Reading and Rereading

One of the only negative parent-teacher conferences I ever had as a student was with my seventh grade English and history teacher. Unbeknownst to me, she knew I’d been reading under my desk almost constantly in her class. I had discovered Anne McCaffrey wrote A LOT more books than I originally thought, and I was devouring anything by her I could get my hands on. So much for me being sneaky about it! My mom, I think, was more amused than mad at me, although I did have promise not to read in class anymore.

I have loved to read for as long as I can remember. In one of my scholarship essays, I wrote about reading as something I really enjoyed.

“Reading opens up any world I choose; it’s a way for me to see other people’s point of view and learn their stories. There are books that require thought and analysis and challenge my perceptions, like Beloved. This kind of book changes how I think about myself and others, and inspires me to act on my newly acquired understanding. These books are not always easy to read, but they’re hugely rewarding because they have depth and themes that recur universally throughout life.

But reading can also be purely for pleasure, to take a break from reality and experience something completely different. There are books that are fun, like Twilight. They probably won’t change how I think or inspire me to do great things, but they make me laugh and not take myself too seriously, which is just as important. Other books are comfortable because I’ve reread them so many times; it’s like visiting old friends and reminiscing together.

I remember the first word I read in kindergarten: love. It was an appropriate first word to read because since that moment, I haven’t stopped. Reading has many roles in my life; the wide spectrum of possibilities is why I love it.”

In the interview process for that scholarship, one of the questions I remember was about this essay. One interview had noticed the incredible amount of time I poured into ski racing – upwards of 35 hours per week – and asked why I didn’t write about ski racing as the thing I enjoyed. I had to think for a minute. I hadn’t chosen to write about ski racing for any of my five essays for that application. Finally I told the panel that I did love ski racing. But ski racing is dependent on seasons, location, and having functional knees. It’s not something everyone can do, and I knew it wasn’t going to be something I could do forever. Stories unite people. Anyone can learn to read. It’s something I’ll have my entire life, and it’s purpose in my life will never change.

When I was in elementary and middle school, I used to imagine myself into the worlds I read about even once the book was no longer in my hand. I was a pioneer girl and sister to Laura Ingalls Wilder. I swam with dolphins and ran with wolves, I journeyed across the world, all while walking along side my mom in the grocery story.

(Alright, let me be really honest here. I still make up stories as I’m doing dishes or sorting papers or driving between Boulder and Longmont. This Friday evening, as I made dinner for Mom, I was imagining that I was the owner of a bed and breakfast in the Swiss Alps. If my imagination ever stops, I think life will be deeply boring.)

I love discovering new worlds and stories, but I also love rereading books. Like I mentioned in my essay, it’s like meeting up with old friends and reminiscing. Often I feel like I can see my younger self reading the books, and it’s fun to remember what I noticed and cared about the first time I read the book. But I’ve also noticed that as I’ve grown, some books’ meanings have changed or deepened for me. Some books (like Twilight) I’ve outgrown and likely won’t go back to. But all the books in the lead picture are books that have traveled with me from Steamboat to the many places I’ve lived within Boulder. Some of them even made the journey to Sweden and Panama. I love these characters and stories and the things I learn (and relearn) as I read them. Each of these books means something special to me.

(Those books are, from left to right on top, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling, Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine, Picabo: Nothing to Hide by Picabo Street, and on bottom The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, The Ancient One by TA Barron, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Naya Nuki by Kenneth Thomasma, The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg, and Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery.)

There are a couple (ok, more than a couple) authors whose books I would add: Tamora Pierce, Diane Duane,  Paulo Coelho, Carolyn Keene, Gary Paulson, Will Hobbs, Philip Pullman, Ann Brashares, Jane Austen, Deborah Ellis…really, there’s a reason I can’t carry all my books with me!

I cherish all of these stories for different reasons, but there are two series in particular that have been incredibly formative for me. I’ve already written about Harry Potter (and don’t worry, I’ll write about him more at some point) so today I’d like to tell you a little bit about my second-most-reread-series-of-all-time: Anne of Green Gables.

This is a series that has grown up with me. There are eight books in total, following Anne through her life and her children’s lives. When I was little I loved the first book, where Anne grows from age eleven to age fifteen. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate the later books in ways I didn’t before. My favorite while I was in college was Anne of the Island, because Anne was in college. Actually, I think that’s still my favorite, but someday I can imagine that I will have a different perspective on the books where Anne gets married and has children.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Anne Shirley in an orphan girl who is accidently sent to Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, siblings in their mid-fifties who live at Green Gables. They originally wanted a boy to help with the farm, but through a miscommunication got Anne instead. Anne is red-haired, much to her dismay, talkative, and very imaginative. She gets into all sorts of scrapes but always with the best of intentions. I love her as a child and as an adult; I think it’s one of the best literary examples of character growth. There is a lot about Anne that I aspire to, especially as she matures.

At the moment, I’m especially appreciative of the fact that Anne never loses her imagination, not even as a mother of six. As I mentioned above, I certainly don’t ever want to lose mine. That’s part of why I continue to write, even when I’m writing something silly like fanfiction. Maybe especially silly things like fanfiction. As Anne would say, there’s just so much scope for imagination!

I got into the habit of rereading at least the first book every April my junior year of college when I was living in Sweden. Most years I also reread a couple more, though I haven’t yet made it through all eight since the first time I read them all. I don’t always read them in order, and sometimes I read more than one at a time. This year the urge to go back to Anne’s story crept up on me a bit earlier than normal, so I’ve already started into it. Perhaps this will be the year I actually get through them all again!

I could go on for a long time about why I love Anne – she inspires my nerd and also my old-lady-hobbitness. I love how much she loves flowers and trees and rambling walks outdoors. But, I’ll stop here for today and instead give you your homework!

Why do you read? Do you reread? Why or why not?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

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Why Harry Potter?

One part of my nerdiness is that I love to write. But while this blog has become one outlet for my writing, another has always been Harry Potter fanfiction.

Yes, I am a Harry Potter nerd. I have a wand and a time turner on my desk at school. (Thanks Mom!) I have quite literally every Harry Potter book ever published. I even got to take a college semester class on Harry Potter. Yes, for credit. It was awesome.

But let me back up for a moment. Why is Harry Potter a category on my blog, but not Anne of Green Gables or Jane Austin? Why not John Steinbeck or Tamora Pierce?

My first interaction with Harry Potter was actually all about peer pressure. The first book came out when I was seven, and I wasn’t quite old enough for it. By the time the second book came out, it had become quite popular and that alone was a good enough reason for me to stay away from it. I was a rebel at the age of eight.

But in fifth grade, we had an online reading system that gave you quizzes for books you read. Each student had to have a personal goal, and the class also had a class goal. Harder books were worth more points. And for a fifth grader, the Harry Potter books were worth quite a lot of points. Our class could had a pizza party if we met our goal, but we were set to fall a bit short. I was a notoriously quick reader, so my classmates bugged me to read the first three Harry Potter books. I devoured them, aced the quizzes, and won us the pizza party. Harry Potter made me popular for a whole two hours.

But while everyone else has likely forgotten the pizza party, my fascination with Harry Potter has only grown. I feel like I was one of the fortunate ones who got to grow up with Harry – I was seventeen when the seventh book came out, the same age as he was. I’ve since read, and reread, and reread, and read again so often I’ve broken the bindings of four of the seven books. As I’ve grown older, my appreciation for the different books has changed. For example, I hated the fifth book the first several times I read it. Now I think it’s fascinating. It will never be my favorite – it makes me miss the Hogwarts we were introduced to in the first four – but I can better appreciate the story JKR was trying to tell.

I didn’t discover fanfiction until my sophomore year of college, after all seven book were out. For those who haven’t encountered it, fanfiction is where people like me borrow an author’s characters and world and write stories with it. Sometimes people write AU (alternate universe) stories where they change something in the existing plot. What if Harry had grown up with Sirius instead of the Dursleys? I like to write canon, where I take all the existing plot to be true and write missing moments, before or after the seven books, or from another character’s perspective.

It’s actually really quite fun to go back into fanfiction archives and chat sites and see how the discussion changed after each book was published. When Sorcerer’s Stone (sorry, Britain) and Chamber of Secrets came out, they were considered lovely children’s books. When Prisoner of Azkaban hit the community, everything exploded. For the first time JKR demonstrated that she had a plan; seemingly insignificant details from the first books were going to come back to play huge roles in later books. The Order of the Phoenix changed the tone and some of the thematic structures of the book so drastically that fan theories that had stood since the beginning got completely scrapped.

But even after all the reveals were out (or so we thought…but I’m not touching The Cursed Child today…) fanfiction thrives. JKR created such a detailed world and such brilliantly human characters that we just can’t let them go!

I’ve written fanfiction very, very sporadically throughout the last seven years. I have, as of last Wednesday, finished four stories. My most recent story was for a challenge that read: Tell a story about someone keeping a secret at the Burrow. Explain what the secret is, how it causes tension, and how it gets revealed. (A challenge is when a site or another author posts a prompt and then the community produces stories and votes for them for various honors.)

This last story is, I think, my favorite. I’ve definitely evolved as a writer and a human since my first story, and that’s part of it. But this story is also the first time that I’ve worked with another person on my writing. I was fortunate to have a friend that I met through my fanfiction site who agreed to read my chapters and give me feedback before I posted them. I learned that I typically flip the traditional dialogue format, and that I don’t always trust my reader to fill in logical blanks. I want to provide all the details. This is something that’s potentially interesting to reflect on not only as a writer, but as a teacher and as a human.

I’ve also enjoyed writing this story because I wrote about secondary characters. I chose to write about Fred, George, and Percy, rather than Harry, Ron and Hermione. I wanted to continue JKR’s themes about the power of love and the destructive nature of secrets, and I also wanted to explore the idea of brotherhood and what it means to be a family. This is the first time I’ve had a specific theme in mind before I started writing, and also the first time I’ve planned my chapters before I actually started pressing keys on my keyboard.

If you’re really curious about that story, you can read it here. And yes, my pen-name is super nerdy.

So have I answered my original question? Let me clarify and summarize for a moment.

  1. Harry Potter is, above all, a very well-written story. I’m a sucker for a good story.
  2. The story has been equally meaningful for me throughout my life. As I reread them, I notice different things, feel different themes resonate with me, and still can be reacquainted with the teenage me who first loved them.
  3. The themes that run through the books are powerful and important in my view. Love is a power that can defeat anything. Doing evil can destroy your soul, but remorse and empathy can always heal it. Prejudice is a powerful force, but it can be overcome by showing mutual respect and listening to each others’ stories. (There are others, to be sure, but these are the ones that come to mind without me reaching for my books. Because we all know that if I do that, this post will not get finished.)
  4. The community that has grown up around these stories is a community that believes in the magic of story telling. That is invaluable.
  5. I have had the chance to practice an art that I love, expand my imagination, and provide enjoyment for others.

One thing I really believe about Harry Potter is that it’s like our very own Mirror of Erised. I know I’ve felt like a freak, like I’m misunderstood and don’t fit in. I’ve felt like there were parts of me that didn’t make sense, and it would be easier just to hide them (though I don’t have a cupboard under the stairs). Harry was that ordinary boy, misunderstood by the Dursleys, who got an extraordinary invitation to a world beyond what any of us had ever imagined. And the reason that the rest of the books still captured us was that, in some very important way, Harry never stopped being an ordinary boy. But he did grow to fit into his world, gained a family, and ultimately, he won.

And your homework: What is your favorite story? How did it become your favorite story? And most importantly, why? What does that story tell you about yourself?

Hej då,

Jamie