These Words Matter: Amber Smith

My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child, so books played an important role from a very young age. I vividly remember the way I would follow along, studying the illustrations long before the words made sense. I immediately fell in love with storytelling and became mesmerized with the idea that words could paint pictures. Books fed my imagination, and imagination was my saving grace as a kid. (As an adult, too, now that I think of it.)

These Words Matter: Amber Smith

When I was a little older, in elementary and middle school, I chose books that could take me out of my ordinary life, where I often felt lonely and isolated. Books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell were just a few of my favorites. I loved that they each showed a young girl on an adventure—sometimes dangerous and scary, sometimes fantastical and exhilarating. What they all had in common was that each of the main characters always seemed to come through the other side of her journey stronger, wiser, and more powerful. They all grew into the heroines of their own stories, a quality I felt was lacking in my real life. Through these stories I could be someone else for a little while.

However, the one book that always stands out as being one of the most important to me, both as a reader and a writer, is Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I first read this book when I was 13; the same age Anne Frank was when she started writing her diary. I remember being so emotionally affected, and feeling such a kinship with her because, while she was telling a tragic story of survival, she also was very much an ordinary teenager. She was going through many of the same pains of adolescence I was experiencing—the agony of unrequited love, the questioning of identity, and the struggle of trying to understand your place in the world. (We both even had older sisters named Margot!) Above all, it was one of the first books I read as a young person and immediately felt as though her voice reached out across time and space, connecting me and my life to those people and their struggles.

Anne Frank opened up my world.

This was the first book that made me truly understand the power of words. Suddenly, storytelling was so much more than a fantastical escape; it was important. Its purpose was not to simply transport me out of my life. In fact, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to become someone else. I was beginning to see that stories could meet me where I was, where it was okay to be flawed or uncertain or afraid. Stories could make me feel known and understood. After reading Anne Frank I even started keeping my own journal, a practice which I continue to this day. Since then, journaling has always been central to not only my creative life, but also my sanity.

The emotional connection I first experienced with Anne Frank felt so much better than any amount of escape. So, I began looking for books that dealt with difficult issues, ones that mirrored some of the things I was going through. At this point in my life, when I was in high school, what I needed most were stories that reflected my reality. I found that in books like Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, as well as in the poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

Their voices and stories resonated with me, and made me feel like I wasn’t so alone in my own struggles.

Today I write with my younger reader-self in mind. I think about the kinds of books I needed. The ones that made me feel less alone in the world. The ones that offered me guidance and understanding. Those are the books I strive to write.

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These Words Matter is a guest contribution segment. Learn more here.

Amber Smith

Fueled by a lifelong passion for the arts, story, and creative expression, Amber Smith graduated from art school with a BFA in Painting and went on to earn her master’s degree in Art History. When she's not writing she's usually reading, but can also be found in her studio making art or freelancing as an art consultant. Amber's debut novel, The Way I Used to Be was a New York Times bestseller. Look out for her newest book, The Last to Let Go, which released February 6, 2018 from Simon & Schuster's Margaret K. McElderry Books.

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