September 26



I had so much surgery as a kid, my doctors had almost as much of a right as my parents to call me their creation.


I was born with a tennis-ball-sized tumor in the middle of my face and mangled legs. All up, I had 24 operations by the time I was 12 – reshaping my face into something acceptable to society and amputating my malformed legs so I could wear prosthetics. But beyond the slicing and shaping and stitching of my face and legs, there were three magic words from a doctor that cast a spell across my life and proved vital in making me who I am.


“Let him read,” a psychiatrist told my parents when I was about four years old. “Let him read anything and everything he wants.”


“If he wants to read comic books, let him read comic books,” the doctor said. “Heck, if he wants to read the back of a cereal box, let him read the back of a cereal box.”


This may not have been especially revolutionary advice for many but my family members weren’t big readers. My father died having read only two books cover to cover in his entire life. My mother had a smattering of books on shelves in our small house. My four older siblings had higher priorities than having their heads in a book – riding bikes, playing tennis, listening to music. I don’t recall ever seeing any of them read a book during my childhood.


But as soon as I could piece together a few syllables my parents would shove book after book in front of me. First came picture books, Little Golden Books, Dr. Seuss, then I moved on from there. By middle school, I’d graduated to more adult fare and taken the ‘anything and everything’ advice to heart. And I would, sometimes, even read the back of a cereal box.


I’d read non-fiction – space and astronomy books, and dinosaurs – but mostly I was reading science fiction and fantasy books. Some were classics from the golden age of the 1940s and 1950s. Others were Star Trek tie-in novels. Some were school texts assigned for class; some were books passed on by friends. Some were thrust into my hands by librarians.


My parents fed my habit in every way possible. Every Saturday morning we’d turn up at our local library and I’d scour the shelves for a sci fi book I’d not read. Gollancz had a series of classic hardcovers bound in bright yellow, which made them easy to spot amongst their better camouflaged book compatriots. The rule was, I could take as many books as I could carry in one hand. We’d go to car boot sales where my father would scrounge around for trinkets and I’d look for books. Birthdays and holidays came blessed with gifts of books.


I think it’s entirely possible to plot a direct path from that early advice given to my parents to my career as a writer and publication of my memoir for young readers, Ugly. Not all of the books I bought and read and borrowed stayed with me. Some were forgotten with the turning of the final page. But the reading . . . it stayed with me. The reading turned into writing. And the writing turned into a book about a kid with a tennis-ball sized tumor in the middle of his face and deformed legs, who in part survived the teasing and bullying that came with being different by falling in love with books.


Doctors saved my life when I was young. And then, with three simple words, they made it.


rob-hoge-56ugly-cover-hiresRobert Hoge (@RobertHoge) is the author of Ugly, a memoir for children about growing up disabled and deformed, and remaining resilient and optimistic despite those challenges.