From time to time, Bas Bleu’s editors will share with you some of the books that have had a profound impact on our lives. They won’t necessarily be grand literary classics or hard-hitting political tomes. They will be books that have stayed with us over the years and shaped who we are. If you’d like to share a significant title from your own life, feel free to do so in the comments section below.
This week, Bas Bleu’s summer intern, Sarah, tells us about an important reading experience from her school days:
I grew up in a household where science fiction and fantasy were staples of everyday life in literature. Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke held prominent places on my parents’ bookshelves. My mother had a calendar every year featuring illustrations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, and she would regale us with the scenes and stories depicted in vivid detail. I was an avid reader, and would work my way methodically through the scifi/fantasy section at our tiny local library each summer.
At school, however, we studied things like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Bridge to Terabithia—all fantastic books, but all rooted firmly in realism. During break time the teacher would often read us books like James and the Giant Peach or Bunnicula, but those were for fun, not for study. They were less serious, less literary: fluff that you read in your downtime, not something that anyone would consider worthy of any sort of in-depth attention.
The message was subtle but insidious, and I didn’t even realize it had been conveyed to me until one day in sixth grade when the teacher rolled in a cart display of books. She told us that we’d all choose a novel from the display, read it, and then write a report. There, nestled among titles like Hatchet and Anne of Green Gables, was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I was immediately drawn to the cover—the old one, with a rainbow-winged centaur flying across an alien landscape—and knew that was the book I wanted to read.
I was the only one in my class to choose it.
I picked it up off the shelf guiltily, as if I were immature and silly for wanting to read a book with such a cover. I was already keenly aware of my position on the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, and feared the ridicule of my peers. I thought for sure the teacher would realize her mistake any minute now…that the book had been placed there by accident (despite the fact that it was in a stack of six others just like it). Surely she would swoop in and pluck it from my hands and replace it with something else—something that promised to be full of imagery and symbolism and all of the other things teachers loved to talk about, but that would be ultimately…mundane.
But no such thing happened. I was sent home with the tale of Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and her freckle-faced, popular friend Calvin O’Keefe (whom I secretly compared to my freckle-faced, popular crush, of course). I devoured it and didn’t even mind writing the required book report. That one little book showed me that my genres were relevant, good, and worthy—that a book could be fantastical and still teach you important lessons about family, friends, and life. I had already known that last bit, but felt as if it were a quiet, shameful secret…the mindset of a child. Receiving that book from my teacher was permission to be proud of my reading preferences. I could stop hiding my books in my backpack and read them without shame.
After all, I’d studied them in school.