You know how sometimes when you're standing in line or sitting on the toilet or just bored, you reach for your phone? And then you pause for a moment and think, "What did I do before I had my phone?"
I've been thinking about this, and I remembered that I was the quirky, Black girl who always carried a book with me. e v e r y w h e r e. If the story was good, I could whip out a book in any public space and be absolutely lost.
My mother stoked this love for reading. She would read me several books each night... or the same one 12 times because thats the kind of kid I was. When I close my eyes, picturing us snuggled on my twin sized bed, I can still hear her voice rising and falling with the mood of the story. She never casually read stories; she became the characters. When Amelia Bedelia was confused, so was my mom. When the kids at Wayside High were scared, so was my mom. When the Boxcar Children where feeling determined, I could hear it in my mother's voice. Every time she read, she gave the same energy.
When we got to chapter books, my mom, brother and I would curl up together on one of our water beds, and pass the book around. We each read a chapter while the other two snuggled, or stared at the ceiling or doubled over in laughter. This is how I read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This is how I read Cheaper By the Dozen. This is how I read And Then There Were None. And of course, only after reading the books did we partake in the corresponding movies. None matched the wonder of the book (obviously, replies every bookworm reading this).
By the time I was ten, the library was my favorite place to be. Wondering through the stacks of books. Hunting via the dewey decimal system to find the right collection. Being both surprised and distracted when I came across a new-to-me section. I was in heaven when I discovered the "African American novels" section. They even had a cute green and black sticker on them. My mom introduced me to Coffee Will Make You Black and Jubilee and What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. My school rarely (never?) had books that featured Black women protagonists. Discovering authors like Terry McMillian, Pearl Cleage, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Bebe Moore Campbell and so many others was like taking a breath that filled me down to my toes.
The library was a place of freedom for me. It was probably the first place my parents felt comfortable dropping me off that wasn't school. Im not sure what trouble I could have gotten into in a small, neighborhood library, but nonetheless it was the place where I earned my parent's trust. I was independent at the library.
But my mom also had only one rule about books, "If I could understand it, I could read it." That was her stipulation. So I was reading books well beyond my age group, and I was quietly proud of that. I took great joy in reading things that were challenging or mature or possessed a sweeping language not always present in books for 10 year olds.
There were a lot of books I picked up, that I definitely didnt understand, and promptly returned. But I only remember being disappointed about one. Oprah had introduced me to the wonder that is Toni Morrison. I mean, I knew her name, but the way Oprah talked about her writing and her characters had me entranced. Soon after I stumbled on Morrison's Paradise. It was huge- dark green with gold lettering. That book had presence.
When mom saw me checking it out, she asked if I was sure. I nodded, "yes" and that was the end of the conversation. That night I pulled out the book, hoping it wouldn't pierce my water bed. I read the first page. Then the second. Then the third. Then I started over. No matter how many times I re-read the paragraphs- I just couldn't follow it. I was sad, but my respect for Ms. Morrison grew that day.
Eventually I would get my hands on Sula, and it remains one of my favorite books of all time. (I never tried to re-read Paradise)
Books were my friends.
Books were my escape.
In my mother's house, I had my own room with a giant walk-in closet. There were two doors inside the closet. One door led to a tiny crawl in attic space. The other was 4 feet above the floor. Inside was a small sloping space with a rod perpendicular to the closet just outside. It was weird. And I liked it. I would jump up to climb inside, laying my back against the slope. I pulled the string to turn on the one pale light bulb and would be absolutely lost (until my butt started to hurt from the hard floor).
I liked being hidden away, dimly lit, in a space so weird, I still don't know what it was actually for. I think I realized then just how quirky I had the capacity to be. Here I had a queen size water bed, a living room, a family room, but I decided to read in the closet within the closet.
For years I read novels that absolutely delighted me. Until.
Just before college, I started reading non-fiction. I was intrigued by this book I remembered my mom loving called, "Lies My Teacher Told Me." I never forgot that title as I became increasingly aware that my own teachers were lacking some information about slavery, Christopher Columbus, and all manner of Black history and culture.
Around my junior year in high school, I read There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. I had no idea non-fiction could be so moving. That was it for me. I was hooked on this version of storytelling. I took a deep dive into social sciences, Black history, race and racism. I was insatiable. I wanted to know about the Black Panther Party. I wanted to know the names of the women in the Civil Rights Movement. I wanted to know about the histories of specific cities- like Detroit and Chicago. I wanted to know about the criminal (in)justice system. I wanted to know about the educational system. I wanted to know about housing. I watched documentary after documentary and then found more books to read.
And for a long, long, long time- I left fiction behind.
After 15 years of reading and watching and seeking to understand... I am re-discovering my need for the joy of fiction books.
I long to return. I long to return to the joy of story, the development of characters, the twists and turns I never saw coming. I long to read Mary Higgins Clark and scare myself. I long to read Jasmine Guillory's novels as she reintroduces romance novels into my life in ways that allow me to see myself. I long to return to stories that wrap me up and give me the same feeling I felt long ago, wrapped in my mothers arms, listening to her make books come alive.
I'm grateful for the role of non-fiction in my life, and I'm certainly not making any declarations about leaving them behind. I just know that it's time to return, time to fall in love again with characters that exist only on the page and in my head. I want to wander through worlds that don't exist and explore the intricacies of quotes for which context is everything. I want to be riveted by the first sentence. And I want to be sad when I arrive at the last sentence.
I'm a quirky Black girl who loves Agatha Christie and Toni Morrison, who wants sweeping romances and still appreciates Holes. I have always been a bookworm, and in 2022, I plan to jump head first back into fiction.
So. What fiction are you reading these days?