a dreadful inconvenience and a fright besides. The first time it happened, Francie only barely managed to dart under Laila’s backpack. Soon she learned to listen from a bottom bookshelf, where Laila would make a little hollow for her by sliding out a few volumes and tilting the next book at an angle as a kind of tent. Mr. Crowley’s increasingly frequent appearances were a constant source of alarm and an unwelcome interruption, too, punctuating Laila’s melodious reading voice with rude “shhh”s and “hem”s. Eventually, there came a day when he confronted Laila.
“Excuse me, Miss… ah…” he began, in his reedy voice.
“Miss Laila, you must know that speaking is not allowed in the library. Your reading aloud is disturbing the other patrons.”
“Sorry,” said Laila, in a humble tone. “I’ll be quieter.”
“But can’t you read inside your head?”
“But then I can’t hear the voices just right,” said Laila. “And it’s harder to picture what’s happening.”
The librarian, who after all was a passionate reader, gave a sort of sigh. He may not have been a lover of mice, but he did love the books in the library, and some days Francie wasn’t even sure she blamed him, when she saw the way some of her younger cousins nibbled the pages. And while he was a dry old stick, he wasn’t the sort of man to discourage a book lover from reading.
“Try to keep it down, will you?” he said, and returned to his desk.
After that, Laila was careful to lower her voice to a murmur, even if she did sometimes forget when they reached a very exciting passage.
But one day, everything changed.
School had let out early that day, and Laila headed straight for the library. The two friends were working their way through The Golden Compass, and Laila had promised Francie not to finish without her. They were both writhing with anticipation to see how it ended. The library had a different crowd in the middle of a weekday: grown-ups working on their laptops, reading the newspaper, and doing research in the carrels; parents reading with their toddlers; a few slouchy high schoolers slumped over the reading tables. Sharp-eyed Mr. Crowley was stalking among the patrons, bestowing advice or admonishments. Nobb was slinking around the legs of chairs, accepting scratches from the friendlier patrons. The library mice kept well hidden on days like this, sleeping behind the baseboards until the quiet and safety of evening.
Laila made a beeline for her usual chair, but it was already taken by a prim-looking lady reading a thick philosophy book. Making a face, Laila retreated, looking around for another place to sit. All she could find was a wooden chair at the corner of one of the reading tables: too exposed by half. She dragged the chair away from the table and toward a corner, ignoring the grown-ups’ looks, slung her backpack over it to claim her territory, and then went to crouch by the hole in the baseboard where Francie always emerged to greet her. “Sophie!” she whispered.
Francie awoke from a nap and poked her nose out, blinking with sleepy confusion. The library was much busier now than it was during Laila’s usual visits.
“I got out early from school,” Laila whispered. “I found us a chair. It’s a bit busy in here, but you can climb in my pocket.”
Francie’s whiskers trembled. Her parents always warned her against going out at times like this. But she was bound to be safe with Laila—and the sight of The Golden Compass tucked under her friend’s arm made her bold. She scurried into Laila’s outstretched palm, and her friend tucked her into her jeans pocket.
They settled on Laila’s chair and began to read. Laila hadn’t eaten lunch at school, so she pulled out the peanut butter sandwich her dad had packed her and shared it with Francie, sheltering it behind the book on her lap as she read. At first, Francie kept darting back to Laila’s pocket with her crumbs, but soon she forgot herself and stayed put as Laila read about the great bear king Iorek fighting the usurper Iofur. She worried her tail with her paws in anxious anticipation. Poor Iorek! How could he win against Iofur in his horrid armor?
Unnoticed by either of them, Laila’s voice began to rise with excitement. Iorek was smaller, but he was smarter; he was the true king. He was tricking Iofur, the great ugly brute! “That was when Iorek moved,” Laila read eagerly. “Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself up high into the sky, terrifying the shore-dwellers, before crashing down on the land—”
“Miss Laila.” A shadow fell across her lap.
Laila and Francie both jumped in alarm. Mr. Crowley towered above them. Francie darted underneath the sandwich and crouched there, quaking.
“I really must ask you to keep quiet. The noise—”
But Mr. Crowley stopped suddenly, his frown deepening.
“What is that?”
He had spotted Laila’s lunch.
“Young lady, you know perfectly well that food is not allowed in the library. I have tolerated your reading aloud, but you cannot simply disregard all the rules.” He was shaking his head, reaching for the sandwich. “Food leaves crumbs, Miss Laila, and crumbs attract—”
Too late, Francie felt the rush of air over her head as the sheltering sandwich was lifted away. She made a desperate spring from Laila’s lap—
“MICE!” bellowed Mr. Crowley, leaping backwards. Francie felt a whoosh and a second later, the sandwich went flying past her head. She veered toward the nearest bookcase.
“NOBB!” the librarian hollered. All around, library patrons were looking up, scandalized and startled and amused. “Where is that DRATTED CAT?”
Francie froze in horror for one heartstopping moment as she caught a glimpse of Nobb springing towards her from across the room. Then she turned tail and sprinted—back past the bookcase, back past Laila, who had her hands over her mouth, back past Mr. Crowley, who was reaching for The Golden Compass—
And into the safety of the baseboard.
A moment later, she heard a flump as Nobb slammed into the wall where she had disappeared. She backed away from the hole. His paw poked inside briefly, waving around, and then his face appeared, squashed up to the entrance.
“Lucky this time, little one,” he purred. “You owe me at least a slice of turkey for that great escape.” And then he retreated. Francie peeped out of the hole in time to see him saunter off, in the nonchalant manner of cats pretending they haven’t embarrassed themselves.
Outside the hole, a livid Mr. Crowley was shouting something at Laila, pointing to the door. She was crying. The grown-ups nearby were tutting and shaking their heads. Laila picked up her book and her backpack and headed for the door.
Months went by, and Francie pined. Not once since that day had Laila set foot inside the library. Francie missed her friend’s company desperately. Her siblings and cousins were changing, becoming parents and taking up more responsibility. Francie was a grown mouse now, too, but she could hardly be less interested in the concerns of her fellow mice. Her parents worried: she was too attracted to the library, too liable to take risks. Sometimes Francie would sneak out in the morning to listen to the grown-up humans read to their toddlers, but after all the marvelous worlds she had visited with Laila, these simple stories only reminded her of what she’d lost.
To assuage her parents’ fears, Francie went through the motions, gathering food with her family at night and playing with the little ones. She made sure to leave extra offerings for Nobb whenever she could. She even tried to recount some of Laila’s best stories to the pups. They liked to listen, but she couldn’t remember all the details.
One day, Francie was dozing behind the baseboard by the circulation desk when she heard Mr. Crowley’s voice. “... for six months. Your father assures me you have reviewed the library rules.”
“Yes, Mr. Crowley.”
Francie snapped awake. That was Laila’s voice! She scrambled to the hole to peer outside. Sure enough, there was her friend, looking contrite, waiting by the desk for Mr. Crowley to hand back her library card.
“There is to be no eating, no drinking, and no more reading aloud.”
“Yes, Mr. Crowley.”
“Well then.” He passed the card to Laila. “Welcome back to the library.”
Francie almost leapt out of the hole to follow her, but she didn’t quite dare; she couldn’t get Laila in trouble again. Instead, she ducked back inside and followed the baseboard around to the back of the library, to their old reading spot.
And there was Laila, settling down in the armchair, looking about her with a glum expression. Francie watched, her heart swelling and aching all at once. Laila pulled out a book and began to read, silently.
Finally, unable to stand it, Francie darted out from the hole and up to the armchair. She gave a little squeak.
Laila peered over the top of her book. “Sophie?” she whispered.
Francie shimmied up the side of the armchair.
“I missed you,” Laila murmured. “I’m so sorry I got you in trouble.”
“I’m sorry, too,” said Francie. She thought her friend would understand, even though Laila only spoke human.
“Listen,” said Laila, “I can’t read to you any more. But I’m working on an idea. I don’t know if it’ll work yet, okay? Just—keep an ear out.”
Francie went home with a lighter heart than she’d had in many long months.
One Sunday in summer, Laila showed up at the library with a group of school friends. The library was closed, but Mr. Crowley had waited there to let them in.
“Good evening, Miss Laila,” he said.
“Good evening, Mr. Crowley,” she said.
Francie watched from nearby as Laila led her friends to the back of the library, where the comfiest chairs were to be found. They all ranged themselves in a circle, snuggling into the chairs, laughing and chatting. Only Laila was silent, sitting solemn and straight backed until the talk slowly petered out. All eyes were on her.
“Welcome,” she said into the sudden hush, “to the first meeting of the Read-Aloud Book Club.”
Laila lifted a book from her lap. Over the heads of her friends, she looked toward the hole in the baseboard where Francie’s nose was just poking out into the library. She winked.
Then she began to read.
Excerpts from Matilda, by Roald Dahl; The BFG, by Roald Dahl; and The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
Read the other installments of the Making Magic series here: