I’ve had my nose stuck in a book and defined myself as a reader since before I can remember. I was 3 when I got my first library card. I hadn’t even learned to read, but my parents frequently took me to our local Parisian public library where I would pick up read along books. I would play the tapes on my Fischer Price recorder and look lovingly at the pretty pictures in my books, which ranged from Beatrix Potter to Perrault tales, from Babar and Disney stories to Aesop’s fables.
I learned to read in kindergarten, a feat I had longed to accomplish for what seemed like an eternity. Soon, the sky became the limit. I would get lost in a sea of words, and let my head soar in a world of fantasy.
Between ages 6 and 8, I lived on three different continents. Books became my greatest companions; I could take them with me even when I was forced to leave behind loved ones as well as a school, a neighborhood, a country, a culture, a language. I felt rootless, like a leaf blowing in the wind. I found a comfort in books that I was not able to find in an external world that always seemed to be new, hostile, and completely foreign to me. Books became the shield I could hide behind. Books were unconditional: they did not judge; they did not care that I wore glasses and felt like an ugly duckling or that I was lonely. When I read, I felt young and carefree; homesickness and the worries of trying to fit in were lifted from my shoulders and evaporated amongst the twists and turns of plots.
It became easy and soothing to retreat into my own make-believe world, in which I solved mysteries with Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children, adventured with the Famous Five, and felt like I too belonged to the Baby-Sitters Club.
Fast forward to today, and I’m no longer that self-doubting child. I’ve grown, and I’ve found a path I can call my own. I’m still learning, and making mistakes, but I’ve replaced feeling like a permanent outsider with a sense of belonging. Life has given me the gift of friends, of family, of love, and the confidence that only comes from feeling truly cherished.
But books… books are still a part of me. They were (and are) my bastion. They were (and are) my teachers. The messages of the books I’ve read as a child live inside me, and to touch their worn pages is to travel back in time, into a comfort zone that is only mine.
As an avid reader, my childhood favorites may have been a stepping stone to “adult books” and “real literature,” but they are so much more than that. Stating the opposite would be like falsely affirming that Shel Silverstein’s sole role in my life could be reduced to introducing me to the wonders and beauty of poetry, and nothing else.
Children’s books have given me the power of expanding my vocabulary and even given me the gift of a new language. The summer after we moved from Buenos Aires to Maryland, I learned English, perched on my favorite cherry tree, thanks to the Berenstain Bears books. Later that summer, when I was ready, I upgraded to Roald Dahl.
Books have taught me compassion, perspective, and the knowledge that everyone is fighting a difficult battle, and more often than not, that others have a much harder path before them than the privileged and blessed one I got. Out of the Dust; The Story of My Life; Number the Stars; Walk Two Moons; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry — the list is endless. I’m still crying for T.J. and the land.
Books made me realize that no matter how hard and different our roads as humans may be, we are somehow very much alike, and that our feelings and sentiments are universal. Even Anne Frank, a victim of the most grotesque persecution, forced to live in hiding in a secret annex, struggled with the awkwardness that comes in hand with the awakening of teenage years, and so did Harry Potter and his friends in their own fantastic world, amidst a war of good versus evil.
Books such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Little Prince, and A Ring of Endless Light gave me faith in infinity, and in life beyond the grave; they taught me that there is more to life than just appearances, that the eyes may be blind but that a pure heart never is, that gold usually doesn’t lie on the surface, and that you need to dig for it inside yourself and others to find it. Books ranging from Frindle to The Giver forced me at an early age to question conventional rules and life as it was handed to me. And books showed that even hobbits, whether tweens (term coined by Tolkien, after all) or not, have wanderlust and thirst for adventure.
Later, as a preteen, books made me grasp that tragic and dramatic love stories are overrated: Romeo was head over heels in love with Rosaline when he suddenly dropped her for Juliet. Little Women, with its Jo-Laurie-Amy triangle, introduced me to the bittersweet taste of unrequited love and heartbreak. And books also made me see that the best kind of man, the one like Mr. Darcy, is not the one who falls in love you not because of your looks, but for the liveliness of your mind.
Books taught me that you should never hide behind the hardships you have had to endure to justify doing something that is plain wrong; that you should always act according to what in your heart you know to be right, because eventually, in this life or the next, it will pay off. Even if it means showing mercy and letting Peter Pettigrew live. Even if it means, à la Ella of Frell or Jane Eyre, that you have to sacrifice a personal happy ending with your own version of Prince Charming. Before Frozen, Ella was proof that the greatest act of love is not the one we receive, but the one that comes from within. And Jane left haughty, moody Mr. Rochester at the altar because he was already married to someone else and under no circumstance would she accept to be “the other woman.”
Like so many other (fictional and real) girls, reading has made me demand a lot from life, inspired me to actively seek what I want, and to never give up. I owe so much to my childhood books. They taught me to dream, but they also pushed me to live, and not just exist. Each time I go back to them, I find the reassurance that comes from returning to a beloved, cozy hiding place. Their characters are like old friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, and when I meet with them again, it’s as if time had never passed. In these revisits, I also get in touch with my past and the insecure girl I was and ponder on how far I’ve come.
Most importantly, the book in question will provide some new meaning, some new hindsight, that hadn’t been revealed or made available to me previously, because my life, this great story of mine that I am writing every day, is also developing constantly, and with it, so is my viewpoint. For all of this, I am thankful. My childhood books will always be full of comfort, of lessons, and of magic.