Her message was terse but clear.
It was just an email, but I felt as if she was standing right in front of me, maybe even yelling or raising her fist.
Her daughter, a rising 3rd grader at Spring ISD, had startled her. She’d come running into her bedroom in the middle of the night, afraid of the monsters under the bed– needing her mother’s protection.
“I can’t let my daughter read this book. It is completely inappropriate. There’s sorcery and witchcraft and things that eat children! We can’t let our child be exposed to these kind of messages. We’re Christians.”
Note to self.
Never assign The Witches.
Once my embarrassment and frustration had somewhat subsided, I stepped away from the desk and frowned.
When was the last time I’d read a book like that?
When was the last time I’d read something so vivid that it’d scared me?
When was the last time that I’d read something so striking that it’d made me want to literally, crawl into my mother’s arms for protection?
When have you?
1. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
I can’t say for certain why, as a small child, I was so touched by this book. Perhaps it was because the little boy was sickly like I was. The adults hovered worriedly around him, so he sought comfort from his toys.
Perhaps it was because of my love for fantasy and magic: I was spellbound by the little rabbit who wished so much to become real.
Perhaps it was because my little brother, who’s seven years my junior, had an imaginary friend named Igor. Igor was thoughtful and considerate. He preferred the company of family over the comfort of friends. We always prepared a seat for him at dinnertime, and even arranged his silverware when we set the table. Igor was kind and, because he was real to my little brother, he was real to me.
A few months ago I was on the hunt for a few children’s books– ones I could send to a few friends who’d recently become parents for the first time. I started re-reading all of my old favorites so I could choose the best (and most appropriate) themes.
I found this in a pile along with some old newspapers. Reread it and literally bawled my eyes out.
2. A Year Without Michael by Susan Beth Pfeffer
I’m not as close to my father as I’d like to be.
When I was younger, there were so many more ways for us to connect. He introduced me to The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. We watched college basketball and pro football together. He’d help with my crafting, my science projects, and my math. We fell in love with sci-fi together.
When I was in middle school, my father was hospitalized for an ulcer. I don’t remember much during that time, but I remember there were a lot of hospital visits and my mother was much more tense than usual.
When people asked about him, they didn’t quite know what to say to comfort me.
I’d always been in the habit of reading to keep my mind off things that troubled me, so I stumbled upon this book.
If ever a time NOT to read this, it was then. But I was captivated!
Told from the perspective of Michael’s sister, who couldn’t have been much older than me, we relive the terror, the anticipation, and the horror of a family that is trying desperately to adjust to everyday life after their son goes missing one night.
For pages and pages and pages, we wait and watch and wait and watch, hoping that someone will find him and he will come home.
He never does.
We try to go about our lives as normal. We try to prepare answers, in advance, for the questions friends and family will ask us when they see us. Answers we don’t have and questions that only stir up the desperation and sadness.
We live the year without Michael, in its entirety.
And surprisingly, there’s absolutely no resolution at the end.
It was the first time I realized– perhaps understood deeply, even as a child– that happy endings don’t always exist. That evil is real.
3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I have an intellectual interest in all things related to race and culture, but if I stay too long in that place I find myself angry. Or weary. Or a strange, overwhelming combination of the two.
Since it’s been so long since I read this, I don’t quite remember the particular context or the scene that caused such a visceral reaction. But at one point, I visualized something so vividly that I vomited.
I had never read anything so striking.
In high school, I’d quit Lolita because I was disturbed by some of the language. This wasn’t that.
It was different.
4. Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop by Thomas Chatterton Williams
I hated it. I hated it so much and the author’s assertions about black people (or at least, my interpretation of his assertions), that I bought my very first plane ticket overseas.
When it began, I was so in love his wordsmithing and so in love with the lessons he was coming to understand about himself and the world around him.
He grew up biracial with an African-American father and white mother. In essence, he argues that his upbringing and love for literature saved him from destructive hip-hop culture.
By the end, I was completely convinced that he hated black people and hated that part of himself.
Nevertheless, this book was the impetus for my first trip abroad. His characterizations of black people and their supposed limitations, compelled me to action.
5. James Baldwin
To be fair, “James Baldwin” is not a book, but I can’t say which of his work was the most pivotal.
I discovered him accidentally in high school when he was referenced in one of the books on my summer reading list. Once I discovered him, I read everything I could that he’d ever written.
He made me question my ideas on faith and religion. He made me challenge my opinions on love. He made me open my mind to international travel and what it could mean to have real community.
He made me believe that I, too, could be a writer.
What have you read that’s changed your life?