We asked this year’s Center for Fiction First Novel Prize finalists about their earliest love affairs with reading. Meet them all at the Finalist Reading and Fête on December 3rd at The Center for Fiction.
At some point between my fourth and fifth grade, someone in my family gave me a copy of Pippi Longstocking by the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, about a wayward and generous girl who lived by herself, had superhuman strength and gold coins to spare and whose best friends consisted of a horse, a monkey, and two (comparatively conventional) kids living next door. At a time when children’s literature in China still relied on imports from other (mostly socialist) countries, the book had been recently translated into Chinese by Li Zhiyi, who had gone to Stockholm to study the plays of August Strindberg and, needing a break from this endeavor on weekends, fell in love with Lindgren’s books. He would eventually befriend her and, over the course of the next three decades, steadily translate her entire body of work.
Of course I didn’t know any of this as a young reader; Sweden to me was an out-there land just like America, India, or Bulgaria, and I assumed that its stories arrived ready to be read. It would be decades before I would appreciate the tireless linguistic and cultural mediations that constitute the tasks of a translator.
Those invisible mediations allowed me to effortlessly inhabit Pippi’s life. In the Chinese version, her house, Villa Villekulla, was rendered as wei la wei luo gu la, a double-character compound expanded in the next iteration like a poetic riff. It rolled off the tongue because it had its own rhyme and reason. With my cousin Yunyun who was more like a younger sister to me, we spent our days incanting it, as if the repetition would transport us.
I wanted to be Pippi—who wouldn’t?—and because our childhood wishings melded seamlessly into perceived reality, I felt certain I was already on my way. For one thing, Pippi has freckles and I did, too. (This was significant because in my world, I didn’t know a single person, adult or child, who had freckles.) Pippi is unapologetically funny. There’s an undercurrent of tragedy in her circumstances (her mom died early and her sailor father was swept to sea), but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself—quite the opposite. She doesn’t go to school and was more compassionate and imaginative than her peers. But perhaps the most important point of recognition for me was that Pippi says that she doesn’t want to grow up—in fact would not even utter the distasteful word. It was a shock and then a revelation to me that in the course of life, you could simply say no to a process that seems all but inevitable.
Some summers ago, my college friend Nicole invited me to spend a week in Stockholm with her family. When I told them I was a fan of Pippi, she took me to Junibacken, a cultural center honoring Lindgren’s work. It was a place they visited each summer with her then eight-year-old daughter Mia, and they were excited to take me there as a pilgrimage of sorts. But as we snapped pictures of Mia on the replica of Pippi’s horse, and as she lay on a model of Pippi’s wooden bed (the correct way of course, feet on pillow, head under the covers), Nicole could see that Mia was on the verge of outgrowing Pippi, and knew that the following summer they would not revisit it.
We exited into the garden where there was a bronze statue of an elderly Lindgrun (who lived to age 94) seated and diminutive and smiling, and I could not unsee her resemblance to a woman I knew in Lincoln, Nebraska who volunteered to tutor English to recent immigrants like my mom, and who, after each of her lessons with my mom also fed my dad and me mint chocolate ice cream—in short, the timelines of my life could no longer be sorted out cleanly to keep Pippi in her proper place in my imagination.
Now, when I look back on the photo of me and Mia next to the Lindgren statue, I saw that I, crouching down to be eye-level with the seated author-figure, looked out of place. I had, of course, grown up, just as Mia was on the verge of doing so. Being courageous and interesting no longer involves saying no to school and all its interdictions. What it involves, exactly, I still cannot not say for sure, and I want to talk to Mia and Yunyun about it.
Like so many writers, I was a greedy reader from a very young age. This was thanks to my parents, who were educators. My father was a poet in addition to being a professor; he lived much of his life in books and hid the facts of his childhood and young adulthood from his three daughters. (Even now, I must search on Google to excavate the details of his life.) Mostly, the books he read were by men. He loved the Russians—Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky—but also the Black male authors who climbed to prominence during his 20s and 30s, like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.
From the time I was about eight or nine years old, my father provided a monthly allowance of 50 dollars, with the caveat that I could only spend money on books. Today that amount might not seem much; it would cover only a couple of hardbacks (not including tax), or maybe four to five Kindles. But I’m in my mid-fifties now, and in 1975 or 1976, 50 dollars could buy me 30 to 40 books per month.
I bought a lot of trashy romance novels, but my favorite books were in the young adult category. In those days, we didn’t have campaigns like “We Need Diverse Books,” and with few exceptions the protagonists of the books I read were White. Their families were White, their schools were White, and so were their neighborhoods. It was difficult to locate tidbits of familiarity; it’s only now that I realize that, as Black girl, usually only other Black people cared about my life.
One day while searching the shelves of the mall bookstore, I found Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. It was a YA novel, but as I returned to it (twice) as a fully grown person—I recognized so much of what makes good writing: strong prose; a discernible, compelling storyline; and a likeable, complex protagonist. The latter would be Cassie Logan, who lived with her family on a farm that they owned in 1930s Mississippi. (This was very unusual, and one of the big conflicts in the book is about that Black-owned farm.) In terms of personality traits, Cassie resembles many of the YA female protagonists I’d previously encountered: she’s plucky, smart, imaginative, and has a way of navigating—and surviving—difficult situations. When reading Cassie’s story, I recognized my own mother.
Like my father, my mother was a professor, but not as privileged as he was. Daddy was a full, tenured professor at the majority-White university the next town over, while Mama was an adjunct professor at the historically Black university in our town. Definitely she made far less money than Daddy, but though he was the renowned poet, she was the better storyteller. Her tales marked moments in American history that intersected with her own life, like when the Supreme Court made the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, or when Emmett Till, a young Black boy was killed in Mississippi. Mama was incredibly proud of having shaken the hand of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the daughter of a woman who’d been born in 1933 in the Jim Crow deep south—Eatonton, Georgia—I was able to connect with Cassie Logan’s poignant struggles in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the small humiliations that the White characters inflicted upon Cassie and her family. Suddenly my mother’s stories about the damaged, cast-off books (from White students) she’d been given in elementary, middle, and high school in Eatonton were dramatized, in textured—and sometimes—heartbreaking detail.
At the time I read I read Cassie’s story I was a very little girl. I was socially awkward. I didn’t have any friends—other than Mama—and I was acutely aware of my weaknesses. I compared my life to my mother’s, what she had endured, and I always felt like a mortal next to some god, or at least, next to somebody who had supernatural powers. My mother never wept when she told me of the hardships she’d survived. Always, she spoke in a sobering, unwavering tone.
After reading Taylor’s novel, hoever, I thought about the fragility of segregation-era Black girlhood—the rage, the fear, and yes, the grief. I thought about my own mother. About the fact that, if Black girls in the deep south survived, they had overcome White supremacy—not some anonymous force, but a human-driven system that wore actual, pale faces and flesh. Cassie was extraordinary, like my mama, but still a human being. Not divine, but a girl, like my mother had been. Just a girl.
What if we lived in the woods? What if we lived in the barn? What if we lived in the horse trailer? What if we lived in the tack compartment of the horse trailer? As a kid, I was always asking “what if?” I fixated over who would sleep where, what blanket we each would use, where the food would be kept—an effort to control my life or to protect it somehow.
When I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder, she lived in the big woods of Wisconsin, the same woods as my backyard. I already believed in the boundless wild of the world we shared, though more than a hundred years separated our childhoods. Upon Laura’s move to the prairie, I was no less drawn to the scrappiness of her life there, made suddenly exotic by the vistas of open grass. She had lived in a wagon! Then a shack, then a barn-like little house, where she slept on a mattress full of straw. I was sure she was teaching me how to survive.
Laura’s only doll, Charlotte, was made of rags. So I fashioned my own doll of sorts by placing an empty two-liter bottle in a doll’s dress and treating it like a baby. In winter, Laura poured maple syrup on the snow to make candy. My sisters and I tried this at home and I’m here to say, don’t. Just as somewhere in the pages of her books is a loose description of making cornmeal pudding that, in hindsight, should not be mistaken for a recipe. For Christmas, Laura got a piece of ribbon and an orange, and me, well, I got a Dreamtime Barbie in a chiffon gown holding a pink teddy bear. Still, I felt I could relate. I saw how the small things in her life brought about great joy. Her Christmas orange made me happy too. (Though the 1800s were probably the heyday of bad oranges.)
Now on the cusp of reading to my kids about Laura and her life on the prairie, I have a responsibility to reckon with, to talk about, an uncomfortable truth of Laura’s story, the occasional glaring bigotry she depicts. But what could be more real than racism that exists amidst the endless simple acts of living? What could be more important for our children to understand? As the big woods fall and the prairies shrink and the wildness of our world slips away, I wonder about the urge we have to control or to protect. Which is it?
First character I saw myself in:
Ramon Quimby, Harriet the Spy, Sara Crewe—I was always seeing myself in characters from the books I read. But I identified especially powerfully with Anastasia Krupnik, from Lois Lowry’s Anastasia series.
I, like Anastasia, had nerdy parents and an annoying little sibling. I wore glasses “with large owl-eyed rims.” I resembled her in other ways, too: “Skinniest legs in the world. Very awkward looking. Probably will be unable to climb a rope.” Like Anastasia, I was bookish and imaginative and dramatic and a little neurotic and always trying to overhaul my life. We both read above our grade level, with an imperfect understanding of what we were reading. Sigmund Freud and Cleopatra and Edna St. Vincent Millay are some of Anastasia’s references; when I read The Prophet and Invisible Cities as a kid, I was completely baffled and also very, very pleased with myself.
I tore through Lowry’s series, laughing out loud at Anastasia’s antics, and marveling at them, too, because they were far more brazen than anything I could ever pull off. Unlike Anastasia, I was shy and more hesitant to go after what I wanted.
In Anastasia Has the Answers, 13-year-old Anastasia falls in love with her badass gym teacher, Ms. Wilhelmina Willoughby, and grapples with the tension between desire and identification, between wanting and wanting to be: “But honestly, wouldn’t it be neat if only we could all be tall and thin and black, with high cheekbones and a crew cut and beautifully shaped ears, gifted at rope-climbing and owning a layered-look wardrobe?”
One evening she confides in her mother about her “friend’s” crush: “‘It’s a woman teacher!’ she wailed. ‘Isn’t that gross?’”
“‘It isn’t gross at all,’ [her mother] said softly. ‘You can tell your friend that it isn’t gross at all. And I’m an authority on that.’” She then tells Anastasia about a crush she’d once had on her piano teacher: “I even had fantasies about living with her after I grew up.”
“So it didn’t have any long-lasting bad effect on you, or anything?” Anastasia asks.
“‘Anastasia,’ her mother said dramatically, ‘take a look at me.’ She walked across the kitchen, stood in the center, and posed there, like a model. ‘Did I turn out okay or not?’” We, with Anastasia, regard her mother, in her ratty sweatshirt and crooked hair, perfectly normal and, because she’s married to Anastasia’s father, presumably straight.
I can imagine that when this was written in 1986, this was a pretty revolutionary plotline in a middle-grade book. Certainly it was the first time I saw a same-sex crush represented so openly on the page, and throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, as I had crush after crush on girls, I thought about this scene. The lesson I absorbed was that crushes on girls didn’t indicate Real Lesbianism, that I, like Anastasia’s mother, would grow out of them. It was a lesson that made it hard for me to actually recognize my own queerness as queerness, at the same time that it meant that I never felt shame about it.
Only now, rereading the scene, do I see that Anastasia’s mother never actually tells Anastasia that she’ll grow out of same-sex attraction, never actually says that she herself grew out of it. I imposed that misreading on the text myself. Instead, Anastasia’s mother creates space and possibility for her daughter. Now what strikes me is the love in her response.
“She’s not weird at all,” Anastasia’s mother says of Anastasia’s “friend.” “What it does mean is that she’s very normal, very sensitive, very capable of loving. I think I would probably like her a whole lot.”
We had little in common. She was a red-headed orphan living in 19th-century Prince Edward Island. I was a child of the ‘80s, a Gujarati girl toggling between my Indian life at home and my American existence at my Northern Virginia elementary school.
Indeed, I had dismissed that other girl, that Anne Shirley, Anne-most-emphatically-spelled-with-an-e, many times. I saw her at least weekly in my school’s library, displayed prominently on a wire carousel on top of the wooden shelves that held my usual fodder, favorites from Mary Downing Hahn and Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith that I read over and over, books that were such familiar friends I never saw a need to try something new. I took one look at the girl on the cover—straw hat, tight pigtails, a carpet bag in her lap as she sat on a bench—and I picked something else. Why would I want to read what was surely a sad, old-fashioned story?
And then, because I would not choose Anne, Anne chose me. After my school’s annual cycle of reading challenges, I earned enough stars for a new book from the prize table. The only one remaining that I hadn’t already read was Anne of Green Gables, that girl with the hat and the carpet bag waiting on the bench. Waiting, perhaps, for me.
We were different in all the ways every character I’d read before was different from me. But despite that, for the first time in my reading life, I felt a spark of familiarity. Here, finally, to quote Anne, was a kindred spirit, albeit a fictional one.
Anne walking the ridgepole of a house simply to retain her honor during a dare. Anne retaliating with legendary violence against the boy who called her “carrots.” Anne dyeing her hair green, Anne almost drowning in her quest to embody Lady Elaine, Anne getting lost in the swirls of her imagination. She lived in an incredible world, and yet she would not be satisfied; out of the joy and love and wonder that formed her day-to-day existence, she created worlds upon worlds, all solely for her habitation.
And that was where I recognized myself—Anne’s ability to fall fully into her imagination. I was never as brave as Anne, but I had long ago discovered the magic of opening a book or staring out the window and losing all sense of time and self, of coming out of a story or a daydream in a daze, only to notice that the morning had somehow progressed into night. Of being pulled out of the pages or a solitary game in the backyard when my mother’s exasperated voice reached a pitch that told me I’d better listen this time, even if I’d been lost the previous eight or nine times she’d asked me to do something.
No one else in my class got yelled at for mentally drifting off, called back to attention by a teacher’s sharp voice. No one else thought it was normal to continue playing make-believe on the gigantic wooden playground at recess, rather than sitting on the swings and discussing crushes like all the other girls. By the time I met Anne, my classmates had caught sight of the land that bridges childhood to adolescence and had begun taking tentative first steps to cross, while I lingered behind. But I wasn’t alone. As long as I read and reread that book, Anne lingered too.
Eventually I watched her venture across that bridge as I moved on to the subsequent books in the series. And, of course, I followed in my own time. As scary as crossing that bridge seemed then, there was always the comfort that I could return if I needed to, simply by going back to that first book.
So many decades later, I can crack open that well-worn paperback and slip into the world of Anne as I first saw her—though nowadays, other memories populate those pages. When I read the familiar chapters, I am calling up a skinny brown girl with glasses and a thick braid of her own. A girl who inhaled books as if they were air, who felt more at ease with the world in her head than the world around her. The girl still living within me, walking her own path alongside a kindred spirit.