September Listography | Day Twenty-Three
There’s no way this kind of list could ever be all-inclusive, so these are simply the titles from the top of my head… the books I remember more fondly than the rest.
The Chronicles of Narnia, first and foremost. It remains the most enduring of all the books I’ve ever read, even moreso than Lord of the Rings, simply because it was my earliest introduction to allegory and symbolism and non-traditional characters. I didn’t read LOTR until adulthood, after seeing the first film, so Narnia has almost thirty years head-start in my heart. And it did burrow its way into my heart, into my spirit. It was just The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for many years, but in my pre-teens I received a book from my parents called Narnia Explored (now titled Unlocking the Wardrobe) that explained the symbolism and themes of each book in the series. Suddenly, the entire Narnian world opened up to me in the grandest way, and I began to consume every successive title in the series. Though many will argue this, Aslan equals Christ, and as my relationship with Jesus grew, so did my understanding of His sacrifice for all mankind simply because I knew the story of Aslan. There is truly no end to my love for this classic work by C.S. Lewis, and there is nothing more profound to me than his beautiful illustration of Christ’s love.
Nancy Drew Mysteries, which were the books that kicked off my obsession with reading. My grandmother introduced me to Nancy, after first attempting to get me interested in the Little House series (which I rejected fully since pioneer life had no relevance to my very young self and the TV series had not yet made it into my home). Laura Ingalls didn’t interest me but Nancy was the coolest girl I’d ever heard of! She was a teenager with a best girlfriend and a cute boyfriend, and she was smarter than anyone else in her world. Nancy was the perfect role model for an 8-year-old, and I began to consume the books with more and more vigor. I quickly worked my way through all of my grandmother’s titles and then began asking for more more more. I received new titles for every occasion, it seemed, and I may have visited our local library for any others we did not buy. I’d love to say I still have all of those books but, of course, they have disappeared over time. I have only a handful now, some of which I’ve purchased again in adulthood. And though I haven’t read any of them since my pre-teens, I’ve begun thinking it’s time to revisit.
Judy Blume, who was the successor to Nancy Drew. I can’t recall if my mom introduced me with the book that every 70s-era girl was given, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, or if I discovered it through a friend, but Blume’s books propelled me from childhood to near-teens. With Margaret I came to understand that books were being written to me and for me, and it wasn’t simply a story to enjoy but life lessons to learn. I didn’t read that many titles, actually, but the ones I read spoke to me on a new level. They spoke to my experiences as an awkward, socially-inept, introverted and self-conscious pre-teen who longed to just be loved without judgment. It was a few years before I found a true best friend of my own choosing, and in the meantime I had Blume’s characters to walk with me. Her younger character of Fudge seemed below my interest level (though my sister read a few), so I started with Margaret and proceeded through Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (my first experience with a male protagonist), Tiger Eyes, and then, naturally, Forever. I was in fifth grade when I read Forever, and I had no idea what I was getting into. None of us did at the time! And our teachers weren’t aware of the content, so I was able to sit in class and read it at my desk during quiet times with no one the wiser about its subject matter. Had anyone looked over my shoulder at certain points I would’ve died from humiliation right then and there! To this day, I credit Judy Blume, and not my parents, with my sex education. And honestly, it was a fantastic way to learn about love and sex and relationships between teenagers. In the years that followed, as boys and girls became more and more interested in each other, I had this very positive reference for all that was going on around me. There has been much controversy surrounding Judy Blume, but in my mind she is treasured because she speaks the truth for the young people who need to be acknowledged.
Sweet Valley High, where I moved after the world of Blume. Honestly, once you read Forever, you just can’t return to children’s books. And Sweet Valley High was a brand-new series that no one was even aware of yet — in fact, I just stumbled across it on a shelf while browsing in the mall bookstore and was drawn to the blonde girls on the cover. There were only a couple of titles available at that time, and I was instantly enchanted. I read the stories of twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield as if they were my own best friends, and they prepared me for the often harsh moments that come with high school. With one girl being an intellectual and the other being the popular cheerleader, I could find understanding of the difficult emotions I experienced as an outsider in school, but the stories also made me yearn to be included. Thankfully, there was a great moral center in every SVH story, and there was always a comeuppance, so I felt satisfied with the conclusion of every book. And each one made me yearn for more.
Sweet Valley High was my last real series of young adult books, and the years of reading that followed were generally dictated by school assignments. Thankfully, from 6th through 9th grades I had the greatest English/Reading teacher in the history of education (more on her later!) and the books I had to read for class often made me want to read more titles by the authors. I discovered S.E. Hinton that way, and quickly devoured everything she’d written by then, from The Outsiders onward. In my later teens, when I was exploring spirituality for the first time, I discovered Janette Oke, who served to cement my great wanderlust for other places and other cultures. Though many have great affection for the Love Comes Softly series, it’s the Canadian West books that drew me (probably because I was following hockey at the time). I still have my original copies — the first books I made a point to hang onto — and I have the fondest memories for everything in them. Isn’t it odd to be struck by a story of moving to the frontier after rejecting the pioneer life of the Ingalls family? Such is my frenetic mind! (Side Note: It’s interesting now, as I just searched for a link to the Canadian West series for this post, that there are two additional titles that didn’t exist when I was reading this collection. But I have no interest in those two titles as they concern the main characters’ children. It was the the original characters, Wynn and Elizabeth, who engaged me, and without them it’s just not the same series.)
Several other authors and titles grabbed me through the years, including a rebellious tangent into Jackie Collins and one or two Danielle Steele tomes, but there is only one more book that holds a resolute place in my heart and brings intense emotion with every mention.
Bridge to Terabithia. It was recommended reading by a teacher in elementary school, probably from the Weekly Reader list (remember that?), and when I began to read I had no idea where the story would take me. As a child I was so interested in reading for reading’s sake that I rarely even checked a summary. I just took whatever I could find and dove in. In doing that, Terabithia managed to envelop my soul and crush it in the same brief period of time. It was the first time I remember reading the death of a character, and a primary character at that, and I was truly grief-stricken. I recall this also being the first time a book made me cry. And not just a few tears, either. I sobbed and sobbed during the reading. My heart still twinges at the thought. But that sorrow didn’t make me stop reading; instead, I was thrust forward with more and more desire to reach the conclusion. Perhaps I thought there would be joy at the end, or perhaps the sheer power of emotion compelled me. Whatever it was, I devoured the story. And it has lived with me throughout all of my life. Which is the perfect reasoning for the act of reading itself. I read in order to live: in another place or time, for a brief moment, with people I may never have the pleasure to meet in person but who have much to teach me in print. And in that way, books truly come to life.