Books, my travel portals

I was nine, in what was then known as the Jurong East Community Library, about to have my life changed.

My mother - tastemaker, censor, Keeper Of The Card - said to me: "Just borrow whatever you want lah. You're big already."

It was a simple statement, said by-the-by as she headed for the magazine section. But my world was knocked off its axis.

For years, my mother ruled the library with an iron fist. The rules were simple but set in stone: I was to borrow at least one Malay book on each library trip. The rest needed to pass her test.

Her selection criteria: no drugs, nothing sexy, not too many pictures ("Borrow books you actually have to read!").

But she was also squeamish about content she saw as a little too bizarre. Take The Animorphs, a strictly PG kids sci-fi series. The first time I tried to float one of those books by her, she gave the cover - a boy's face morphing slowly into a green lizard - a hard stare, then turned her gaze on me. A professional librarian would be impressed by the speed at which I returned the book to the shelf.

But I'd like to think her tastes expanded with mine. When I nudged some lovely young adult fantasy by Dianna Wynne Jones - Charmed Life, the first Chrestomanci book - her way, she read the blurb on the back, heaved a long-suffering sigh and let it slide.

That fateful day she gave me my free pass, I had my first taste of independence. She gave me the freedom of choice.

It was, in hindsight, a very generous gift to a nine-year-old girl. And I hope I didn't squander it.

Neither of my parents are great readers of fiction. To them, reading was practical: my father, who works at the Singapore Maritime Academy, reads for his job and studies, my mother to feed us. Most of the Hari Raya kuih my mother bakes each year were from recipes copied by hand from food magazines into her notebooks. But they were great believers in letting their children read. They started us young and never begrudged our weekly trips to the library.

To me, reading was never about practicality and all about hunting down that little bit of exotic magic: treacle pudding (a childhood fixation that tasted better in Enid Blyton books than they did a decade later when I finally had a taste in real life); talking animals; swordfights.

And over the years, libraries have become, for most of my life, my default way of travel.

In my school years, I was caught up in fantasy series such as David Eddings' The Belgariad or Robert Jordan's The Wheel Of Time, but the instalments were spread out among libraries across the island.

Searching the National Library Board catalogue and noting the right libraries, I would plot the best travel routes and set aside an entire day for book hunting. I could hit up to three libraries a day and explore the neighbourhoods around them.

Libraries took me not only to imaginary new worlds, but also to parts of the island alien to me.

Even now, each place has its own set of memories. Woodlands Regional Library had the library makcik with the flawless cat-eye glasses, who always gave my friends and me the low-down on the latest Suria dramas. Jurong Regional Library is associated with a particularly disastrous physics test: I spent my "study session" there cramming Terry Pratchett instead.

In the old library@orchard, then located on the fifth floor of Ngee Ann City Shopping Centre, a friend once fell in love with a boy who reached - at the exact moment as her, she insists - for the same book. Later we found out that he was a creepy library veteran who lurked in aisles to pick up girls.

The day I truly owned my library card, I started on a journey - not just of distant lands in the pages of a book, or long trips by bus and train across Singapore - but a journey towards being an adult.

Through my gawky, introvert teenage years, I found myself through the books I read, and found friends among other readers. All this happened because my mother gave me free rein in the library.

It also happened because libraries are free: free in the sense that your allowance will never dry up no matter how many books you read, but also free because a young, curious person can wander through worlds unfettered and make up her own mind.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Books, my travel portals'. Print Edition | Subscribe