And so on. This is how I remember learning the alphabets and phonics in Ms. Jean’s pre-school class. I think reading came natural to me; natural in a sense that it wasn’t difficult for me to get the hang of, and since it was easy, I liked it. Letters fit perfectly together, like puzzles, and although I don’t remember making this comparison at the time, thinking back, I know that then in my four year old mind, I loved the way letters could match together with other letters to make words that I could “sound out.” I also enjoyed the praise that came after matching the letters correctly, perfectly, in my mouth. Whenever I was in the car, I would read the posters, billboards, and signs that passed me by in a game that I created for myself: read all the words that I can before it passes me by. The reward: my mom’s praise and approval and the possible chance to “show off” to my little sister, who always begged my mom to send her to preschool with me. As I continued to read throughout the years, though, reading evolved into much more than a way to make my parents and myself proud. It evolved into an escape, and that escape eventually became my teacher.
My beginner reader’s highlight was The Kissing Hand, Corduroy, and The Little Red Hen in Ms. Koh’s kindergarten class. Kindergarten was the time of possible impossibilities. My imagination and reality oftentimes got mixed up, because I didn’t know that raccoons don’t give kisses, teddy bears don’t come to life, and hens definitely do not bake. I held on, though, to the possibility that my life could be like the stories that I read. I tried to find ways to fit the stories into my life, and when I was able to, my life was complete. When I was not, I was absolutely disappointed.
The Kissing Hand was one of the first books that made me feel the fuzzy warmth of happiness and made me realize how I much I loved my mom and sister. The story was silly and cute enough that raccoons could talk and go to school with other nocturnal animals, but that mommy raccoons gave baby raccoons kisses in their hand- I actually believed it for a while and imagined myself as baby raccoon and my mom as mommy raccoon. Even when I found out that it was “make-believe,” it stayed as one of my favorite books, and I even taught my mom and sister the “kissing-hand.”
Then there was the teddy bear Corduroy that went on an adventure in a department store at night in search of his missing button after overhearing a girl say that she didn’t want to buy him because he was missing a button on his overalls. I felt so sad for Corduroy that I asked for and received a Corduroy doll for my birthday in hopes that I made a sad and lonely Corduroy happy. I even went through a phase where I pretended to sleep so that I could catch the bizarre phenomenon of him “waking up” and interacting with my other dolls. It never happened. To say that I was slightly disappointed that a story couldn’t “come to life” would be an understatement, because how cool would it have been if I could talk to my dolls? Insanely cool.
The Little Red Hen was my all-time favorite. I wanted to be just like the red hen, patient and nice even when the dogs and cats and ducks didn’t want to help her make bread. I was incredibly excited when Ms. Koh announced that we would be baking bread just as the little red hen did. I was amazed that a story could actually happen in real life after the debacle of having not been able to see Corduroy come to life. I mean, we weren’t dogs and cats and ducks, but we did knead the dough for bread and acted as dogs and cats and ducks in The Little Red Hen play. That was enough to give me something to talk about for days.
First to fifth grade was all about The Giving Tree, Magic Treehouse, and Boxcar Children. Ever since I read The Giving Tree, I always imagined trees as being generous, patient, and wise; and I realized, they are. We use them to make houses, paper, tea and medicine; we take their space for agriculture and their oxygen to survive. Trees don’t fight back and they definitely have to have been around for a long time in order to be as tall and strong as we imagine them to be, which by default gives them the wisdom of time. The Giving Tree was one of the first eye-opening books that I read. It was a collaboration of fiction and reality, of imagination and truth. It was sad, but it definitely made me appreciate nature.
On another note, the Magic Treehouse series was my escape. Sure, the main characters are people, but for me, it wasn’t about the people. It was about history, the world, adventures, and time-traveling. I’m not even sure if the imagination that I have now is influenced from the books, or if the books were a representation of my imagination. The line is so thin and blurred, that I think that’s why I fell in love with the series. Ever since I learned that life before the 21st century was different, I wished, and still wish, that I could travel through time and witness everything that happened in the past. But since I couldn’t, Magic Treehouse was my vehicle into history. Through these books I was able to leave this life, enter and live in a life that happened long before I did.
With Boxcar Children, circumstances were different. These books were the door into an imaginative reality, a half reality-half imagination doorway that allowed me to keep one foot in and one foot out. I thought it was entirely possible that children could live in a boxcar and survive, at least for a while, with bread and milk and menial jobs here and there. The rich imagery and what seemed like normal interactions between children around my age satisfied my imaginations, because it gave me a feeling of hope, the feeling of possibility. I knew I couldn’t, but I still had that thought of, “I wonder what it’d be like to live like them… I kind of want to try it out…” allowed me to not simply just read, but live the boxcar children’s lives within the safety and stability of reality. It allowed me to not simply wonder, but experience the possibilities.
I started to actively realize that books were my escape when I was in junior high. Puberty was awful. At times I would be glad that my baby fat was slowly coming off, that I was able to start wearing bras, and that us girls could bond just by talking about our PMS. But the cramps, acne, awkwardness, moodiness, and “puberty pride” that made me think I knew it all was absolutely terrible. I fought with my mom at least three times a week, almost everyday with my sister, I never wanted to come home and instead hang out with my friends, I wanted to be pretty, and I wanted a boyfriend badly. But at the end of the day, I always wanted to have the perfect mother-daughter relationship with my mom and a friendship with my sister; I wanted to be home without feeling suffocated, able to accept how I look, and, well, I still wanted a boyfriend.
Reading was my solution to the teenage turbulence as it quenched my thirst for everything that I did not have. Through Anne of Green Gables I had the perfect relationship with my mom and I could relate to Anne because she wanted to be pretty and popular, too. I wanted a romance like what Jane and Rochester had in Jane Eyre. I wanted to be able to enjoy being home all day and be friends with my sister just as Birdie loved her Georgia peach orchard home and had a friendship with her cousin in Peaches. Pony Boy’s close group of friends in The Outsiders reminded me of my close-knit group of friends and me, and through them I had the freedom of my parents never telling me what to do. By being Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha I was able to be beautiful, rich, and wanted by everyone. And as I ran away from Erasers, mothered the other Experiments, ate everything that I wanted to without getting fat, and did backflips and nosedives in the air with my beautiful, pearly, feathered wings as Maximum in Maximum Ride, I made the first few years of my teenage life into an adventure- I finally had an adventurous life. Through books, I was able to find relief and peace away from the junior high turmoil. I was able to be who I wanted to be, look how I wanted to look, and have all the things that I wanted.
In high school, I started to read dystopian novels. It’s ironic how I was introduced to dystopian novels and the concept of dystopia in high school when, looking back, high school was good and fun, the best four years of my life (up until college, that is). When I was in high school, however, school was not fun. It was full of cliques and stereotypes, gossip, bad grades, “falling in love,” heartaches, disappointment, personal reflections and realizations, college applications, college rejections, and goodbyes. With dystopian novels, I was able to not only fuel my constantly-hungry imagination, but also find ways to appreciate my life and be grateful for the things that happened.
In The Giver, sure the people were lucky to be unable to feel the pain of rejection or a breakup, but they also weren’t able to feel the sweet puppy-love infatuation and the skip of the heartbeat that I was able to when I confessed to a boy for the first time that I liked him and when we held hands for the first time. In Battle Royale, there was less crime in the streets and the citizens were very unified, but at least my classmates and I didn’t have to be stuck on an island and forced to kill each other. Society was organized in The Handmaid’s Tale, but seeing how messed up the Republic of Gilead was by brainwashing and forcing young and fertile women to bear children for complete strangers made me cherish my woman’s rights and realize how precious and beautiful women are. I realized how important, valuable, and respectable we women should be to society, and I became glad and grateful to be girl (though to be honest, this realization after reading Handmaid’s Tale is pretty ironic). Blindness made me realize that I should be grateful everyday that I have sight in my eyes, that I should be patient with those less privileged, and that there is so much grace and beauty in patience and humility. Heart of Darkness was a creepy and barbaric adventure, but after I closed the book, I loved the United States of America fifty times more.
Looking back, I first fell in love with reading because it was my escape. Reading was my form of time travel and teleportation, my invisibility cloak and x-ray vision that allowed me to encounter the past, create the present, and live in the future without leaving the safety of my bed. Reading fed and expanded my imagination until it manifested into my own safe world that I could retreat to. But reading took on a whole new different meaning for me when I started reading dystopian novels. I loved dystopian novels because they satisfied my numerous “what if” questions. Not only that, they also pushed me to love everything I had by highlighting everything that I lacked. I lived different lives through books, and by leaving the original world and experiencing different, weird ones, I gradually came to appreciate and love my own world. Reading created for me different, warped, and new worlds for me to sample, and while with each dystopian novel, I went into the world thinking that this world might be better than mine, I always ended up taking back that thought and feeling relieved that I lived in this world and not “that.” That’s when reading transformed from being an escape to being a teacher. Dystopian novels taught me that I had so many blessings to count and that although the grass may seem greener on the other side, it actually just might be AstroTurf. And although dystopian novels are still my favorite types of books, I gradually learned to realize how very much I love and have in my world also through romance, horror, and even mystery books. Reading started out as an escape into other worlds, as a safe-zone where I could forget about my own world and life; but while I thought I was leaving my world for another one — I should have known — I was only venturing deeper into mine.