Call Me Bookworm Or How Alice Munro Saved My Life by Megan McDonald
Call me Bookworm.
I grew up reading—at the school library, on the Bookmobile, at the comic book store, at home next to the heater under the piano. I read my mother’s childhood books, torn-cover paperbacks, the books of my four older sisters, the beloved hardcover volume I got as a gift each Christmas. I still love the smell of books, the thrill of the page turn, and especially, deckled edges.
Someday I hope to write a book with deckled edges.
As a girl, I found pieces of myself in Ramona, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, Jo March, Harriet the Spy, Jane Eyre.
By the time I got out of college, like any bright-eyed twenty-something, I was
searching for myself. I had taken my share of psychology classes. Armed with my now-tattered volume of Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections, I decided to take a personality test. The Myers-Briggs test. Back then, before the age of the internet, you had to find somebody to administer it.
I seem to remember quite a lot of questions about parties. It’s Friday night. Would you rather attend a party or stay home and read a book?
Read a book!
At a party, do you get tired and leave early or are you the last one to leave?
Leave early, so I can go home and read a book!
Would you rather spend time alone or host a dinner party?
Spend time alone so I can read a book!
You get the idea. I had to wait a week for the results. When I returned to the testing center, I sat across from a thin-faced bespectacled woman in sensible shoes. I confess my palms were sweaty and my heart was pounding a bit. After all, I was about to discover who I was…
The woman looked over my scores, peered at me over her glasses, and said, “I don’t know what to tell you. You should have been a nun.”
Call me Bookworm.
We live in a world full of noise, a world full of sparkle and glitter, an extroverted world, and I had just discovered that I was literally off-the-charts—an introvert.
About this time, I had the great good fortune to meet the writer I most admire, the author of The Great Gilly Hopkins. Katherine Paterson likes to say she knew me back when I was “just a pup.” I cried over her books, I devoured her essays, I took every chance I could get to hear her speak in person.
Sitting in the dark of a hushed audience, something invisible, a slender thread, connected us. Katherine often spoke of being an introvert. She mentioned that many writers were introverts. This is not a new idea, but it’s the first time it took hold of me. I’m not sure any of us can point to the moment when we “became a writer” but that was certainly a defining moment for me.
It took me right back to another such moment. Only a week or two into my college experience, Eudora Welty came to campus to read. Here was another self-proclaimed introvert, by then white-haired and somewhat stooped, who did nothing but stand on a small stage and read, read aloud from her own work, and that one, still, fragile moment was life-changing.
“As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life,” she told us, her readers. “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
These days, I have only to close my eyes to go back to the chaos and noise of the third grade playground. But when the crowds of the cafeteria, the pushes and shoves of the playground got to be too much, guess where an introvert like me could always go to be at home?
A small, nearly-hidden dusty corner of the school—the library.
Call me Bookworm.
Reading saved me. Not only did the library provide quiet, a safe haven, it gave me a community. A community of young Emily Dickinsons and Charles Schulzes who loved books as much as I did. A librarian who had me feel a part of something by inviting me to stamp date-due cards and shelve books and create book displays.
And a wider community of fictional friends in books.
There was a time when Alice Munro saved my life. I had taken a job working for the National Park Service one college summer. As I flipped through possibilities, I came upon a national historic site in Colorado. The dramatic, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies compelled me.
I applied for the job and hopped on a train in Oberlin, Ohio after my last exam. I headed west, and further west, until the train stopped—in La Junta. (It had never occurred to me to look at a map.) When I stepped off that train, there was not a mountain in sight.
I was in the desert.
I had landed in a small town, where most spoke Spanish, so my high-school French was of no help to me. Needless to say, it was a lonely time.
Until I found a small apartment—down the street from the library. There were not many books in English, but there was a shelf of short stories by Alice Munro. That summer, I met many quietly passionate girls and women, drawn deftly by a so-called small-town “underpraised housewife genius.” Alice Munro made me unlonely.
You may not expect this of the writer who created Judy Moody. Judy Moody could have been a brushed-hair bookworm. She could have worn glasses. She could have had sensible shoes, rather than mismatched high-tops.
Yes, Judy Moody is exuberant. She bursts with energy and creativity and kooky ideas. But those qualities come from a rich inner life. She reads. She is trying to finish all 56 classic Nancy Drew books. She sleeps with the dictionary under her pillow. She needs time alone, perhaps to finger-knit her way out of a bad mood.
I created Judy Moody out of the universe of the introvert, but I wanted her to be able to meet the world. Katherine Paterson has said of being an introvert, “To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”
I wanted Judy to be flawed and fearless, in her own way.
For some of us, the call of the wild is the call of the book. I will be forever grateful that the school library called me home.
Megan McDonald, author of the Judy Moody and Stink books, is serving as the national spokesperson for the 2016 observance of School Library Month, a celebration of the role of school library programs in a student’s education.