I was nine years old, and for the first time in my life I was sad. Not momentarily wistful, or disappointed because I didn’t get something I wanted, but sad in a sticky, slow-moving, cry-at-night-for-no-reason way. I wrote about it in my journal—was it my Ramona Quimby diary or the one I had later, with the lock that didn’t work?—and then, afraid of what I had written, destroyed the little book page by page.
Because I was the good girl in my family, the child referred to as “the easy one,” I didn’t want to tell anyone how I felt. I didn’t want to cause problems. Instead, I read and I sobbed, I sobbed and I read. Appropriately, starting around the time I was nine, books got sad, too. In third grade, I read Little Women and wept for Beth. In fourth grade, I read Jane Eyre and wept for Jane. In fifth grade, I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and all of the sequels and then every Harriet Tubman biography in the library and I wept for Cassie and Harriet and American history in general, which felt like it should have happened so much longer ago than it did.
To paraphrase Nick Hornby, did I read because I was sad, or was I sad because I read? While reading, it made sense to cry, and no one seemed to worry about me if I was crying while I read. Until at last, during that period of fifth-grade despair, a teacher suggested to my parents that maybe I could use some help.
My mother took me to see a child psychologist. I was terrified. I kept waiting for her to use the word “crazy.” Instead, she talked about books. She asked me what I was reading, what I had read, what I wanted to read. She asked if I would write her a story. “Tell me about a girl who is perfect,” the psychologist said. So I did. My “perfect” girl was thin, with straight, strawberry blonde hair and a lovely smile. Nobody worried about her. She had lots of friends. And if she read sometimes, alone by herself, I didn’t mention it.
The young adult author Sherman Alexie recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal in defense of “sad” books, the kind of books that reduced me to a pure and powerful outpouring of emotion as an 11-year-old.
Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students–teens and pre-teens–who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.
My life was not nearly as dark or terrifying as the books I was reading, but somehow, starting in third grade, I intuited that life itself was often dark and terrifying and, worst of all, unjust. Though I was being sheltered from much of that, others weren’t so lucky. Reading helped me cope. Books like Jacob Have I Loved, Bridge to Terabithia, Number the Stars, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Summer of My German Soldier confirmed my suspicions and helped me understand how a person my age could confront unfairness and adversity and keep going.
Without knowing it, I was engaging in what Rachel Vorona Cote calls “literary self-care.” So were, and continually are, millions of other children around the world. I spoke to some who shared their stories with me.
Before Josh was a theater teacher, he was a closeted teen in a small town, and he felt understood for the first time when he read James Baldwin’s midcentury masterpiece Giovanni’s Room and, especially, Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red. As he puts it, “I think a lot of queer young people—and young people with other oppressed identities—find stories of strength in books first.” He goes on:
I think that there is such a cheering squad to help young gay men not feel like monsters that a certain element of truth about gay desire is suppressed—that there is something about the other man’s body you would wish was your own. It is a dark part of gay desire, and Carson does not write about it like an essayist or psychoanalyst (god forbid); she gets there intuitively, non-analytically and non-categorically, as a storyteller.
At a younger age, Tanya told me, she felt saved by Katherine Patterson’s classic Jacob Have I Loved:
I discovered Jacob Have I Loved in fifth grade, around the time our teachers were separating the boys and the girls for a light version of sex ed. For the girls, we had video after video about the female reproductive system and the changes that puberty was about to wreak on us, and each of the videos showcased brunettes as the “before” examples and lithe, tall, blonde girls as the images of successful puberty. I looked at myself: brown skin, glasses, black hair that had suddenly decided “waviness” was too gentle a descriptor and had erupted into violent frizz. Wheeze (Sara Louise) was a saving grace for me: she was tanned and graceless, constantly compared to her perfect golden twin, and she struggled to find her version of happiness. And because she managed to find it—brown, misunderstood, gangly, and all—so could I.
I was a sensitive, dramatic, and emotional kid who just wanted to be understood. When I discovered Matilda, by Roald Dahl, it was the first time I saw myself in a fictional character. Matilda was bolder and smarter than I was. She defeated bullies and found a place for herself in the world. But I found comfort in the idea that being a bookworm leads to a better life. Dahl’s dark humor guided me through the awkwardness of being a bookish girl. I took pride in that awkwardness. I embraced it. I read books on the bus and under desks during class, during lunch and at family get-togethers. I read books in the loft at church while my grandmother played the organ for strangers’ funerals and weddings. I read a book on the day my dog was put to sleep, when I was a bawling, hiccuping mess. Every time I needed a book, I turned to one, just like Matilda did. Just like I continue to do.
Dr. Alberto Escallon of Mount Sinai Hospital, a board-certified child psychiatrist who has practiced for nearly eight years, confirmed for me in an interview that yes, in his opinion, books can and do save children. He uses them to relate to his patients, who “usually are the ones who start with the idea of ‘this is what I’m reading’ and then we use the books, the narratives, the characters, and the ideas in order to enter aspects of psychotherapy.” He enjoys reading as well, which helps.
I like science fiction, as a personal kind of thing. I’m getting old so I read more philosophy lately. But to keep my profession running, I have to read whatever’s popular. I also have patients that come with books I’ve never heard of before, so I have to find them.
Often, though, patients bring in books that are more familiar, such as the Harry Potter series.
Kids who are reading Harry Potter, they identify themselves with the characters. It’s projective identification. ‘Like Harry, in these situations, he was able to confront evil, but he was scared, and I think the same thing happened to me when I confronted the bully.’ Or, ‘The heroism of the character pushed me and helped me take charge of the situation.’ Or even in the negative, like with a less benign character: ‘I realized I was selfish or jealous.’ … I end up getting to know aspects of their personalities, including their own resilience.
Books don’t merely teach and encourage resilience, he told me. They improve “the sophistication of [children’s] language, their ability to be more introspective, their ability to understand concepts presented by other people that they can use on their own.” And most helpful of all, they remind children that life is supposed to be difficult.
Trauma in the life, loss, inadequacy—books present those aspects and kids relate to that better than in a movie. Books give them the opportunity to see that other people struggle with similar issues and can be successful at the end. They provide empathy, hope, and a reminder that life is not so easy. Like Joseph Campbell said, we all have to struggle to become the hero we want to be, the hero of our own lives. It’s a process.
It’s a process that doesn’t stop once we are grown, either. Fortunately reading can continue to help us become the heroes of our own lives as adults as much—or maybe only nearly as much—as it could help when we were young.