I was twelve years old when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. It was the first time I had read a book where I didn’t just identify with the main character – I was in utter sympatico with her. Everything that Meg Murry felt, I felt. Her loneliness. Her frustration. Her poor social skills. Her emotional immaturity. Her awkwardness. Her separateness from her peers. Her love for her family. Her anger. Her confusion. Her sorrow. The things she said, I could have said. The weird things she did, I could have done (and likely had done). I had never before seen my own struggles in black and white – in the surety of paper and ink. The fact of that book in my hands thrilled me to the core.
I didn’t like the cover, so I tore it off. It was a library book, but I had no intention of returning it. I slid it in between the mattress and box spring of my bed, and read it and re-read it a thousand times. I wonder where it is now. Some nights, I wake up and I am sure I am gnawing on book binding glue. The paper disintegrated long ago – and I am sure I have breathed cloud after cloud of story dust as I sat in the loneliness of that room. The ink seeped into my skin. Those words are written on my bones.
I think I still owe that fine. Don’t tell the library.
I bring it up because, according to the good folks at MPR, it is a Young Adult novel. Except that it’s not YA at all. It’s a Middle Grade novel – and a damn good one. There is a difference, of course, between Young Adult and Middle Grade. I wrote about it, of course, here, and here. It’s been written about on approximately nine million other sites, most notably here and here and here. As expected, the good folks at MPR didn’t care to trouble themselves to learn the difference, and, as expected, it was a Middle Grade novel that won the “Best YA Book of All Time” poll on Minnesota Public Radio, and, as expected, a bunch of children’s authors seethed and ground their teeth that the good ladies of the Daily Circuit couldn’t be bothered to get their terms right – and what’s worse, were incredibly dismissive of those who tried to educate them on what the terms mean and why they matter.
Pete Hautman sums up the situation nicely here and here. Now you can click on the MPR link above, and read through the comments that a bunch of published authors, seasoned librarians, booksellers, and scholars of children’s literature left (myself included) about why it’s so important to get these terms right – if, for no other reason, we can stop all the hand-wringing from parents who don’t understand that if you hand your eight-year-old YA books that explicitly wrestle with the teen experience, said child will be wading through material and life-experiences that are inappropriate to their own experience. A Middle Grade book is a FAR more appropriate choice for that child. The distinctions matter not just for discussion and evaluation, but for purchasing too.
And it’s frustrating to those of us who actually care about books. Who love books. And who are passionate advocates for the role the beloved book in the life of a child.
And THAT’s what I actually wanted to talk about. Beloved books. Important books. The books that matter.
One of the things that I love about my colleagues in Children’s Literature (the writers, the librarians, the teachers, the scholars) is that – to a one – they are all book evangelists in their souls. Each one came to children’s literature because of a central truth that governs their lives. That books matter. That children’s books matter. And that every child deserves the chance to be moved by a book. To be guided by a book. To have a book change their world-view, change their thinking, change their trajectory, change their life.
And, of course, it’s not the book that does this, in the end. It’s the child holding the book who builds the world. And that’s exciting to me.
This time of year, the book world becomes awash with lists. Best-of lists. Newbery contender lists. Folks in the media love the horse-race narrative. They love stories of who’s up and who’s down. They love shadowy contenders. They love statistics. But the problem is that it goes counter to what we all know about books. We do not read for best, and we do not read to give awards, and we do not read to quantify the experience. Our experience with books is a relationship. It grows with us, changes as we change. It is responsive to our evolving understanding, our deepening experience, our complicated lives.
This is because, in the end, a book is a living thing. It insinuates itself into the mind and the heart. It replicates itself in dream and imagination and play. It loves. It worries. It wonders. I have been living with books for a long time, and I understand and believe and will repeat every day until the day I die the one thing that I absolutely know to be true: Books have souls. And so do we.
There have been books, like A Wrinkle in Time, that have taken residence in my life. That have integrated themselves into the landscape of my imagination and written themselves onto my heart. The inform my life as a writer, as a daughter, as a mom and as a wife. They inform my life as a politically aware person, as a good neighbor, as an educator. They protect me when I am sad. They spur me on to fight the good fight. They whisper the truth of my love to the sky. And they stay with me for months, years, decades. My whole life.
I have no idea how old I was when I read The Silver Chair. My mother had read the entire series to us when we were little, and because I was an averse reader, and frankly a poor reader, the Narnia books were ones that I could pick up and pretend to read with a good amount of authority since I already knew what happened. The truth, man. It’s rough.
But The Silver Chair. It is my favorite of all of them. It is when we learn that Narnia, despite the defeat of the Telmarines, still has its dark places. It’s scary places. There are man-eating giants and soul-sucking swamps and a terrible witch and a scary underworld. But most of all, the two main characters escape to Narnia after fleeing a pack of bullies. This one moment was a talisman for me. That I too might escape. That there might be something beyond the days of soul-crushing humiliation that was my experience in grade school.
That book, in its soul, was me. And it gave me so much hope.
I think I read that book a thousand times. And then I read it to my kids. And then I read it to myself again. What I loved most about it – apart from the adventure and friendship and humor and thrills and whatever – was the fact that the rabbits, in their souls, were storytellers. That their stories had meaning and message. That their stories guided them and fed them and kept them together. That notion plucked at my own inner harmonics – because I was moved by story too. And I self-referred to stories all the time. And I knew that a story could make sense out of senseless situation, and could offer hope and meaning when it seemed that both were lost forever. I knew that a story could light the dark paths, and lead us home.
Also: Fiver. Because come on.
The Outsiders was really my first experience with any kind of transgressive fiction. I had never read a book where kids drank alcohol or said bad words or smoked or fought or whatever. I read it in eighth grade. We had to read Rumble Fish for school – another book that I loved, but I didn’t understand Rumble Fish in its subtlety until much much later. The Outsiders, however, punched me in my guts. It was the first time that I felt exasperated and tender towards characters in my reading. It was the first time that I saw their transgressions as necessary. It was the first time that I really got it that the world can be violent sometimes. And cruel. And unfair. And yet. How the world still has beauty, and friendship, and desperate love. And that poetry matters – as does art. And that we all have the power – even as we take our last breath – to transform.
I am going to do more writing on this subject. On the books that matter, the books we carry, the books that remain in the satchels of our souls - tools, maps, weapons, comfort, inspiration, joy. Whatever.
In the meantime, what are your talisman books, your guiding books, your treasured books. What books do you carry in your heart? What books are written on your bones?