happiness is finding the place where being yourself is exactly what's needed

Sunday, June 12, 2011

what i got out of reading fiction as a teenager

I'm not sure if I read a complete novel anytime in 5th through 9th grade. As I mentioned in the previous post, I did not generally read for pleasure. Also, I was very good at faking my way through book reports. I enjoyed writing stories and poems just as much back then, but, without reading, I wasn't growing as a writer.

Luckily for me, I had an amazing young 10th grade English teacher who focused the study of literature around relating to it personally and chose novels with teenage main characters, like Catcher in the Rye.

I remember her introducing that one as a book she didn't really like as a teenager but found an appreciation for later in her education. Whether she was being perfectly honest or not, this introduction let students know it was okay to not really like or "get" the book, that she didn't expect us to pretend we understood things we didn't. It also lit a spark in a certain type of student (the type of student I was) that said, "So, if we get it now, that means we're already smart like college kids." I ended up loving it.

But before we started with the novels, a new interest in reading had already started to grow in me. Partly it was that "new school year" feeling of "this year I'm going to do everything just right and prove how smart/interesting/likable I am." And partly it was that, on the first day of class, I was curiously opening to random pages in our literature text book, hoping something I could relate to would jump out at me, and something did.

It was this poem:

The Crazy Woman by Gwendolyn Brooks

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I'll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I'll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I'll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
"That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May."


We didn't end up covering much poetry in that class, but there were a lot of great reading and writing activities that I still remember fondly. For instance, she had us keep daily journals while reading Go Ask Alice, because the book was written in journal format.

And this novel was an excellent choice, dealing with the timeless struggles of teens searching for independence while also trying to be cool and have friends. It centered around drug use and anorexia, and showed these things in a refreshingly realistic light, as things on the average teen girl's mind more often than not.

At least that's how I remember it. I remember being slightly jealous of Alice's social life, but she lived in a different time period. I told myself that was the main difference between us and, therefore, I could relate to her as a character.

Of course, Alice's drug use leads to an unknown, and likely tragic end, as the book ends with her diary unfinished. So, we could acknowledge the dangers of reckless decisions. And we could speculate on what might have happened to her and were asked to do so in our journals and discussions. For our class, the book wasn't just a warning against using drugs, it was a exercise in thinking. And most of what we were thinking about was what we needed to be thinking about at the time: what it's like to be a teenager and why.

The next book I remember having that kind of impact on me was The Color Purple. We read this book in my 12th grade English class. I don't remember a lot of what actually happened in the books I read in high school, but I do remember what this book did for me:

I began learning real empathy. That people are people and that we can make mistakes and still care for one another. That even if we have different viewpoints on things (like the scarring rituals mentioned in the book) that doesn't necessarily make one person wrong or right.

That sometimes people who might not like each other will find ways to stick together in difficult times. That the real point and beauty of life is in understanding and caring about each other, in loving people for being people.

The characters in this book taught me those things. And they awakened some part of me that set me searching for a place in my time where I could feel that kind of belonging among people, that kind of acceptance and ability to accept.

And the more I explore new places and meet new people, the more I find it, that amazing "it" I started looking for long before I really understood what "it" was, in my early teen years watching music videos like Blind Melon's "No Rain" with the little dancing bee girl. These days I find it everywhere, in music, in places, in the stories people tell, and the genuine kindnesses of fellow people that never fail to surprise me.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to mention a book I read for pleasure somewhere around my senior year of high school. When I say it was "read for pleasure" I mean "forced on me by my best friend."


I looked at this cover (which I now adore) and thought, "Ah, s&*t, another book about girls and horses. I thought I was done in gradeschool with hearing about how much girls love horses."

Reading the title and description, I thought, "Well, f*#&, it's a story about magic. Are there gonna be wizards with pointy hats and s&*t, casting spells with magic words to do their chores for them?"

But this girl (referred to as DandelionGirl in my blogging) was my best friend. And this quartet - Eep, not just one book, but four! - apparently reminded her of me, and I figured she'd be hurt if I didn't at least give it a try.

If you want to know whether or not reading this book began a lifelong love of reading in me, click here.

The impact "The Immortals Quartet" had on me was profound. Here is why:

1. Even to a closed-minded little jerk skeptic like me, the magic in the story was believable. Daine's strong and complicated magical gift starts as a simple "knack" with animals, as she takes care of them and learns ways to communicate with them. Throughout her story, her power grows steadily and logically. Tamora Pierce creates tales of young people coming into their own unique powers, using coming of age themes relevant to all teens and preteens, such as acceptance, romance, and that budding sense of self.

2. Since the story is set entirely in a fantasy realm, it's pretty much equally easy to relate to for any readers. That's how my love of fantasy novels began. When I first started reading the book, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to connect with it because I was so much older than the main character (at 17, the difference of 5 years was "so much older"). But I found it was easier to relate to a coming of age story set in a fantasy place and time, where the expectations brought by age were different anyway.
I feared that I would eventually lose my ability to enjoy stories like this. It wasn't until years after college that I realized the coming of age stories never get old, as the entire process of being human seems to revolve around continuously "coming of age."

3. Daine was the easiest character for me to relate to personally, ever, in the history of my reading. It wasn't just because she liked to help animals, or that the lead male character reminded me a bit of the guy I was head-over-heals for back then. It was that she had always been different from all the other kids - something many teenagers feel they struggle with, a disorder commonly known as "being a teenager."
Daine was different. And she knew she was different. In more ways than one. But she eventually met people who accepted her for exactly who she was. She wasn't just different, she was weird. Her upbringing was not the type conventional for her time (she's the girl with the unknown father). She didn't have the skills her family had hoped she would have. She didn't have friends. She couldn't really relate to the other kids at all (they made fun of her for being a bastard). She grew up away from the city, and, tended to be more introverted than most, having sensible ideas about things and people that were accurate and inaccurate in a healthy balance. And she has questions regarding her own sanity.
She was the first character I ever thought was as weird as me. My adoration of Daine allowed me to start accepting myself as a person. Made me stop trying to hide things about me from myself. I started to see what friends like DandelionGirl saw in me. I started to like myself.

I spent most of my youth with an inferiority complex. My inability to understand the ways of those around me, find acceptance, and earn people's trust had me believing I was critically flawed. Reading this book started to make me think of myself as a "real person."

So, thank you, DandelionGirl. And thank you, Tamora Pierce.

I hope all readers can be as lucky as me and find their Daine.

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