I loved stories long before I ever learned how to read. I spent my early childhood enraptured by my family’s imagination, listening to elaborate bedtime renditions of classic Grimm’s fairytales mixed with original characters my family had decided to throw in, just for fun. Most of my extended family have a fondness for a good yarn and a storyteller’s ear. A simple trip to the grocery store becomes a three-act event that hits just as many beats as the traditional hero’s journey, and our own pasts and personal histories all feel like part of a collective mythos that’s told and retold at parties and holidays. I always knew I was part of a story myself. I always wanted more stories to listen to. So, when I first learned how to read, it felt as if I’d cracked open this magical gateway to an unlimited supply.
I was voracious from then on, hoarding novels like a dragon, sneaking extra pages beneath my desk at school and beneath my covers in the middle of the night. My only complaint was that there weren’t enough hours in the day to read as much or as fast as I wanted to. Although I was enthusiastic from the get-go when it came to reading, my enthusiasm would only have gone so far if I didn’t fall in love with some of the stories I found.
I was especially drawn to books that were darker and more bittersweet, with speculative elements that are used as a vehicle to explore common childhood fears and emotions.
I’ve already written about my adoration of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but it’s worth a mention here—that book gave me so much strength and courage. Another book that found me at around the same time, that helped cement my lifelong reading taste, was Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
I was eight when I found it in my fourth-grade classroom. I was compelled immediately by the stark, unsettling image on the original cover. I took it home for a weekend, which we were not supposed to do, and read it cover-to-cover three times. Coraline’s discovery of a parallel world beyond her own, a twisted version of her apartment building where a demonic entity known only as the Other Mother has been luring children to their doom for generations, imprinted deeply on my psyche. Coraline’s resourcefulness and determination in the face of a physical manifestation of her personal demons felt so human and real to me. There was an honesty to this book, even though it was fantastical, that hit me right in the heart. It was terrifying, but it was also addictive.
I’d learn later to call this emotional truth, and also horror, but at the time, all I knew was that I wanted more.
I vividly remember walking back into my classroom, running on very little sleep, and sliding the book back onto my teacher’s desk, a shameful admission of my contraband activity.
“I took this home,” I explained. “I’m really sorry. But…do you have anything else like it?”
I was expecting disappointment, but instead, she grinned and whipped out John Bellairs’ The House With a Clock in Its Walls. And the rest was history.
Coraline was my orientation, I now realize—a gateway drug to R.L. Stine and Lois Duncan and eventually Stephen King, to speculative fiction that would scare me, but would also show me that life is worth living even in its darkest moments. When I grew up a little more, and I started to write books of my own, I knew two things: they’d be books for children, and they’d be exactly the kind of dark, creepy books my younger self had craved.