My latest book, A World Without You, is about time travel and mental health and delusions and friendship and love and family. It’s also about me. I didn’t mean to put so much of myself into that book, but scenes from my own childhood, living with a brother whose mental illness leaked into every facet of life, crept onto the page.
One of the scenes that really happened was when the mother locks the sister in her own bedroom to protect her from the rages of the brother. That happened to me. I will never forget the click of the door lock; the knowledge that my mother was doing it to protect me from the boy who lived across the hall. She thought I was asleep. I wasn’t. And after that, I couldn’t sleep.
So I read.
Books have always been my escape. Thanks to a Strawberry Shortcake cassette player and My Little Pony stories on tape, I was reading books before I knew how to read. My parents had a fondness for road trips, once driving from North Carolina all the way to the Grand Canyon. I always stocked up on books at the library, reading novel after novel (mainly Baby-Sitters Club books) in the backseat. I once spent my entire collection of $2 bills at the Scholastic Book Fair to get a boxed set of Madeleine L’Engle’s time travel books.
Somewhere around college, though, I started believing that some words were better than others. Some had “merit” and “literary quality” and “importance.” I was young and a country mouse making her way in the big city, and I felt like I had to prove my worth. I convinced myself that to be a true scholar, I needed to put away my childish books of adventures. Words were for analyzing, not entertainment. I needed to face the world as it really was, not try to escape it between the pages of a book.
I went with my roommate to Barnes and Noble one night to buy the complete works of Shakespeare. She was an English lit major too, and we were both very proud of our heavy, important tomes. Before we checked out, though, she leaned over and whispered, as if it was a dirty secret, “Sometimes I like the books from over there.”
“Me too,” I said, and it wasn’t until the words left my lips that I realized it was true. I had spent most of my early college years believing that some books were better than others based on some sliding scale of literary merit. There is value in escape, too. This was the lesson I learned as a kid, when my mother locked the door. This was the truth I knew when I was growing up. A book can help us escape, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed.
Soon after this, I picked up the first Harry Potter book. It was mind-shattering to me. It had the Big Truths and Important Themes of the classics and was entertaining and funny and a great read—all at the same time. Harry Potter helped me to escape. When I came back from Hogwarts, the story stayed with me, impacting the way I felt and how I saw the world.
That, to me, is the power of words.
It’s a lesson I knew as a kid, but had to relearn before I could become an adult. Words have the power to create new worlds, destroy old prejudices, grow love and courage. Words let you escape when that is what you most desperately need.
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“These Words Matter” is a guest contribution segment. Learn more here.