“The Books of My Youth”
Speech originally delivered at ALA Conference, 2015
I went to my very first American Library Association conference (that's ALA, in the lingo) this past weekend, and I can say without hyperbole that it was the best conference I've ever been to. Logically, I can see the many factors that made this so. It was held in San Francisco, on Pride weekend, on THIS Pride weekend, right on the heels of the SCOTUS ruling; walking around was like breathing pure joy. I got to see old friends (and their wee babes) and meet new ones, and spent more than like twenty minutes (for the first time ever!) with Celeste Ng; I met Kevin Henkes and Jami Attenberg and M.T. Anderson; I swapped books with other book nerds in the Haight; I ate great food and drank great drinks. Bellweather was being recognized as an Alex Award winner, which was pretty freaking amazing and humbling and exciting and all sorts of other celebratory gerunds. But it was also so special because it was a weekend full of librarians. Librarians have always made me feel safe. Librarians have always made me feel loved. Librarians have always put books in my hands and information in my head. Librarians, this weekend, looked me in the eye and smiled and freaked out with me about William Sleator's The Green Futures of Tycho and grasped my hands across a table because we both loved Katherine Neville's The Eight.
I repaid the favor of being welcomed so kindly by making the librarians cry.
Oh, I cried too. And I kind of started a trend, because John Scalzi, who followed me on the Alex panel for Lock In, also cried about librarians, and at the end Anthony Doerr, Alex (and Pulitzer!) award winner for All the Light We Cannot See, who is delightfully, passionately nerdy about life and wonder and writing, gave me a big hug. And if it sounds like I'm dropping names, maybe I am? But we were all feeling it. I won't forget it.
Thank you, YALSA. Thank you, ALA. Thank you, panel guru Paige Battle and everyone on the Alex committee.
Here's what I said.
(Sorry not sorry if it makes you cry.)
San Francisco, July 2015
The Books of My Youth
I am a reader. I’m a writer, too, but I came to writing, as Eudora Welty said, “out of a superior devotion to reading.”
I don’t remember ever discovering reading; it was always just there, a love fully-formed, something I was lucky enough to be born with. I do have an exceptionally clear memory of my elementary school librarian—Mrs. Barbara Griffin; could there be a better name for a librarian than a magical creature?—placing a copy of The Boxcar Children in my hands. Boxcar’s homesteading-from-the-dump orphans appealed to my streak of only-child independence; vampire bunny classic Bunnicula was both the first chapter book I read independently, and my first experience with genre bending. The first detectives I ever met, I wanted to be: Cam Jansen and Encyclopedia Brown and Bruce Coville’s Nine Tanleven.
Then I read Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, and that was basically it. I was done. I had found my Rosetta Stone, the book that solved me for x: kicked off by a murder, equally funny and strange, silly yet emotionally true, a complex puzzle that I, as the reader, could become a part of.
But most importantly, I see in hindsight, was that it was a story peopled almost entirely with adults. Sydelle Pulaski, the too-long-underestimated, sly secretary who fakes an injury to get attention; James Hoo, the restaurant owner with the professional grudge; Judge J.J. Ford, the first Black judge in the state, wrestling with a debt to the dead man. There are also three teenagers, and one middle-schooler, Turtle Wexler, who is the hero. But The Westing Game was the first book I ever read where the author—Ellen Raskin—asked me to understand adults not just as parents or teachers or librarians, but as people. Who worried and wanted and feared and screwed up, who maybe didn’t have all the answers they claimed. But who were all stuck here—in this Sunset Towers apartment building, in this novel, in this world—and were all changing, all the time, together. And that was the great mystery, the great game, of living.
Where was I to go after that?
Obviously: Jurassic Park.
In the nineties, what we call YA did not exist as it does now. So I went straight from The Westing Game to Michael Crichton’s crowd-pleasing thrillers of weird science run amok, from Jurassic Park to The Andromeda Strain to Sphere. Then I read Agatha Christie. Then I read Mary Higgins Clark. My friends read romance novels; I read My Sweet Audrina. As a teenage reader, I craved sensation and imagination, a doorway from which to gaze into adulthood—and inclusion. I was looking for myself. I wanted to be let in, and to look out.
And no one let me in like Stephen King. I devoured Misery, The Dark Tower books—the three that existed at the time—The Stand, Christine. My favorite, then and now, is Different Seasons, which collects “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil,” and “The Body,” the basis for the film Stand By Me—the story of four young boys who go hunting for the body of dead kid Ray Brower, struck by a train, seeking fame for finding him and finding instead that death is the most ordinary of things.
Many of the novels I was drawn to as a teenager—from Crichton’s Jurassic Park to Clark’s All Around the Town—prominently featured young characters. But none were as powerful, as accessible, as King’s. Stephen King is always writing about childhood, from inside and out—about the transition to adulthood, and the ways we as adults are shaped by the children we were and the children we knew, the experiences we had when were tender. His young characters have the same rich interior lives as his adults, operating under the implicit assumption that both of these perspectives are necessary. Legitimate. We are all part of the same story.
From the books I read as a teenager, I saw a kind of adulthood that was largely gothic and high concept, full of complicated people of all ages and backgrounds, violent without being nihilistic, and despite its darkness, full of the promise of hope and love. I felt an adult awareness that acknowledges there is danger and cruelty in the world, that it will hurt you, but that there is beauty too, there is art, there is kindness, and you can and will survive. This is still my essential worldview. This is my project as a writer. This is a gift I received from Ellen Raskin and Stephen King, from Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark, Bruce Coville and James Howe. Even Michael Crichton. This is a gift I want to spend my life giving back to the world, however I can. Bellweather Rhapsody is grounded in my memories of being a high school musician, but it’s also a tribute to the gifts I was given by the books I read while I was a young adult.
I think of Mrs. Griffin, my librarian, putting a book in my hands. I remember feeling so honored, so chosen, so seen: that she had taken the time to think I might like this book. And she was right. I still harbor the desire to live free, everything I need to survive, scavenged. I still crave independence, a boxcar of my own.
To imagine a librarian placing a book I have written in the hands of a young reader, thinking they might like it, that it might make them laugh or cry, that it might give them something they take into the rest of their lives, is more than an honor.
It’s a gift.