Knowledge is constantly sought and, hopefully, ultimately obtained. However, no two people learn the same way. Some rely upon personal experience; others, research. Some things are practiced and perfected, while seem to be learned subconsciously or "by osmosis," not to mention that which is instinctual or inherent.
My mother and sister taught me a great deal. They always, always answered my questions. My curiosity rivals that of Alice in Wonderland, so that was no small feat.
I did not learn every single thing from them, however. I learned from what I saw and heard at school, in stores, at events, on television, in movies - and in books.
Though I have a vivid imagination, I have always been able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, fiction and non-fiction, just as I could differentiate between a character and an actor. I feel as though I gain some insight from every book I read, whether it is "real" or not. If something interesting happens to a character, something that was based in fact, I want to learn more about it.
No, Sweetie, You Don't Have Diabetes
Prior to reading The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin, I had never heard of diabetes. In the third book, The Truth About Stacey, the main character struggles as she tries to both control and conceal her condition. In first-person narrative, she describes her treatment and her symptoms. She was often thirsty. Uh-oh. So was I! I momentarily wondered if I too had diabetes. I went to my mother and asked her. She told me I did not have diabetes. I was relieved. I drank some fruit juice.
I read more about diabetes in this book and checked out some fact-based articles about it. I had learned something new and developed a sympathy for those walking in Stacey's shoes.
I devoured all of Ann M. Martin's novels, including the single titles that were not related to her famous series. One such novel, With You and Without You, detailed the illness and loss of a parent. The title is wholly accurate, as the story shows life for the family before and after the father gets ill, and how their lives change throughout the struggle and after he succumbs to the disease. As the Mouse said in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, "Mine is a long and a sad tale!" Yes, it was sad, but it made me feel for people I knew who had lost family members while also making me appreciate my family's health and our close ties.
There are so many books that opened my eyes to new words and new worlds, that impressed and empowered me, that made me ask questions and formulate my own answers.
The Sisters Impossible: The first time I heard of peaking (not peeking) and the physical pains that ballerinas endure.
The Doll in the Garden by Mary Downing Hahn: The first time I heard of consumption.
The Ghost Wore Gray by Bruce Coville: The first time I heard of the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
The list goes on and on.
Readers sometimes get just as much if not more out of dramatizations - books, plays, films, or TV shows - than "real stories." Fiction can inspire people to read non-fiction. To those who feel fiction is not worthwhile and who think their students, children, or patrons do not benefit from reading made-up stories, I give you these testaments about books that opened readers' eyes.
"I must be inordinately ignorant, but virtually every book, I find, teaches me something I didn't know," confesses author Justina Chen Headley.
The first book that opened her eyes was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, which just so happens to include a journey through Mountains of Ignorance. It's one of my favorite books too, but I'll let Justina continue for now: "That book reassured me that it was fine that I resided in the State of Imagination. Thank God. Who'd want to live in the Doldrums?"
Lorie Ann Grover, author of On Pointe and Hold Me Tight, shared something rather personal. "I recently realized that Island of the Blue Dolphins and Pippi Longstocking and the Boxcar Children all taught me that children can be self-reliant. This was oh-so-helpful when my father left our family. I knew I could still stand."
Holly Cupala detailed Gwinna by Barbara Helen Berger, a picture book about a girl born with wings growing from her back. "Her parents bind them behind her - so they are a source of pain and shame for her. When Gwinna hears a song from the land of her origin, she unbinds herself - at first to great pain - but as she learns to use her wings, she becomes who she truly is.
"I think of it as an allegory of those things which cause us pain and hinder us, but when we unbind them and allow them to heal, they can reveal our true selves. For me, that has been creativity - unbinding expectations and what I thought I should be doing with my life and allowing myself to do what I am meant to do." Holly still feels bound sometimes, she says, but with different things now that she's "a taxpayer and a parent!"
Tolerance and Respect
Tolerance is taught in so many ways. Sadly, there are a lot of intolerant people in this world, and their prejudices often extend to those around them. Books allow readers to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Hopefully, after taking that walk, they have learned a little something not only about others, but about themselves.
Justina and I both recommend David Levithan's novel Boy Meets Boy. She calls it "hugely revelatory," and enjoyed how he created not a dystopia but a utopia, at least in one community. "I realized how much farther we have to go in our society to be wholly open-minded and accepting, not just lip-service tolerant."
Kelly, the woman behind Big A little a, The Cybils, and The Edge of the Forest, greatly enjoyed the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. "The first [book] I remember really opening my eyes was when Mary went blind in From the Shores of Silver Lake. For some reason, that really hit me hard.
"I always identified with Laura as a child reader. I too was the kid with the ugly brown hair that didn't hold curl, who, even though she tried, didn't always get things right. And then there was this perfect, beautiful, kind child -- Mary -- and something terrible happened to her despite her perfection. I think that's when I first realized, at 7 years old, that bad things do indeed happen to good people."
Tanita, author and blogger, returned again and again to Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, which she read when she was a senior in high school. "If you're raised church-y, and have never considered another point of view -- or hypocrisy -- or any of those things, that book hits you like a ton of bricks. I examined my own beliefs on deeply personal issues and just entered into the world of the novel -- struggling to reconcile myself, my beliefs and the larger world. Though it seems trite to say it, that book changed me, made me more thoughtful, and broadened my worldview."
Sherry from the Semicolon blog thought of two books by John Neufeld: Lisa, Bright and Dark and Edgar Allan. "I was introduced by the first to the reality of mental illness and by the second to racism in all its ugliness. I daresay the books were not as well-written and profound as I thought they were at the time, but they did make me think."
Dia Calhoun, whose books include Avielle of Rhia and The Phoenix Dance, brought up The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes. "It is a wonderful book that taught me how important it is to be true to your own essential nature, even in the face of prejudice. And it taught me about the dangers of changing who you are to try to please someone else. It's a beautiful story."
Justina also spoke of K.L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World. "It showed me in painful detail what it was like to be obese in our society - the daily indignities, the constant self-criticism. And yet the author provided an enormous, heart-filled lesson about redemption. And hope. And friendship. And how sometimes the most unexpected friends are the ones who save us from ourselves."
Emily, a proud mom, just finished The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler. "I loved this book so much because, even as an adult, it's good to be reminded that no one's life is perfect. As a teenager, I could have used a book like this to help me see that even though my friends' families all appeared perfect, none of them actually were. [This book also teaches] a great lesson in self-acceptance."
While in high school, Maren and I bonded over books, choir, and Sliders. Maren loves classic literature, and she respects authors that fill their books with imagery, with details that create mental pictures for the reader. "My favorite book will always be The Great Gatsby. To Kill A Mockingbird and Beowulf should also be required reading for everyone.
"In high school, I also found a delight in an author named Emilie Loring who wrote romance novels during both world wars and until the 70s. I collect her books. Her father and brother were playwrights, and her dialogue is like a time capsule treasure box."
Libby, who is currently working on an essay entitled Teach the Children: Education and Knowledge in Recent Children's Fantasy, also named a classic: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. She first read it in junior high. "I read it in a white heat, barely putting the book down for two days, and at the end I cried and cried when I realized that, no, Scarlett and Rhett weren't going to be happy. I may have known life wasn't fair before then, but I don't think I'd ever read a book that said so before then. I know now what huge problems that book has, but it was very meaningful to me at the time."
Blogger Jen Robinson states, "As an adult, the book that most opened my eyes was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This book changed the way I look at the world, and solidified my opinions about the importance of personal responsibility."
Audrey says simply, "1984 taught me to love George Orwell."
Talking to Teens
When I asked teenagers at a book forum which books opened their eyes, I received a wide variety of responses.
Emilee Nicole liked The Blue Girl by Charles DeLint. "[I learned] that it doesn't matter if your peers like you because you're different. When it comes down to it, they're just like you in more ways then one."
Taylor was shaken up by Dreamland by Sarah Dessen, which is about an abusive relationship. Emilee Nicole also had a strong reaction to a dangerous situation in The Blue Girl. "Imogene risked her safety in order to make sure that what happened to another student didn't happen to her. If you don't get along with someone but they need your help, help them. That's what I learned."
Jasmine spoke at length about Things Change by Patrick Jones. "It had me practically ripping my hair out; not in the bad way, mind you. Paul was such a charmer, and this is the first book to really open my eyes to an example of an abusive relationship." Somewhere along the way, she realized, "So this is what it feels like for women who want to keep believing the relationship will change, that the guy/girl will change."
Andrew spoke of Go Ask Alice, which taught him about peer pressure and the effects of drug use on not only the users but their families and friends as well.
Alex learned that lesson from Crank by Ellen Hopkins. "That book showed me so many things, such as how easily one can become addicted to drugs and what a long hard battle it is to turn away from them."
Andrew also mentioned the book Eleven Seconds. "Although some people may be disabled, they can do anything if they put their minds to it."
Nicole had a similar reaction to the book Firegirl by Tony Abbott. "It taught me how even the smallest gesture can cause a big impact. After reading that book, I knew all the times I was nice to someone who was treated differently was - hopefully - like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day."
Andrew then brought up the dramatic and tragic play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. "It showed me what the meaning of the American dream really is, and it also showed how far one man would go to support his family."
Nouk sees meanings in every book. "I know most feelings which are described in books, and if I don't, I know them then. Sometimes I'm so in the story and feeling with the characters that when I put the book away I just can't do something else - I am still thinking about it. Books can do something to me."
The Power of Poetry
Nancy Keane, a school librarian, remembers carrying around a large anthology of poems when she was in elementary school. "I read every single one of those poems and tried to memorize some of them. It was the first time I remember thinking about the power of words. I was amazed that these poets could express themselves in a format [to which I hadn't been exposed]."
Maren memorized Shel Silverstein poems in 2nd grade and still loves them to this day.
It's All About Vocation
Tanita found that Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, which she read at the end of high school, made her really want to go into teaching English. "I was under the mistaken impression that it would be all brilliant saves and teachable moments when I swooped in and saved people my age from their worst selves. Fortunately, I got over that quickly enough."
Tanita's debut novel comes out in 2008. Perhaps she will teach creative writing someday instead.
Jackie admits that she never really grew out of teen lit. "I will always credit Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, which I read at the ripe old age of 22, for sparking the epiphany that teen literature is some of the most dynamic, interesting, creative stuff going on in publishing today. It helped me realize that specializing in youth and teen services as a librarian was DEFINITELY for me. I haven't looked back."
After reading The Secret Wish of Nannerl Mozart by Barbara Kathleen Nickel, Tori was inspired me to learn to play the keyboard and compose music of her own. "I never got more than a few notes written in terms of composing, but I did enjoy learning to play songs like Sur le Pont d'Avignon."
The Child Called It by Dave Pelzer left quite an impression on Nicole, age 22. "I couldn't believe it was a true story, and that a person would be able to do the those things to a child - a human being."
It makes her upset to think that things like that happen to kids every day. "I know there are groups and other organizations out there trying to help, but it's just awful to think that not every single one will be able to get that help!" She is at least comforted by the fact that Pelzer survived and was able to write books to share his story.
History, Our Story
It's evident that we can learn about our past from historical fiction. Better still if we can learn from it. We are not doomed to repeat it if we are educated, prepared, and aware. If we inform our children and ourselves about past and current events, we can change the future and improve the present.
At the age of 14, Rebecca read Lisa and Jesper, two books by Carol Matas. They inspired a long-standing interest in the Holocaust. "I credits We Remember the Holocaust by David A. Adler with truly impacting me to the point where I went to Poland primarily to visit Auschwitz a few years ago. To this day, I still remember one photo of a cherubic 2-year-old boy who died in the Holocaust from that book."
One little book inspired Becky to read hundreds. "Number the Stars [by Lois Lowry] really set me on my path of reading about the Holocaust -- both fiction and non-fiction. This interest is still alive after thirteen years!"
She offers another example. "Carolyn Meyer's series on the Young Royal Tudors -- Mary, Anne, Elizabeth, Catherine -- also inspired me to read more about that time period. Henry the VIII and his wives are just so fascinating."
Tori, age 17, enjoyed a similar series. "Reading the Royal Diaries when I was younger - particularly the ones about Cleopatra VII, Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette, and Elizabeth Tudor - instilled in me a passion for European history that has carried through to today: I'm studying it in university."
Sheila Ruth from Wands and Worlds recently read The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, which she describes as a sci-fi/fantasy story set in a future Niger in a world which has been changed drastically. "One of the characters in the book is an escaped slave, and I was stunned to discover, when doing some research to write my review, that slavery was only officially outlawed in Niger in 2003, and that in spite of that, tens of thousands of people may still be living in slavery in that country."
Rebecca highly recommends Sold by Patricia McCormick. "It most definitely opened my eyes to the plight of young girls and women in India. A wonderfully written and poignant book."
Elisabeth first read The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay when she was twelve, and it sparked her interest in South Africa and apartheid. "At the time I read it, Mandela was still in prison and there was still apartheid. I ended up doing two research projects about the area and read as much as I could about its history." Now at age 28, it's still one of her favorite books and continues to be fascinated by South Africa.
She was also about twelve when she read Roots by Alex Haley. "I then became very interested in the issue of race and poverty and ultimately ended up doing a lot of volunteer work for African-American causes - rebuilding a burned church, joining the NAACP."
"The book that opened my eyes to the power of historical fiction was a children's book about Lady Jane Grey that I read in elementary school," says Jen of Jen Robinson's Book Page. "I can't remember the title, but I was utterly captivated by the power of the true story about this young girl, and her tragic end."
Books speak to people. Now those people will speak for themselves:
Vivian, aka HipWriterMama, was struck by a children's book which allowed her to see her parents in a new light. "My parents grew up in Korea during the Japanese Occupation and never liked to talk about what they went through. I've read a few books about this, but they were all adult non-fiction books.
"It wasn't until I read When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park that I was able to get an idea of what the Japanese Occupation must have been like through a child's point of view, and it made me see and understand my parents in a whole different way."
"When I was very young [about five or six]," begins Emily, "I read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the book about a girl, born after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, who gets leukemia from prenatal exposure to radiation. And it was the saddest thing I'd ever read. I was struck by her total innocence, not just as a civilian but as someone who wasn't even born before the war ended.
"I learned how to make paper cranes. I think I folded about a hundred of them. I learned, many years later, to speak Japanese. I lived for ten months in Nagasaki, not visiting the atomic bomb museum once because it would've been too much for me. Just a few years ago, I participated in a remembrance ceremony for the atomic bombs, and read a poem in Japanese and in English. Those things don't come directly from that book, no - but it is a book that opened my eyes."
I hope you, too, can think of a book which opened your eyes. Find it. Re-read it. Share it with someone. Then keep your eyes open and find another good book to read.
This article appeared in the November 2007 issue of The Edge of the Forest, a children's literature monthly.
Many thanks to those of you who responded to my original post and provided me with such wonderful stories for this piece!
Note: The opening portion of this article was quoted in AuthorsNow: Have You Got Issues?