Do you remember when you first fell in love with reading? I mean the first time you truly, deeply felt that the world was not right unless you had a book in your hands? For me, I didn’t experience this kind of love until high school.
My grandmother was an avid fan of Jill Churchill, and she introduced me to the mystery author’s Jane Jeffries series when I was a freshman. We quickly bonded over the misadventures of Jane, a suburban housewife turned widow turned amateur detective, and together we’d anticipate each new pun-filled title. Grime and Punishment, Silence of the Hams, A Quiche Before Dying – what’s not to love?
It was my grandmother’s love of these cozy mysteries that inspired me to read more. She revealed to me that Jill Churchill was the pseudonym of Janice Young Brooks, a Kansas City area author who previously wrote historical romances. My grandmother had duplicate copies of a few of these, some even signed by Janice, and she let me borrow them to read too.
My absolute favorite was Seventrees, a multi-generational saga about a Pennsylvania family settling in pre-Civil War Kansas. Crown Sable offers a fascinating look at the American fur trade, Cinnamon Wharf details interesting facts about the spice trade in England and Singapore, and Guests of the Emperor, about British and American women who were imprisoned in a Japanese camp during World War II, was adapted into the television movie Silent Cries.
All of these titles went out of print by the late 1990's. In the days of dial-up internet, I researched the author and found the full list of her published titles on her now-defunct website. I was excited to share with my grandmother that there were even more novels under her real name and other pseudonyms. Because my grandmother was such a fan, I tasked myself with tracking down ones she didn’t have.
There used to be this perfect used bookstore in Mission. Hidden around the corner of a strip of shops, the store was a maze of book shelves with hardcovers and paperbacks stacked in piles lining the aisles. Definitely not a fire marshal's ideal, but a bookworm's dream. One of those places you could get lost in. It was owned and operated by a bearded, heavy set man and his wife. Monthly, I would make the drive out there just to see if they had any of Janice's books. Each time, I'd ask at the register, and the owner - knowing they were out of print and rare - would pull them from a shelf behind the counter and gruffly hand them to me. Each time I walked away with a new title, I was thrilled to share it with my grandmother.
The summer after my sophomore year at college, my grandmother passed away, and I inherited a number of her books. I remember sorting through musty bookshelves in her sitting room and her basement looking for Janice’s books specifically. Much like you might cling to memorabilia from a first relationship, I’ve held on to these well worn and loved paperbacks.
I don't know when or if I'll get to reading the historical romances or the mysteries again, but I'm really glad that my grandmother introduced me to Janice/Jill and inspired my love of reading. I'll always think of her when I see them on my bookshelves and feel her with me when I do pick one up.
- William Ottens is the Cataloging & Collection Development Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library