In his novel Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman writes, “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.” The truth of that statement resonated deeply with me. As a boy I inhabited books and the books inhabited me. They were often more real and more constant that the world about me. They were both escape and connection. I wanted to live in Narnia and Neverland and the hundred-acre wood and in the Thames Valley of The Wind in the Willows or the Murry home from Madeleine L’Engles Time Quartet or The Shire.
I wanted to be part of the Five Little Peppers or the March family. I wanted to adventure with the Bastable children as they attempted to recover their family’s fortune or to discover the secret garden with Mary Lennox at Misselthwaite Manor or discover little people living in our home just like in The Borrowers. I wanted to raft down the Mississippi with Huck Finn. Or see the mysterious rose on B-612 that the Little Prince so dearly loves. Or visit the kingdom of King Babar and Queen Celeste. Or discover a bear to adopt in the Paddington Railway Station.
I wanted friends like Anne Shirley or Sara Crewe or Jo March or Meg Murry. Brave and imaginative girls who created stories and adventures in a way that I thought only I did.
In M is For Magic, Neil Gaiman writes, “Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.”
I think he is spot on with his assessment. The books I discovered either at my school library or local library are most often the ones that have loomed largest in my imagination. Why is that? Because, as I said, I was inhabited with books and those books held my imagination as no other books ever have since because I had brought so much more of myself to them. I invested myself into these stories as only a child can.
It began with picture books that my mother would read to me, often before bed. Fairy tales and stories of a velveteen rabbit or about collecting blueberries or making way for ducklings or of a bull who wants only to smell flowers or Harold with his magic purple crayon that I, still to this day, would love to have. When I read Beatrix Potter or Goodnight Moon or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, I still hear my mother’s voice reading them to me. They are connected to one of my favorite childhood memories: her presence by my bedside, reading stories that were either new or familiar, that were cherished and beloved, in a way that opened words up to me and made me want to read them on my own so that the magic contained in words and sentences, in pictures and pages, would be available to me any time that I wanted to read – and I always wanted to read.
I started with those same picture books and then moved on to The Golden Books, where I discovered The Pokey Little Puppy or Scuffy the Tugboat. I embraced whole-heartedly the worlds of Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss. I wanted to join in the wild rumpus and be an inhabitant of Busytown.
I wanted to read every book at my school library and then at our local library. I wanted to solve mysteries with Frank and Joe Hardy. Those books were thrilling and exciting and made me turn the page to find out what happened next. They also made me want to be a writer because I attempted to write my own version of those kinds of stories. I loved that it was boys solving these mysteries instead of the grown-ups.
Nothing was more real to me than the worlds that was found between the covers of a book. The characters that populated them were often dearer to me and closer than real people were. They understood what I did or they helped me to understand what I didn’t.
And the authors who wrote them weren’t like the adults that I knew. They didn’t hide things from me, but they let me in on secrets. They included me in their unfolding of stories. Unlike teachers and so many adults, authors were the ones who taught me what I truly needed to know: yes, there is darkness in the world, but one can overcome it if one makes the right choices. So I don’t believe in hopelessness. I don’t believe in cynicism. I believe dreams and heroism are what’s always expected because of fairy tales.
Authors like Maurice Sendak, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbitt, Madeleine L’Engle, E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, A.A. Milne, P.L. Travers, Diana Wynne Jones, and J.R.R. Tolkien were just some of the teachers who have shaped and influenced how I see the world and approach it with a sense of wonder and optimism, not out of naiveté, but an honest desire to make the world better and more wondrous because that’s how we imagine it should be.
Books were always open doors that were always and forever open to me for exploration. Books allowed me to discover and uncover what I felt, thought or imagined. Books made the world both bigger and, somehow, more connected to myself. In The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis wrote, “For what you see and hear depends on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” He helped me to see that the world was infused with magic, that something as ordinary as wardrobes and streetlamps were magical and extraordinary. He made me believe that worlds could be sung into being by lions.
I remember reading Matilda and found a comrade when I came to the lines, “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” Like Matilda, books transported me to new and exciting places and made me long to see more of the world and to encounter the cultures and customs of other people. As a child, I sat in my room and traveled to such distant lands by simply picking up a book. Reading made me empathetic towards others because stories taught me to imagine the world from different points of view. The opened the world to me and helped me to navigate it.
Books have been and always will be freedom to me. They continue to be the places I still inhabit the most. I still return to the books of my childhood, from time to time, because it’s like visiting with old friends or going back to see one’s home. Yes, things have changed and the stories aren’t always what we remembered them to be, but there is still so deeply within them, a real and tangible part of who I was and who I am and am still becoming. Those books remain dear to me because they are a rich part of me and my life.