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I Read Because I Have To

June 4, 2013

​I cannot imagine my life without the mountains of books I have read. I had a happy childhood with loving parents and lots of time outside and everything I really needed. Jeanne Birdsall and Tanya Anderson and others have written eloquently about how books saw them through horrific times in childhood. Books were a salvation to them as they have been to so many. And even though I was lucky to not face the things they faced as children, books have been one of the most important things in my life, and they have been a salvation to me.

​Looking back as an adult, I can see that as a child my need to live in a world of imagination was visceral and urgent, almost as important as needing to eat and drink. There was not a day that went by that I did not spend hours pretending, and there were few tasks I undertook that I did not improve with a little make-believe. I confess that even as an adult I spend a fair amount of time imagining. It is part of me. As an intense child, imaginative space was vital need. Books gave me a limitless outlet. And fortunately for me, I had access to as many books as I wanted.

​In my childhood, books were there for me when I needed an escape, when I lost friends, when my heart was broken, when I felt misunderstood or out of step or lost in the crowd. I am profoundly grateful to the middle grade and young adult authors that breathed life into the characters and stories I adored. Books brought me friends, sometimes books were my friends, and I devoured them in giant stacks. Books made me understand I wasn’t alone, allowed me to see the world through different eyes, and they helped me find myself. I discovered worlds I could inhabit when I was bored or lonely. I found characters like me or–better yet–characters with traits I wanted to possess. At different times in my life, I needed Ramona Quimby, Kit Tyler from Witch of Blackbird Pond, Katie Welker in the Girl With the Silver Eyes. I needed Bridge to Terabithia, Deenie, Huck Finn, and lots and lots of Stephen King (The Talisman saw me through my teenage years). Later I needed Jane Austen and the Brontes and Nabokov, Barth, Agee, and Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. As a brand new mother, newly moved back to my hometown after seven exciting years in New York and lonely with a sweet newborn who would not sleep unless she was being held, my sanity was saved once again by books–I picked the fattest, most complicated books I hadn’t read yet and got to work while my daughter napped on my lap. Tolstoy, Dickens, Thackeray, Ellison, Wharton, Morison–thank you.

​I don’t know whether most book lovers feel this way, but I am sure that there are many others who are pulled to read as they are pulled to breathe.

​At Books Are Magic, we give twelve books to elementary school students who the school identifies as needing books at home. I’ve read the studies, and I care very much about improving literacy and opening doors to academic success. But I am also deeply motivated by my passion for reading and the outlet it has provided me. Maybe the books we give will ignite a spark in a child or provide an escape or an adventure. Maybe we will help set a course for a lifelong love of reading.

​Or maybe the spark has already been lit, and a child like me is aching for a stack of books of their own to consume. I’ve met them–they stand in front of the shelves with their eyes wide and ask “Is this for real? Are you sure? I really get 12?” I can see these kindred spirits across the room. The third grader who took home Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Wonder of Charlie Anne. The basketball player fifth grade boy who came in talking about Linda Sue Park and listened, spellbound, as we described The Secret Garden. The kid who exclaimed over Fever 1793 (“Yellow fever! I read this! It’s complex, scary in places & really good.”) and then picked it so he could reread it. The boy who stood speechless in front of the advanced chapter section and then picked the fattest books he could “so it will last me all summer.” The girl who could barely contain herself as I described Beholding Bee (“She has to make her own way in the world? I really, really want that one.”). The ones who say “Can I come here every day?”

​Summer is almost here. I know that the 900 libraries we’ve sent home since 2011 are being read. I know that there are kids who are losing themselves and finding themselves in books. I know that my children are doing the same. I know that again and again, for the rest of my life, I will always reach for a book and breathe deeper as that part of me finds its home. Whatever each reader needs right now, I know that books are magic.

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