When I was growing up, reading was my favorite pastime and books were my favorite companions. I don’t want to make myself sound like a super nerd, but I was a super nerd. I had a book with me at all times. I preferred reading to recess, and sometimes could convince my teachers to let me stay inside with a novel instead of going outside to play H.O.R.S.E. on the basketball court with the other kids. My family lived within walking distance of the town library, so my sisters and I went there often, amassing piles of literature that we would have to stand at the counter and whittle down before we actually checked out. Books were lifelines, eagerly anticipated gifts, welcome distractions at family holidays.
Flannery O’Conner once wrote, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” The experience of childhood is one of discovery, of newness and exploration; children hurtle through a series of rites of passage, work together to solve the mysteries of the complex world, and experience the first pain of betrayal when it’s revealed that people aren’t always what they seem. All of those firsts are poignant, raw experiences that stay with us for the rest of our lives.
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And so, then, are our childhood books. Psychologists have found that readers take on the experiences of characters, feeling the emotions and living through the actions of fictional people. If we look at reading this way—as an experience that we live—then children who are readers live incredibly exciting lives well before hitting adolescence. As a child, I experienced the joy of winning the golden ticket to a magical world of candy through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I had special powers when I read Matilda and restored color to the world when I read The Giver. I was stranded and surviving by myself with Island of the Blue Dolphins. I found the key to a beautiful, forgotten place in The Secret Garden. And when I got hooked on the Redwall series I had my first real fantasy experience: an entire world and history to immerse myself in.
All readers know the feeling that life has changed completely because of a book, but I would argue that the feeling is more pronounced in childhood. Books read in childhood do actually change our lives. They raise us in a sense; they provide an escape and an opportunity to learn; they expand our imaginations, but they also give us the experience of life while we are still figuring out how to live it. The experience of novelty is at the root of the word novel, originally from the Italian novella storia, meaning a new kind of story. That novelty is what makes reading such a pleasure for young bookworms, who have yet to learn for themselves what it means to venture out into the world or fall in love. It’s easy when thinking about this to feel a sense of loss, because for adults the act of reading, while pleasurable, is not exactly new. But there is a recipe for getting back that fresh feeling of discovery: pick up your favorite childhood book, and open it to page one.
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