Ask any author and they’ll tell you how writing has always been in their soul. Every bio has some anecdote about writing stories in elementary school, on a hidden notebook, or such. So many of these writers act as if those childish scribbles were important somehow.
Now, don’t get me wrong. For a writer, any and all writing feels important, but if it’s junk, it doesn’t really count. Anything we write as an 11-year-old kid counts as junk. It’s part of the learning process, and precious for that, but it’s NOT art. Not yet. Maybe finding the love of writing was important, but that writing? Just one more step in the path we call life.
Then, there’s me. I didn’t want to write books. I was a READER! I loved to read stories, to devour them like free cake when no one’s looking. Growing up as a science dork who made good grades, had no friends, and didn’t really care? All I wanted at the end of the day was a good book to lose myself in. I didn’t watch TV. I read, then read some more. I loved that the little boy or girl at the center of it all was kinda like me. Not exactly like – oh, no. But s/he was enough like me that I felt I belonged someplace. I belonged in that story.
I will never forget checking out a novel in the second grade, and the librarian trying to make sure I understood that this book didn’t have pictures. Duh. But it was about horses and I was a seven-year-old girl. Who needed pictures? Horses! While I was reading that book, I could pretend that I had horses, too. And when the bad things happened, just like the girl or boy in the book, I could use my pretend horses to make everything all better, and I’d be the hero!
And those lessons lasted outside the pages of the book. I learned when to keep my mouth shut by reading the verbal fights of my favorite characters. I figured out that sometimes, even when parents were meanies, they were honestly trying to help. I managed to have it sink in that adults aren’t the bad guys, but they aren’t always right, either. And most importantly, I learned that no matter how someone looks on the outside, what matters is the person they really are.
C’mon, we’ve all done it. That hunky man who is tall, dark, and handsome… except that the author clearly described him as nerdy, blonde, and scrawny? But not in OUR heads. Oh, he’s sexy in a way that has nothing to do with muscles, so we imagine him as a hunk. We make him what we want because we can. Or her. Or them. The dress doesn’t need to be blue. It can be pink, purple, or any color we like because when we read a book, the story is in our minds, and that gives the reader almost as much power as the author. The writer makes the frame, the reader fleshes it out, and in the end, no two people ever read the same story, but we can still learn the same lessons.
This is why I love literature: because the reality changes as we need it to. It gives us hope when we don’t have it, offers solutions when we are desperate, and wraps us up in comfort. Books are friends who prove to each of us that we’re not in this thing alone. We’re not the only people alive who are struggling. We’re all involved in the human condition, and it’s universal in so many ways…
And yet it’s not. As a typical white kid, I was lucky. There was always some main character who was just like me. Maybe this time it was a boy instead of a girl, but they had similar families, financial worries, and the type of lifestyle problems I “got”. Only recently have our main characters had to deal with single parent families, abusive parents, familial histories of drug addictions, prejudice, discrimination, and things that so many young kids are put through. The stories I used to escape into are great for everyone, but it’s just a bit nicer when you’re reading and the main character, “Audrey” has dark blonde hair just like young Auryn, and collects plastic ponies. LaShonna, Rafaela, or Jiao might get the ideas easily enough, but it’s not the same as having a character written who could be a twin. I know because one of my childhood friends was a very sweet Muslim girl who kept waiting for a heroine to wear a hijab like her.
Now, the diversity in our characters is growing – and fast – but it’ll probably never be fast enough. There’s a magic to knowing an author could imagine someone like you. It makes the child reading that book feel a little less invisible. It’s a tiny shard of hope to hold onto.
And hope is what books always give us. No matter how bad things get, there’s always the chance that the hero will win, or at least that the villain will pay for what they have done. There’s always that little spark of light that the world could be better than it is now.
It’s why I fell in love with reading. That impossible hope is a drug I will never get enough of. The daydreams of a future where everyone gets what they need/want/deserve is seductive to an intelligent mind, and I like to think mine is. That need is what kept me coming back, book after book, to read yet another story, to lose myself in this hobby called reading.
And one day, when my own hope finally broke, it’s the same thing that made me open a document and type those first words onto the page:
“Weaving through the large, dark-skinned bodies of the soldiers around her, Sal touched the paper in her pocket like a talisman.”