When I was a child, I could speak to animals. I traveled to previously uncharted lands. I fought monsters, rode dragons, and even saved a princess or two (this was long before I learned princesses are totally capable of saving themselves).
Maybe you think I’m crazy. Or perhaps you embarked on grand adventures, too! Did you captain the ship? Save the world with your best dog friend? Lead your lady dolls in a takeover of the Dream Shack wherein only the most open-minded and hilarious of book-loving individuals were allowed? (Being forward-thinking, well-read, and possessing an excellent sense of humor were, truly, among the requirements I made for those who wished to enter my own dollhouse. I had lofty opinions of my toys.)
THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES
I can remember so many times as a child when I was happier entertaining myself than I was when I had to spend time with others. An introvert by nature, my imaginary friends were far more useful to me than the general public. Except for a select few relatives and friends, there weren’t many in the world who could surpass the joy of time spent making my own stories come to life.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember – in fact, it’s noted in my professional bio. With parents who were both involved in literary academia, it’s no shock that books were readily and steadily available in our home. Before I could read, I made up stories for myself from the pictures.
To this day, I love to be around children who are doing that, don’t you? I’ve had the pleasure of sitting with my nieces and listening to them chatter to themselves, crafting stories using only the images and their imaginations. They tell their stories so naturally, without hesitation, giving each picture the meaning that delights them most.
I can still recall images from some of my favorite childhood books and the things they meant to me when I was younger. There are three books, in particular, I’ve kept on my shelves though many, many years have passed since I was their target demographic. It’s funny to go back and read those much-loved books now. The illustrations are dated. The pages are worn and, in some cases, brittle (and, really, that’s not even fair. I’m not that old). Each book has its history of love – finger smudges, crayon markings, chicken stickers…
Sarah’s Room by Doris Orgel with illustrations by Maurice Sendak
Who, Said Sue, Said Whoo? by Ellen Raskin
“There Are Rocks in My Socks!” Said the Ox to the Fox by Patricia Thomas
But while all those ingredients add up to a pretty tasty nostalgia loaf, they’re not the most interesting part of revisiting those books. See, there are certain words and lines I absolutely remember verbatim. But then, there are the mental images the illustrations give me. Little snippets of story I crafted for myself long before I could read the words. A whole different world sits between those lines and colors – one that has nothing to do with the letters on the pages.
HOW BOOKS SHAPE OUR LIVES
Isn’t it funny how your brain works? When I was a child, I wanted to know more about the little glass cow. The wily fox. The bright orange gnu. Those were the important elements for me – and they’re the things that remain with me now. When I open those books, I’m hit with triggers that remind me of those stories – the smell, the feel of the pages, the colors splashed across them – those cue up the tale my mind crafted so many yesterdays ago.
And so, yes, those books live on in my collection. But the stories that came from them, the stories I found within them, live on. Not on my bookshelf, but within me.
I know it’s kind of goofy to think about, but I love the idea that the books we read really do claim a little part of us. Maybe the worlds we draw up in our minds when we read an author’s description of a fictional place become a bit real. A happy little universe full of fantastic locations and strange creatures and beloved characters – one you build for yourself each and every time you crack the spine on a new read.
Books shape us. They can embolden us. They can frighten us. They can teach us lessons and provide us with new quirks to adapt into our own lives if we so choose. They allow us to explore worlds we could never see in real life. They grant us the opportunity to experience dangerous adventure without ever breaking a real-life sweat (though, as a person who likes real-life adventure, I do recommend putting the book down every now and then to get out and see the real world. I know, I know. But really, try it once in a while. It really is worth it!).
Books can teach us, both about the real world and about ourselves. What are your values, your goals, your dreams, your passions? How do you connect with them when you read? I think it’s pretty fabulous that books can give you insight into things you would never personally experience. It’s important to have a well-educated opinion, after all 😉
But I think the thing I love most about reading is that no two readers ever really do experience the same book in the same way. You bring your own world to a book when you read, and a beautiful mingling occurs between the author’s words and your experiences. As an author, that can be scary, but as a reader, it’s freeing.
And there is, at the fundamental level, freedom in reading. Freedom to explore new thoughts. To visit new worlds. To experience first love or true love (or pure hate and evil) again and again and again. And yes, even freedom to be best friends with the cow, the fox, and the gnu – or, you know, whoever your childhood book pals happened to be.
Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home. —Anna Quindlen
Be free, my friends.
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