My Free Library: Why I love South Philly’s Charles Santore branch

An essay in recognition of National Library Week.

Illustrator Charles Santore in his Philadelphia studio in 2015

Illustrator Charles Santore in his Philadelphia studio in 2015

dan headshot

I miss my library. Located four blocks from my apartment, the Charles Santore Library has ESL lessons, storytimes, childcare, DVDs, a public bathroom, a friendly staff, and a spot in the front where I can find my name alphabetically to pick up a book on a hold.

Plus, the Philadelphia Free Library recently eliminated all late fees, giving the nation’s 13th largest library system full credibility in living up to its unique name.

Why is it called the “free” library? Aren’t they all free? Well, when it was established in the late 1800s, the only other places to get books were prohibitively expensive private collections. Only the affluent had unfettered access to literature and literacy.

Even today, America’s literacy’s rate is below the international average. If measured by ability to read a newspaper, almost one in five American adults fail that test. Only 12% of Americans read at the college level. In Philadelphia, about 22% of adults lack basic literacy skills.

Where can people go to learn to read? Yep, the library. Philly’s Free Library is credited with teaching tens of thousands of adults how to read.

Tucked between Philadelphia’s Italian Market and the Liberty Bell, the Charles Santore branch shut its doors indefinitely this March, like thousands of others. Hundreds of free events were cancelled, though online activities continue and electronic collections are available through Hoopla.

On my kitchen table sits a variety of COVID-extended checkouts, including sci-fi, graphic novels, crime tales, audiobooks, and a Italy travel guide, its gondola-emblazoned cover a sad reminder of my cancelled May trip.

Things I love most about my local branch: its gray and accidentally brutalist architecture, its smell, its link to a world-class network of collections. Also, its namesake — or so I thought.

Charles Santore Library branch

Charles Santore Library branch

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Finding fame in children’s illustration

Book illustrator Charles Santore, who died last year, was born in South Philly in 1935 and attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. After some work at ad agencies, he began a freelance career.

His first major work was on a palm-size publication which happened to be some of the first reading I could muster on my own: the TV Guide. On the cover of that once indispensable catalog, Santore drew Peter Falk as Columbo and Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, among other pop culture characters of the 70s. He went on to draw for Time, LIFE, Newsweek, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, National Geographic and several others.

Santore’s most celebrated work, however, was children’s books. In 1985, he was asked to illustrate a new edition of Tales of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, kicking off a four-decade career.

Santore really had his own style. He played with scale in a way that draws readers of any age into the world of the page. He preferred realism over the abstract. I particularly like the straightforward detail and dynamism found in Paul Revere’s Ride.

He blended funk and pastel to make pictures that are classic but just a little playfully off. His lion in a field of poppies in Wizard of Oz is especially striking for its depth, something magical and expansive that extends from the page.

For stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for which he illustrated a 50th anniversary edition just prior to his death, Santore’s talents were perfectly suited. In fact, he even adapted Alice falling through the rabbit hole for an early ad he’d designed for a Pfizer vertigo medication. In that and other pieces, he conveyed the complex curiosity and innocence in children’s expressions

The artist drew on some older work, as well. He brought Renaissance-like coloring to royalty and clothing and fabric. If you like van Eyck and Bruegel, you’ll probably appreciate this guy. Some of his classics, including Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and The Night Before Christmas, can be found in this anthology.

A snapshot of Santore's work table

A snapshot of Santore's work table

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Let’s name more libraries for artists!

Walking to the Charles Santore library each week, I grew to have a real affinity for the illustrator. I walked in feeling I was entering a place for writers and readers and artists. I felt connected to my neighborhood’s culture.

After many months of this, however, I learned my library branch isn’t named after him. Yeah, embarrassing curveball. It was named after a different Charles Santore — the artist’s dad, who was a local politician, union leader and boxer (that’s Philadelphia for you).

More public libraries should be named after those who work in the world of reading, rather than donors and politicians or so blandly after a town name. Illustrators are especially overlooked.

“When you’re working on a children’s book and you get involved in the long narrative, it’s more like composing a piece of music than a picture,” said Santore. “You can actually make very quiet pictures that build to a crescendo.”

It’s this kind of attention that stretched our childhood imaginations to their fullest.

Think of E.H. Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh, Peggy Fortnum’s bringing Paddington Bear to life, or 2016’s beautiful Teacup, illustrated by Matt Ottley. I want to see libraries named after people like this.

In general, as we look towards a post-pandemic world, I hope that our public institutions like libraries are funded, frequented and fought for. Forget gift cards. Library cards should be gifts.

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