When books are touchstones. When they are armor and shield. When they are lantern and map. When they are loved to bits, and read to smithereens.

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.

For example:

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.

And:

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.

And:

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?

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22 thoughts on “When books are touchstones. When they are armor and shield. When they are lantern and map. When they are loved to bits, and read to smithereens.

  1. The Hobbit (first read when I was 5)
    The Lord of the Rings (first read age 8)
    A Little Princess (age 8)
    The Little House Books (age 8)
    A Wrinkle in Time (age 9)
    The Little White Horse (age 10)
    Little Women (age 10)
    Anne of Green Gables series (begun age 10)
    A Swiftly Tilting Planet (prefered it to Wrinkle, read age 12?)
    A Ring of Endless Light (more L’Engle, age 13, my most favorite)
    The Saturdays series (Enright, age 10+)
    The Ship That Flew (Hilda Lewis, published 1939, read age 10)

    These are the books that come quickly to mind, the ones I encountered young, which stayed with me, which I read and reread to pieces and beyond. I was and am a voracious reader. But these are the ones I turned to again and again and again …. I know I am forgetting some.

    • I love ALL of those!

      Wouldn’t it be fun to get a bunch of people to post about the books that matter to them – just a sentence or two – every day for a month. And they could post it on blogs or twitter or those tumblr things or whatever. It could be fun!

      • Well, I was already thinking I’d write a post taken from my comment here, expand on it a bit, link back to this post etc. i love reading, talking about books, writing about them …. At least, writing about them in non book review sort of way (once upon a time I wrote book and film reviews and that has soured me forevermore isn’t that funny?! I do so appreciate reading a well-written review, but I just can,t do it myself anymore, very often).

  2. I don’t have a list. For me its more of a nebulous collection. My mom recommended “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, and all but dragged me to the local library down the street. I read it, and promptly returned for more. This was when I was Middle School. That’s where I discovered a lot of sci-fi, most of which I picked up at random by walking by the shelves, and choosing a book by its cover. Heinlein’s juvies etched themselves onto my heart at that point (I’ve read them all many many times), but there was a lot of others.

    But I also dug into the kids books, and became a huge fan of Bill Peet. I didn’t have an agenda, I was trying to save myself. Any book that would block out the noise in my head, that would float me over the flood of depression, was good enough–and almost any book would do. Later I would learn to be more discerning, later I would learn to have favorites, but back then I just devoured everything I could find.

    I refer to my reading habit as an addiction. People laugh when you tell them this, you know that nervous laugh like the they really don’t know how to respond, but its true. Books are still my main defense against depression, and I never leave the house without one. Quite literally they have saved my life.

    • That’s WONDERFUL.

      And you know, I’ve never read Bill Peet. And now, apparently, I must.

      And oh, god, Ray Bradbury. I mourned him and mourned him when he passed on. Dandelion Wine was another one of my touchstones. And The Martian Chronicles.

  3. The Fault in Our Stars. Don’t even get me started on how impactful that book was is my life. If you walk away from that book without feeling conflicted, you have no heart. It made me a better person. Sometimes I define my life as Pre-TFiOS and Post-TFiOS. Haha.

  4. I like the books on your list — they were all an important part of my childhood.

    I occasionally stop to reflect upon how deeply the books I read as a child influenced the person I am, and the things that I have done in life. I can name dozens of books that are packed with positive, motivational characters. If I tried hard, I think that I could trace all of my own core values to characters in the novels that I read all through grade school, middle school, and high school (to the exclusion of all school work).

    Thanks for your list.

    • You are welcome. And I think that’s really true – the books we read when we’re kids become the map by which we navigate our lives. It’s a powerful thing.

      More lists coming soon. :-)

  5. There are so many. Both my parents were (and still are) voracious readers and they passed on that love to me. I loved loved loved summer reading activities at our library. I was and still am such a huge library nerd, and I have passed this on to my youngest niece who every time she and I hang out together, wants to visit the library.
    Here are some books I can think of off the top:
    The Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
    Nancy Drew books
    Charlotte’s Web
    A Ring of Endless Light (to this day still my favorite book it so made me want to communicate with dolphins)
    Actually every Madeline L’Engle book I could ever get my grubby hands on
    Judy Blume books (she got me through puberty)
    The Catcher in the Rye
    All the Narnia books
    The Wizard of Oz
    Little Women
    Pride and Prejudice (the first time I read it, I believe I was 9 and had to re read it when I was 12 to better understand it and thus began my intense love for Jane Austen)

  6. The Hobbit was my first novel.
    Harry Potter was the first novel that made me want to write because, dammit, she stole my idea! (Not really but to a nine year old wiccan who played Dungeons and Dragons with her parents on the weekends is felt like it…)
    Then there was Ella Enchanted. I literally bled on that book. Sorry school library.
    The Women of Troy (which looking back doesn’t feel like it ought to be a middle grade book) which amplified my obsession with Greek mythology and started my love affair with the Trojan War.
    The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle that helped prove to me that girls really can do anything boys can, so there.
    All of this culminating in me reading The Clan of the Cave Bear and the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven and I’ve been reading adult literate ever since.

      • My mom practically made me read it. And I’m glad she did. She was going to make me wait until I was thirteen to read the sequel because of the amount of sex… I wore her down because I so was no waiting two years to read the sequel and I’d rather do it with her permission than sneak read (again.) I have been grounded from reading numerous times because I did it just so much…

  7. Little Women (I have 4 sisters, with 1 who died recently. 1 brother) I strongly identified with Jo, the writer, independent one, headstrong, etc.

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