A Life Story in Books by Kate Messner
Readers always tell their life stories in books.
When I think back to my childhood, I remember friends and family, splashing in the pool and turning over rocks to look for crayfish in the creek behind our house. But for every year, every age, there’s also a book.
I remember meeting Beverly Cleary’s Ramona for the first time, and how she felt so wonderfully familiar to me. Look! A girl who isn’t a perfect princess, who stomps in the mud and gets burrs caught in her hair like me! I remember reading The Bobbsey Twins on Blueberry Island and longing for campfire adventures of my own.
I remember sobbing over books like A Taste of Blackberries and A Summer to Die, and how exploring those big emotions in the stories helped me grapple with the big emotions of being ten. The next year, I fell in love with The Pistachio Prescription and Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice. When I sat by Paula Danziger at a writers’ conference dinner decades later, I could barely talk but somehow managed to tell her what those books meant to me, how they made me feel less alone.
I remember reading piles and piles of Archie comics and not really knowing why I loved them (Seriously…why did Betty keep chasing after him all that time??!) but loving them all the same.
In middle school, I remember I remember getting poetry from my friend Joanna, as if it were a new band that had just come on the scene. We had sleepovers and read “The Highwayman” and felt like we were the robber’s lover waiting for him and knowing it was all a trap. We cried when “They shot him down in the moonlight, down like a dog in the moonlight and he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.” (Later, we questioned why she couldn’t find somebody better than a common robber dressed all fancy, but that’s not the point.) I remember how we brought that poem to our reading teacher in 7th grade and told her we should probably be reading it instead of whatever else she had planned. And how she made photocopies of it and they smelled fresh and blue and we all read it together but somehow no one else loved it quite like we did, even though Bill Ossont and Kevin Huth liked the part with all the blood.
Books shaped my childhood – shaped me – so it’s no surprise that when I’m building a character in a novel, that’s one of the first things I think about. What books has this reader loved? And I love reading books where characters have reading lives of their own, where there are hidden Easter eggs for fellow readers.
I felt as if I shared a secret with Ramona when she wondered where Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom, because I’d read that book and wondered, too. I love the way Claudia reads Nancy Drew mysteries in the Babysitter Club books, the way Ann Burg’s All the Broken Pieces helps Kwame Alexander’s character fall in love with words in Booked, and the way the work of Walter Dean Myers inspires the narrator in Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog. (Thanks to all of the Facebook friends who helped me to brainstorm & remember these wonderful moments!)
In novels where time is important, we find characters carrying books that explore that theme. Miranda in Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me reads A Wrinkle in Time, and Ruby Pepperdine in Linda Urban’s The Center of Everything reads When You Reach Me. I love all three of these books to pieces, so this character-reading chain absolutely delights me.
And in Varian Johnson’s latest novel, The Parker Inheritance, three characters who all read The Westing Game use that shared reading connection to solve a mystery. It’s magical.
I knew this was something I wanted to explore in writing Breakout, my new novel about three kids whose worlds are turned upside down when two inmates break out of the local prison, launching a huge manhunt that changes the way they see their neighbors and the place they call home.
I knew that Nora, the prison superintendent’s daughter, would cling to a familiar book that she loved during that time. (It’s Al Capone Does My Shirts by Jennifer Choldenko, the only book Nora’s read that features a prison superintendent’s kid as the main character.) And I knew that Elidee, who just moved from her home in the Bronx to the tiny, almost all-white town of Wolf Creek, would need books to help her find her voice. Since Breakout is a story told entirely in documents, I included Elidee’s library check-out receipt on one page.
These are the stories that shape her thinking and writing over the summer. They’re also all amazing works, and re-reading them, imagining them through Elidee’s lens, helped me to understand her as a character so much more.
Breakout is out now. Here’s the book trailer.
I hope you’ll read Breakout so it can become part of your reading life, too. And I hope you’ll also take some time with the books on Elidee’s list, if you haven’t read them already. I’d love to hear about your favorite titles where the characters are shaped by their reading lives – and the books that are part of your story.
Kate Messner is passionately curious and writes books that encourage kids to wonder, too. Her titles include award-winning picture books with Chronicle Books, like Over and Under the Pond, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, Tree of Wonder, and How to Read a Story; novels like Breakout, All the Answers, and The Seventh Wish; and the popular Ranger in Time chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines.