Digging into the past to thank my page-numbered friends
Since early in the pandemic, I’ve felt the tug of nostalgia. I’ve reread old books and replayed old video games, drawn by the comfort of a time when the world didn’t feel so scary and unpredictable.
That’s not to say the world wasn’t scary and unpredictable, of course. But I was young and privileged and lived so much inside my own head back then that it was easy to feel as though things weren’t so bad, really. And so, as I’ve cracked open the spines of old books and played my way back through games like Spider-Man 2 and Kingdom Hearts, I have been Fitzgerald’s ship borne ceaselessly into the past.
The memories these adolescent worlds of mine bring up are undeniably comforting, letting me slip into a time when my worries were smaller and generally shorter lived. Before grief, before chronic illness, before rent and bills and the list goes on.
Yet I can’t deny being an adult now, one year shy of Jenna Rink’s 30, flirty, and thriving. And unlike Jenna, I didn’t blink beneath a dollhouse full of fairy dust and wake up as an adult. I’ve lived those years between the girl who first plucked Hawksong off the library shelves, and I have been changed by them.
So of course as I revisit my old loves, I can’t help but see the ways in which they’ve built the person I am today. Here are the books that have lingered with me and become a part of me.
Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
You know those moments that spark in your memory as significant and linger there, for all their smallness? The day my fingers traced the well known shelves of my local library and spotted the word Hawksong on a book’s spine is one of mine.
I checked out that library copy so many times, my mom finally relented on her book buying ban to get me one of my own. I shared the book with my best childhood friend and we spawned whole universes of make believe from its pages, reading and discussing each subsequent book in the series.
As I read voraciously through Atwater-Rhodes back catalog, I learned that she was just 13 years old when her first book was published. Suddenly those scribblings in my composition notebooks felt like they mattered. Like they could be something worth taking seriously.
I believed in myself as a writer at a young age because I found Hawksong. To this day, seeing a hawk in the sky feels like a good omen, a visit from a childhood friend.
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
As a shy, awkward seventh grader I spent a brief span of time as part of a book club run by my language arts teacher. Though my love of books was already firmly rooted in place, I will never forget that experience of belonging for those brief lunch hours amongst that group of girls.
Lunch and recess had been the bane of my existence, spent alone and wishing for company. The days this book club met saved me from that reality, gave me people to talk to and a way to fill those empty spaces. It solidified my belief that books are a great source of connection.
This teacher also introduced me to the works of Sarah Dessen, and I checked each of them out from her classroom library in quick succession. Just Listen was the first Dessen book I owned, and one of the first books I read that dealt with trauma and its aftermath.
Though some of Dessen’s subsequent works are now my favorites, Just Listen will forever feel special to me as a reminder of the first teacher who saw how books filled my need for an escape from loneliness and offered me a community around them.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
For several years, I would reread this series every summer. It was an annual experience in self-reflection to see how I had changed, based on which of the young women I could most relate to in a given year.
Though it has been many, many years since I’ve stepped back inside these pages, I haven’t forgotten how much these books taught me about myself. Over time I realized that identity isn’t fixed, and that while I might see myself as Lena one year, the next I might relate most to Tibby, or to Carmen.
These books taught me about love, and grief, and found family, and for that, I am forever grateful.
The Mediator Series by Meg Cabot
With a dash of the supernatural and a heavy dose of romance, plus a strong heroine with a mind of her own, the Mediator series was one I read so often that I may well have kept them in circulation at my local library.
I can credit these books (and Meg Cabot in general) for my sense of humor and for the years I spent watching Ghost Hunters with my mom.
For all that I loved and related to Princess Mia and her singular fixation on Michael, Suze was the kind of heroine I needed back then. She taught me that you can love someone without having to listen to and agree with everything they say.
It took some learning, but I became an independent woman who sees a partner as a bonus, not a requirement, in part because Suze showed me the way, and kept me laughing through the journey.
Books are an enduring magic and presence in my life, and there are so many titles beyond and since these that have impacted me.
Where would I be without Cheryl Strayed and Helen MacDonald, my guides in grief? Without David Sedaris, who would have taught me that writing about real life doesn’t have to be boring? And what of the books I haven’t met yet that will entertain and soothe and accompany me as I grow and change?
While there is always space for new books to love, those on this list have an enduring spot in my heart. Some have stood the test of time better than others, and I have undoubtedly had to unlearn some of what I encountered on the pages of my youth.
Nevertheless, here’s to the books that built me, and to your own personal canon of the stories that shaped you, as well. I’d love to hear about your page-numbered friends, if you’re willing to share.
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