Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How Reading Saved My Life by Jody Casella

Last week I visited a children's lit class at a college to give a talk on what it was like to be a writer. During the question and answer period, a student asked if I had any advice on how she could share books with her future students when she herself did not like to read.

I blinked at her for a few seconds. Of course I realize that there are many people in the world who don't like to read. But I guess I had hoped that teachers--people who teach reading to children--would not be among that number.

"Wait," I said. "You don't like to read?"

Several other students shook their heads. They didn't like reading all that much either.

I started to give what I hoped was a non-judgmental, thoughtful answer: "Maybe you can share books that interest you with your students. Read stories you enjoy, and those kids (and you) might end up liking reading after all."

Then I stopped again. "Wait. How can you not like to read? What a tragedy!"

Some of the students laughed uncomfortably.

"No. I mean it," I said. "That's horrible. Because some of the kids you will teach are going to need books."

I know this because I was one of those kids, and it is not an exaggeration to say that reading saved my life.

A weird introverted damaged kid, I found the world of books to be safer and quieter and more predictable than the real world, so, no dummy, I escaped into books whenever I had the chance.

The first time this happened was when I was eight years old. One of my aunts gave me the first three books in the Trixie Belden series. For those who aren't familiar with Trixie Belden, these are mysteries kind of like Nancy Drew (but way better--I'd argue). Each book has a mystery to solve, adventure and danger, but it's all fairly tame.

What I loved about the books was not the mystery anyway, it was the characters who seemed like real people--Trixie, her friends, her brothers, and her sweet, watchful-but-in-the-background parents--and the world, a quiet rural farm in the Hudson River Valley. There was a romantic interest too (also ridiculously tame by today's standards) loyal and resilient Jim, a runaway who found that he was an heir to millions but planned to use the money to open a camp to help abused orphans like himself.

I read the three books eagerly and that kind aunt caught on to my new obsession and bought me the other books--all sixteen that were written at the time. Basically these were the only books I owned. I remember being afraid when I started the 16th book, knowing that when I was finished, that was it. The end of Trixie Belden. It was like a physical pain when I closed that final book.

And it was a delicious revelation when I realized that I could pick number one up again and start all over.

I read tons of other books throughout my childhood. Other mysteries. Fantasies. Time travels. Ghost stories. There was an awesome librarian at my local library, who must've noticed me, the weirdo bookworm perusing the shelves every week and checking out everything I could carry home. She pointed out books she thought I might like. After a while, she had a stack waiting for me. She took me out for lunch one afternoon and it ranks right up there as one of the highlights of my sad little life.

When I was a teen I kept reading. I skipped over YA for the most part (that didn't really exist as a genre back then) although there were a few books--Forever by Judy Blume, The Flowers in the Attic series--that I read. I also read whatever my mother had lying around. Stephen King. Sydney Sheldon. Danielle Steel.

Sometimes, in secret, I reread my Trixie Belden books.

I lost track of the set when I went to college and I felt like an old friend had died.  Years later I was browsing around in a used bookstore and I found all sixteen. I burst into tears. I think I paid like twenty bucks for the whole shebang and I started reading the first book before I left the store. One paragraph and I was back in--not just into the world of Trixie, but somehow back into the world of me at age eight.

I remembered that sad dreamy little girl I was, the kid who, thank God, had been given the gift of reading and of books.




12 comments:

  1. My daughter is one of those that hates to read, and it scares me to death because she is starting college in the Fall. Mary Jane

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    1. So much to read in college! I can't imagine how much harder it is if you hate to read. But maybe it isn't too late, Mary Jane. Maybe she will stumble upon a book she loves and realize she likes reading after all.

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  2. What a cool post, Jody. I remember being in an ed class in college and hearing that my fellow students (who all planned on being HS English teachers) had no interest in writing after they got their degrees. (Yet they were going to teach it?? Made no sense to me.)

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    1. I taught with an English teacher who proudly proclaimed she hated poetry. It killed me. Like, woo hoo for you students--now you've pretty much guaranteed that they're going to hate poetry too.

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  3. I read some Trixie Beldens, too!

    Most of the writers I know have heard readers say, "I hated reading until I found ____." Sometimes that blank is filled in with Harry Potter, or Twilight, or the Hunger Games; sometimes it's the writer's own book. It varies from reader to reader, but once they find that "gateway" book, they search out other books.
    It's one reason I think choice and diverse libraries are important: both increase the chances for potential readers to find their gateway books.

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    1. I've never heard that term before--"gateway books" but I love it. That's exactly what it is, a gateway into the world of books. It's one reason why teachers and parents should let kids read whatever they want instead of freaking out about the so-called quality. If a kid loves, for example, Captain Underwear books, let him read them. He'll go through that series and then he will move onto something else.

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  4. Great post, Jody! My sister is brilliant but hated to read fiction as a kid and even as a teen. She loves to read now and became a teacher specializing in literacy/reading so she could reach kids like herself.

    A friend reminded me recently how great the Trixie Belden novels were and I just bought The Secret of the Mansion!

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    1. Not sure if you will like TB. It's weird how we connect with books. I've looked at other books that I loved as a kid and found that I could no longer relate to them--I read them through an adult/writer lens and they don't work for me anymore. The TB books tapped some emotional thing with me and I still love them. I'd be curious what an adult reader would think. So, let me know, but be gentle :)

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  5. Jody, thank you for this post. You've precisely described me as a kid: the nerdy bookish girl who discovered how to temporarily retreat from her own life by escaping into fictional worlds. I had - still have - a copy of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with the original Tenniel illustrations, and I bet that to this day, I could still recite every poem from either book from memory. Alice's worlds became my own, and somehow made my real world seem less crazy. I know that not all kids need books the way you and I did, but I still fervently believe that all kids need books.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that, unpub. Here is a shameful reading confession: I never read Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. Might be time to pick them up...

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    2. It's never too late for some Alice!

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  6. Thank you for such a great post. Books have saved many kid I know. I'm curious what you ended up telling those college kids and what the outcome of the conversation was. :-)

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