ON BORROWED BRAVERY, AND THE BOOKS THAT CHANGE US by Jess Keating
I’m going to break tradition for a moment here and throw down some science. A fairly recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported some interesting findings: when you ‘lose yourself’ inside a fictional world and connect with a fictional character, that connection can be enough to change your own behavior. It can even make you act like that character you’re reading about. The researchers called this ‘experience-taking,’ and that’s basically a fancy way of saying “books change you.” To top it off, the affect can last for days, long after the book has been closed.
Is this exciting research news? You bet.
But you know what? It’s also something that the Nerdy Book Club has known for ages. Books change us.
Anyone who has ever clutched a book to their heart, as if to squeeze every last ounce of its ‘itness’ into our very souls understands this. Everyone who keeps a book by their nightstand, feeling that comfort in just knowing it’s there gets it. And every librarian, teacher or bookseller who instinctively knows the right book for a child at any given moment on a Tuesday morning knows that in their heart, these books are more than just words on a page. They are portable agents of change that can not only make a reader’s day, but imprint on their very souls.
I often marvel at the words we use to describe reading the books we love: we lean on books, we devour books, we dive into books, we inhale books… To us, the books we love aren’t just adding to our lives, they are necessary to them. In my opinion, this is because we’re constantly borrowing from them (or, experience-taking, as the scientists say!), and without them, we’re missing out on finding the parts of ourselves that lay hidden on the outside, found only in books. Reading books we love fills in the gaps we didn’t know we were missing.
No experience has really hammered this message home to me more than publishing my own book. My debut MG novel HOW TO OUTRUN A CROCODILE WHEN YOUR SHOES ARE UNTIED is a funny book, centered around a young girl, Ana, who lives in a zoo. She’s struggling to be her bravest, truest self, and finding (much like the rest of us!) that this isn’t as easy as it seems. In Ana’s case, her fear threatens to overshadow her true self. It’s only now, as my book finds its way into the world, that I realize how much I depended on books to boost my own bravery through the process. I borrowed bravery left, right, and center as I grew from someone who wanted to write a story into someone who did. And I owe these books, and their authors, so very much.
All of you savvy Nerdies know the truth: writing books can be difficult. It’s like wrangling a crocodile, and without help, you’re likely to get hurt on the sharp bits. While writing my book and the months that followed when we were showing it to the editors of the world, I surrounded myself with bravery of all sorts.
I read and reread THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, leaning on Ivan’s stoic, open-hearted bravery, and Ruby’s innocent, marvel-at-the-world bravery. I devoured Snail’s adventurous bravery in THE STORY OF FISH AND SNAIL. I dove into FLORA AND ULYSSES, soaking up the illuminating bravery of that vacuum-sucked squirrel and his favorite girl. I inhaled the bravery of ENDANGERED‘s Sophie, marveling at just how much we can face if we love something. Despereaux, Auggie, Ratchet, and Rump, Hazel, Matilda, Raina, and Nate all nestled their way firmly into my heart, lending me bravery at every turn. Even if I never opened these books again (fat chance of that!), their effects aren’t going anywhere. All of these, and countless others, let me borrow their bravery at the moments I needed it most.
A wise person once told me, ‘You never know the effect your words will have’ and I’ve remembered that ever since. I can guarantee that every one of the authors whose books I just mentioned all had days they borrowed bravery. I can also guarantee that every teacher, librarian, media specialist, and bookseller has changed a reader’s life by offering exactly the right book at the right time. The best part about this community is its generosity and spirit. We’ve got bravery in spades, built up in the books we cherish. If you’re looking to borrow some bravery yourself, don’t worry: there’s a book for that.
And to all the people who write the books, and the heroes that get them into the hands of children, thank you.
As a zoologist turned middle grade and picture book author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and been a victim to the dreaded paper cut. Her debut How To Outrun A Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied is coming in Summer 2014 from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, with a sequel to follow. Her nonfiction picture book, PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH, will be published by Knopf in 2016.
She has a Masters degree in Animal Science and a growing collection of books that are threatening to take over her house. She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she loves hiking, watching nerdy documentaries, and writing books for adventurous and funny kids.