by Cara Giles
Illustrations by Alice Cao

To my great disappointment, I’ve never claimed a land in the name of Spain. But the Christmas I turned eight, my parents gave me a rubber stamp reading, “This book belongs to Cara,” which felt pretty close to the same thrill. I sat down with an ink pad—the power! —and commenced expanding my kingdom. Stamp—Neverland. Stamp—Oz. Stamp—Narnia. I annexed world after world, feeling the joy of ownership bloom through hardcovers and paperbacks alike. Beside my little bookshelf, I was queen of all I surveyed. I’d already cherished the stories, but now there was permanent, nontoxic proof that they were mine.

I wasn’t the first reader to enjoy marking her territory. Before the advent of rubber stamps, bookplates were the way to go. As early as the 1400s, the super-rich laid claim to their volumes with hand-colored inserts pasted inside. Nobility would flash their coats of arms; monasteries sometimes used symbols like churches and angels. The words Ex Libris, Latin for “from the books of,” often sat above the owner’s name. In those days books were a precious commodity, and if you liked it you had better put a ring on it. To go the extra mile, books were sometimes chained in place: You can’t forget to return what never left the room! Even as books became more readily available and readers loosened their white-knuckle grips on their shelves, people continued using bookplates. As specific books were bought, treasured, sold, and sold again, bookplates could be spackled one on top of another, layers deep like wallpaper in an old house. Hundreds of years later, archivists follow the chains of possession back through time.

Sensibilities changed over the years, and bibliophiles started showcasing their own interests and personalities when they had bookplates designed. Rose Wilder Lane’s bookplates show the novelist at her desk, visualizing a pioneer family. In Sylvia Plath’s bookplates, a woman reads outdoors. Sigmund Freud’s depict a sphinx posing her riddle. Greta Garbo’s bookplates feature a portrait of the starlet with her signature sweeping eyelashes.

In college, I was hardly so sophisticated. I bought used textbooks whenever possible, crossing out previous owners’ names and scribbling in my own. But textbooks felt like business, while fiction was always a joyous escape. When one of my English department friends had her first child, I ordered a set of color-drenched bookplates customized with her baby’s name and a tiny fairy in a garden.

My own daughters came years later, a scant fourteen months apart. I barely had time to shower, let alone read, as the toddler years tore through our house. But children grow, and in due time they stopped gumming board books. Their shelves filled in with Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh, Fancy Nancy and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I hunted through thrift stores for unusual vintage titles.

My four- and five-year-olds were by my side one day when, books already in the shopping cart, I paused to look through a shelf of craft supplies. I snatched a rubber stamp, my eyes bugging out at our good luck. “From the Library of:” floated across the bottom in elegant script, with a dotted line ready for personalization. A Pegasus reared up in the foreground. Billowing clouds marked the path to a fairy-tale castle, and stars shone overhead.

“This is very special,” I told my girls. “We can stamp this inside your books, write your names, and everyone will know they belong to you.” I’d write their names across the known and imagined universe, given half the chance. The worlds I’d loved, signed over like so many deeds in indelible, archival ink. Ex Libris, little readers. I claim these books in your name.

Cara Giles is a fantasy writer living in southern Utah with her husband and daughters. In between library visits, she’s penning new stories to share. Follow artist Alice Cao on Instagram @alicecaoillustration.


Spring Book Lovers Cover by Enchanted Living MagazineEnchanted Living is a quarterly print magazine that celebrates all things enchanted. 
Subscribe now and begin with our Spring Book Lovers issue!
Previous articleSylvie Facon’s Couturier Book Dresses – Volumes of Time’s Passing
Next articleThe Art of Fore-Edge Painting