I had issues, is what I am saying.
But if you had asked me back then if I was happy, I suspect that I would've said yes. I didn't have an escape plan for a middle of the night house fire, but I did have an escape plan from my confusing and often overwhelming life: books.
From the moment I knew how to read, I did. My family didn't own many books, but every week my mother took me and my little brothers for what seemed like a crazy long walk to the local library where we were allowed to check out as many books as we could carry home.
Some of those books have stuck with me: A Wrinkle in Time. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp. These are clearly escapist books--time travel, fantasy, horror. They are what you'd expect a kid to want to read, stories of fantastic worlds that are easy and thrilling to fall into.
But the majority of the books I read and reread were stories of ordinary people with ordinary lives. Quiet books, I guess you'd call them.
The Trixie Belden Series. All of a Kind Family. Betsy-Tacy. Everything by Ellen Conford, Paula Danziger, Marilyn Sachs, and Judy Blume. The Noonday Friends by Mary Stolz. The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom.
Nothing much happens in these books. Sure, there might be a mystery, say, in a Trixie Belden book, but it's never anything too over-the-top scary. What I liked was the sweet, normal family. The mom in the kitchen canning her tomatoes and gently nudging Trixie to do the dusting. The father kicking back after work to read his newspaper. The brothers teasing Trixie, but always in an affectionate way.
All of a Kind Family features a Jewish family living in a tenement in turn of the century New York City. You'd expect poverty and struggles but the conflicts are kind of mild. One of the girls forgets to return her library book on time. The older sister makes up a game for the younger ones to help them get their chores done faster.
The Betsy-Tacy books follow two girls, and later a third, Tib, through their school years in Minnesota. The girls have picnics. They take long walks up the hill. They have sing-alongs around the piano. The father, for some reason, likes to make onion sandwiches.
A few years ago the book The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall came out. It won some awards and I picked it up to read aloud to my own little girl. It's a lovely, quiet book. Sisters live with their dad on a lake and become friends with the boy next door.
I loved it in a way that surprised me. And I was shocked that my daughter didn't enjoy it at all. She was bored.
Nothing happens, she told me.
Later, after she was tucked in bed and fast asleep, I couldn't stop thinking about what she'd said, and weirdly, I almost started crying.
It was a mix of things. Memories of my messed up little girlhood and what books like that had meant to me--what a life line those books were, how they had saved me in a very real sense.
And the immense relief and gratitude that my own little girl was experiencing such a quiet and ordinary life that she would yearn for more exciting and thrilling worlds to disappear into--but the safe kind that can only happen in books.