April 17

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Books as Safe Haven by Paula Garner

For a writer, this is a strange and kind of awful thing to admit, but it’s the truth: I grew up in a bookless house.

Okay, it wasn’t 100% bookless, strictly speaking. There was a bible. And there was a book called Jokes for the John, which, as a very small person, I found far more interesting than the bible (it had illustrations, for one thing). I actually still remember one of those jokes. Nerdy-looking man: Do you like Kipling? Coquettish woman: I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled! (Hey, I didn’t write the joke.)

Apart from those amusingly disparate publications, there was, down in the basement, a small stack of children’s books that were handed down to me from a relative. The one I remember best was a scratch-and-sniff book about a doll who, as I recall, runs off and gets stuck in a tree or something. Anyway, I remember it because there was a page with a lot of bubbles, and I really liked that fresh soapy smell. I probably scratched that page clear through.

But truly, that was literally about it for books. For a time.

When I was old enough to read properly (i.e., first grade), I discovered a marvelous and miraculous place called THE LIBRARY. My school had one, of a sort, and I soon discovered that my town also had one, and it was a lot bigger than the school one. Can you imagine a place that is stacked from floor to ceiling with books and you can just walk away with whatever you want — for free! — as long as you bring them back? Honestly, the concept still kind of blows my mind. It was one of the great discoveries of my lifetime, the library. I would check out towering piles of books each week, more than I could usually manage to carry. If I didn’t have a ride, I’d walk, and my precarious stack would topple over repeatedly as I made my way home, causing me to have to stop every twenty steps or so to pick up books. (Seriously, had I never heard of a bag?)

I can still recall the thrill and anticipation each Saturday when I’d return from the library and arrange fifteen or twenty books on my bed. It was the high point of my whole week. I would read the back covers, the flap (if there was one), and the first page, and based on that, I would put them in the order I wanted to read them in. I couldn’t wait to dive in, and for as many hours as possible.

For years, it went this way. I devoured books like candy (which, full disclosure, I also devoured). I “read up,” always eager for a window into the lives of kids who were older than me so I could imagine the kind of excitement my future might hold. But before too long, I hit a hitch with books: in those days, there was no YA category, which meant when you outgrew the kids’ stuff, you were pretty much on your own. So when that day came, I wandered more widely in the library, and the world cracked wide open. Very wide open. Trust me, as an eleven- or twelve-year-old, you get some strange looks from the check-out lady when you slap down your stack of Sidney Sheldon and V.C. Andrews novels, along with nonfiction choices that might include Freudian theory, or sometimes perhaps the occult.

You might be getting the impression that I was largely unsupervised, which is true. But it didn’t matter that the books I read were not the ones an adult would have selected for me, had anyone been paying attention. In fact, it was better this way. I sought out what I wanted to know; I looked for things that would give me whatever I needed at that moment, whether it was a means of understanding things I was going through, or a way to see how much larger and more varied the human experience could be, or the possibility of finding hope that maybe, just maybe, for other people who went through confusing, painful times, things came out okay.

But one of the main things reading represented to me was an escape. Books were my safe haven.

I wish I could have known that I would grow up to be a writer—someone who authored books that teens like me would someday read. It would have been an amazing thought to hold on to through some hard years.

My upcoming third novel — one I co-authored with my friend, author Audrey Coulthurst – is called Starworld. It’s the story of Zoe (who is based on teenage me) and Sam (who is based on teenage Audrey). Popular Zoe appears to have it all, but underneath the surface she is nursing long-term hurts (she is an adopted child, having been abandoned as an infant) as well as navigating a whole host of more immediate problems. Sam is a weirdo and a loner with quiet aspirations of going far away to college, but her mother’s OCD is crippling them both. With no siblings to lean on and her semi-estranged father living across the Atlantic, Sam is not sure she can ever break away. On top of that, she is studiously avoiding coming to terms with her sexuality—until she can’t avoid it anymore.

In spite of being wildly different on the surface, Zoe and Sam fall headlong into an intense friendship, and before long they are entrusting one another with their most painful truths and fears. They invent a whole world together through text messaging – a world they call Starworld. Starworld becomes their escape, and their shared safe haven.

Much like Sam and Zoe, Audrey and I had to trust each other deeply as we revisited the painful things from our pasts that we brought to the page through our characters. It was an unforgettable, almost sacred experience, writing this book together. Of course, it wasn’t all sadness — we had absurd amounts of hilariousness and laugh-crying and joy, and sometimes it was cathartic in really large ways. But we did also shed a lot of tears, especially as we finished the book together on our retreat in Portland, Oregon, where Starworld is set. It was a special kind of heartbreak, writing the emotional ending of the book — and figuring out how to say goodbye to the project that, for an important segment of time, had been our safe haven.

When Starworld comes out on April 16, it will make its transition from belonging to Audrey and me to belonging to its readers. My hope for Starworld is that it will be the safe haven for someone else that it was for us–and that books always were for me.

 

Paula Garner is the author of the YA novels Phantom Limbs and Relative StrangersShe lives in the Chicago area.