New York Circulating Materials Repository
Ok, so the New York Circulating Materials Repository doesn’t exist. I wish, I wish, I wish upon a star that it did, because that would be awesome! But, alas, alack, it doesn’t. However! you can read about it in Polly Shulman’s wonderful YA novels; The Grimm Legacy (available now) and The Wells Bequest (available in June from Nancy Paulsen Books). One of the things I really like is when an author can build a series around an idea rather than around a character. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy books that are built around characters, I do! I read lots of them (exhaustive list to follow at bottom of post), but sometimes, it’s nice to let the characters you like go off to their happy endings, but still get to stay in the world and meet new characters. Polly Shulman does an excellent job of setting up a world I want to immerse myself in.
It’s all centered around the New York Circulating Materials Repository. It’s like a library. And many people call it a library. But libraries, by their most common definition contain books (recordings, or films) not objects. The NYCMR is a collection of things; tools, toys, teapots, telescopes, trains. In short, it is chock full of stuff that members can examine and even check out. There are 14th century teapots, automata from ancient China, vacuum cleaners from the 1950’s, and Elizabethan doublets. Then, there are the Special Collections.
One of the reasons I think I like these books so much is that I have spent a lot of time in the Special Collections building at the University of Alabama. As a grad student I had my own office in the Osteology lab where I analyzed and cataloged part of that collection. We shared a floor with lots of people who worked with the textile collection. Our hallway had beautiful illustrations of fabric patterns and rug designs. During one class I got access to our files of antique photographs. There were amazing photos of archaeological digs during the 1930’s when the Tennessee Valley Authority was working on projects all over the southeast. There were excavations all over Alabama working just ahead of the dam building. There were stranger things in the stacks; large taxidermied animals from the Natural History collection, a shelf full of dolls and their accessories, preserved butterflies. Downstairs was the Hoole Library with its rare books, boxes full of donated letters and manuscripts, and of course, the Tiffany window.
How can you not feel awesome when you exit an elevator and see light shining through that? I used the Hoole collection several times when I was researching my cousin, Sara Mayfield. She was part of the literary world of the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was friends with H.L. Menkin and Zelda Fitzgerald. She was also hospitalized for mental problems. She donated her papers to the library (after burning all the really interesting stuff according to my mom). I was named for her although she died right before I was born. I’ve always felt a kind of creepy resonance with her. So, I spent a summer reading through her letters and diaries and looking at the caricatures she drew of her doctors in the psych ward. There was something kind of magical to me about getting off the elevator, looking at that amazing window, and then proceeding into the reading room. I’d fill out my call slip with the tiny pencils and hand it to the librarian who would assign me a desk and then bring out my box of artifacts. The papers were old, but in good shape so I didn’t have to put on the special gloves. Though, to be honest, sometimes I wore them anyway.
This otherworldliness is something that Polly Shulman captures with the New-York Circulating Materials Repository. There are stained glass windows in all the walls of the main reading room. The call slips are sent through pneumatic tubes down to pages in the stacks. There is the everyday magic of a beautiful building full of knowledge and history. But the Special Collections have real magic.
In The Grimm Legacy Elizabeth Rew gets a job as a page at the NYCMR. At first it’s fairly normal. She works in the stacks pulling artifacts and repackaging them and replacing them when the patrons are done. But she keeps hearing about the Grimm Legacy. It’s one of the Special Collections. The items listed in the inventory seem… unusual. There can’t really be seven-league boots down there, right? Or Cinderella’s glass slipper? Or was it a fur slipper? They must be props or toys. But, if the stained glass windows in the reading room can look different for every person, or your boss’s freckles can move around his face, maybe tiny tables that fill with food when you knock on them can exist too. The Grimm Legacy seems to consist of items straight out of fairy tales. And, as in all fairy tales, there is a villain who wants the powerful magic available within the collection. It quickly becomes apparent that it is up to Elizabeth and the other pages to protect the artifacts and each other.The Wells Bequest takes place some years later. Leo comes from a family of scientists. And not just any scientists, but really, really good scientists. He’s… creative. He’s a really good inventor, he can see the machines before he even picks up a tool. It’s just that they don’t always do exactly what he expects them to. One night a tiny machine phases into his bedroom. It is being driven by a miniature version of himself and an amazing girl. They tell him that they’re from the future and that it is important that he read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (If that makes you think of the title of the book, good catch). The girl tries to tell him something else, but future-Leo stops her and they disappear.
When Leo goes to the New-York Circulating Materials Repository he meets the regular sized version of the beautiful girl. Her name is Jaya and she’s the head page at the Repository. Leo falls in love and manages to get a job as a page in fairly short order. Leo has two goals for his time at the Repository; spend as much time as possible with Jaya and find the time machine that was in his bedroom. Along the way he discovers the Special Collections at the Repository. The Wells Bequest, in particular, is of interest. It has a time machine. It’s just… it doesn’t work. The glittering rod doesn’t glitter and the machine as a whole doesn’t go. When one of the pages goes a little crazy and threatens New York with a (theoretically) working version of Tesla’s Death Ray it becomes vital for Leo and Jaya to go back in time and stop Tesla’s assistant from stealing the plans.
This was an amazingly fun read. The first book is pretty girl focused, but I think the second one will appeal to boys too. The book stands on its own. You know that something has happened at the Repository before, but you wouldn’t be lost if you started with the Wells Bequest. There’s romance, but not so much that I’d call it (in the immortal words of The Princess Bride) a kissing book. This novel has my whole-hearted recommendation.