March 23, 2017 | Feature
revisiting childhood favorites as an almost-adult
To any Harry Potter fan, this is the only proper response to the question posed in the title. To me, it’s one of four. As a Laura Ingalls Wilder devotee, I picture a little house in the big woods with a fire blazing and corn biscuits toasting. A Lemony Snicket enthusiast, I can imagine a dejected sigh and a dictionary definition. And as a Louisa May Alcott lover, I can hear the feverish scribbling of Jo March’s pen trying to capture the fleeting chuckles of girlhood. Little House on the Prairie, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Little Women—these are the books that raised me. Through their stories, I absorbed lessons about family, friendship, love, hope, sorrow, and strength, and I shaped my childhood around them. Now that I’m nearly grown, I’m beginning to live these lessons in real-time, and I can’t help wondering if all my reading made me ready.
One could say I was, well, a bit of an odd child. Not outwardly “weird,” not the kind to bear the brunt of playground teasing, but more the wide-eyed, buck-toothed type who preferred to read during recess (which might explain why I still don’t understand the point of tag). Regardless, I enjoyed my childhood, and most of that is due to the words I devoured alongside my peanut butter sandwiches. I started with the Little House on the Prairie series (first book published in 1935, picked out by me circa 2005, age 7), tucked in bed as my parents read aloud about the pioneering families who moved west and built the towns I could trace on my placemat map, crossing through my own home city in Illinois each time. The Ingalls family became my model, and though I wished I were as daring, as plucky and brave as Laura, I knew I had more in common with her older sister, Mary. Mary, who was reserved and followed rules, and was maybe a little bossy, according to my brother. I even went as Mary for Halloween in second grade, wearing a too-big bonnet bought off eBay and my long, blonde hair in two braids down my back. I still have that bonnet, along with the dress it came with, a purple calico print, just like the ones I read about.
Here at Brown, I bet I could probably wear the dress, maybe with some Doc Martens, minus the bonnet, and feel like an alternative adult. Really, though, I’d want to feel like myself at age seven again. I guess sometimes I still do, caught off guard by the crash of plates in the Ratty, my braces-corrected teeth peeking out just a tad because five years of orthodontia don’t fix a lifetime of habit. From Laura, Mary, Ma, and Pa, I learned that habit, or perhaps tradition, is what makes a family, what makes a community, and what makes a person whole. When I’m home on break, I still walk past the patch of trees behind my elementary school and imagine a tiny cabin, with a tuft of smoke swirling from the chimney and candles burning in the windows. A home. Small, like I still am, but warm and welcoming, like I’ve learned to be. Inside, there’s a place at the red-checkered table for a little girl with braids, and right next to it, a larger seat for a girl who cut off all her hair right before senior prom. There’s a chair for the one writing this essay, who’s trying to grow it back into braiding length, and one next to that sitting empty, awaiting her when she does. It’s a place where all parts of me, those past, present, and future can feel safe, can feel loved. Like Laura wrote in the very first book in the series, “this is now.” I may be older, marginally wiser, but my “now” is no different from my “then”—I am the culmination of a childhood, and none of my selves have gone. As Laura says, “they could not be forgotten…because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Toward the end of third grade, a red-headed boy named Marcello chased me for an entire day carrying a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, demanding that I read it. This sounds a bit aggressive, and it was, but I have to say, I’m eternally grateful. That little boy opened up my world and introduced me to magic. I’d encountered fantasy before, sure, and loved fairies and dragons, but by the time I’d reached the middle of my elementary school career, I’d stopped believing. It wasn’t the result of a terrible, childhood-ruining epiphany—as a Jewish girl, after all, I’d never even believed in Santa Claus. It just seemed the natural endpoint in my rational worldview. Harry Potter changed all that. Harry, Ron, and Hermione went to school, like me. They fought dark wizards, sure, and maybe potions class was different than polygon lessons in third-grade math, but they were also just kids, navigating friendships and finding family. If Little House on the Prairie taught me about home, Harry Potter taught me about home away from home. I’d never truly understood what it meant to find one until I came to Brown. From Harry, I learned that doubt is inevitable, that imposter syndrome is real, and that everyone wonders whether they’re really a wizard. After all, aren’t we all “just Harry”? Surrounded by so many smart people, some of whom are nationally recognized musicians or athletes, activists and academics, I often feel like “just Anna” isn’t enough. Thankfully, Harry Potter also taught me that I’ll never be alone in these feelings. Family exists in friendship, and this semester, I’m finally finding out why. While I may not have a defined trio, I do have some truly wonderful individual friends who understand me and laugh with me and share meals with me. While I’m still shocked by their compliments, they’re helping me recognize my magic, the kind I’ve admired in others and never noticed in myself. Friendship, one might say, is its own kind of magic, which sounds cheesy and a little sickening but it’s true without a doubt. It’s the kind of enchantment you don’t notice until you feel it, heightened by newness and nostalgia, and in that sense, it’s the most powerful of all. I Skype my parents every week, but I’m starting to form a new family here, and I’m starting to feel safe. As Dumbledore declared in the sixth book (my favorite), before venturing into a cave housing a Horcrux and an army of reanimated corpses “I am not worried, Harry…I am with you.”
Around the same time that I read Harry Potter, I dove headfirst into Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. To tell the truth, those 13 books spoke to me on a level deeper, more personal, and more gloriously twisted than any others I’ve mentioned thus far. In the most basic sense, they explained to me that life isn’t always fair, that adults don’t always tell the truth, and that sometimes, the only person you can trust is yourself. Combined with the dark wit and expansive knowledge of grammar that I would come to incorporate into my own brand of humor, I found a voice that I felt as clearly as my own. It helped me understand that knowledge is power, that intellectual fixation is important, and that being happy all the time is, well, bullshit. This latter fact is, perhaps, what means most to me in my own series of unfortunate events. During this period, my years-long battle with mental illness kicked off, catalyzed by paralyzing fears of contagion and contamination, and culminating in a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I wondered how someone so scared could have something so scary. Could be someone so scary. I felt controlled by something that I could feel stealing my childhood, and yet, I had no power to master it. When I could hardly go outside for fear of contracting a dangerous illness, I knew I could read. I knew I could retreat to the world of words. Although I knew I should try to empathize with Violet, the eldest girl in her family like me, I found myself in the bookish Klaus, her younger brother. Like Klaus, I began to realize that fear can be assuaged by knowledge, that facts and stories can broaden horizons and, as an added bonus, contribute to some of the best one-liners in the series. See the following: “All nights are dark days because night is simply a badly lit version of day” (The Slippery Slope). “If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats” (The Wide Window). But I digress.
I had always turned to books for support, but now, I knew that they could help me rebuild. Using Violet’s ingenuity and Klaus’s passion for discovery (and maybe a little bit of Sunny’s chewing power for physical sustenance) I nourished my battered mind. I regained confidence in my abilities, and after a while, I took the plunge into serious recovery. I wasn’t really ready, and the way my OCD works, I likely never will truly convince myself I’m ready to do anything. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. As the Baudelaire orphans remarked in The Ersatz Elevator, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.”
Many years later, in eighth grade, I decided to read only “classics” for nearly a year. This didn’t entirely work out, but I did find a few of my favorite books through the experiment. One is Louisa May Alcott’s masterwork, Little Women. I have foggy memories of Amy falling into the ice, of Beth’s bout of scarlet fever, of Jo generally being awesome. When I read the full book, all of these came together. I found aspects of myself in each of the March sisters—Jo’s temper and dreams of writing, Meg’s maternalism, Beth’s shyness, and Amy’s naivety. Most importantly, however, I began to incorporate all of these identities into my own burgeoning ideas about what being a woman, and later, what being a strident feminist means to me. Despite being written in the 19th century, Little Women addressed many of the dichotomies still relevant to women everywhere. Does wanting children negate wanting a career? Why do women always seem to have to choose one? Does making art for financial gain mean it can’t count as real art—even if it’s the only way to be taken seriously? These are questions I still ask myself, as a young woman interested in a creative career (probably), in workplace success, and in a robust familial and parental life (also, probably). At least I know millions of other women have asked themselves the same—Little Women has remained consistently in print since its first publication in 1868. We might be unsure, straddling the line between girls and women, but with the March sisters, we are not alone. As Amy says, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
If I’ve learned anything from these childhood favorites, it’s that my childhood isn’t really over. I may be 19 now, in my last year of legitimate teenage-hood, but I don’t feel like a grown-up yet. And that’s fine. I have my books with me, everlasting, even as the pages yellow and the spines crack, and I know the lessons housed within will apply to all stages of my life. Always.