Books I read in middle school (or, confirmation of my arrested development)

I recently went through the exercise of trying to fill out my anemic Facebook profile. Part of this involved going through their ridiculous suggestions for books I’ve read (FB must have an idea of how old I am and they suggest as #1 book for me, The Lovely Bones, a book I absolutely REFUSE to read. I don’t even want to go into how lame their music suggestions were). Anyway, thinking back, I made a list of books that rocked my world in middle school. They are:

  • Gone With the Wind
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Far Pavilions (romantic blockbuster)
  • The Thorn Birds (another romantic blockbuster)
  • Silas Marner (complete anomaly – a neighbor gave me a copy)
  • The Once and Future King and Malory’s The Death of Arthur (dreamy sigh … Lancelot)

Notice: None of them really aimed at children. (This is in no ways bragging, rather exposure of myself as a total nerd in the days before good TV.)

I DO recall reading children’s books in my childhood. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Harriet the Spy, Jupiter Jones & the Three Investigators (does ANYONE remember those?). Ah, and The Dark Is Rising series. Loved those.

But I loathed sad-ish, lessony books, in other words, award winners. For instance, Island of the Blue Dolphins. I can’t go near that book, even now. It’s probably completely different from what I remember. But the slightest hint of loss and struggle and real-world grappling and having to grow… eeguh! Flowers for Algernon – we read that in seventh grade English maybe. Oh, the scars I carry. I remember turning to The Scarlet Letter of all books (*all* of it passing well overhead) as a way to escape the awful pity pudding of Flowers for Algernon. Or C.S. Lewis and The Last Battle?? Was there ever a worse end to an amazing series? I can’t ever go back to Narnia because I was so upset as a 12-year-old over what he put me through with that ending. I’m still angry!

Much better were books like Silas Marner and Oliver Twist – the cruelty of the world was buffered through the strangeness of the past and the hyperbole of the writing – as if it were all quite humorous and Swiftian. People starving and nearly dying by the side of the road! The innocents expiring with pious sighs! Of course, you knew it would end happily – it had to. Pot boiling melodrama demands it. That guarantee I think was essential. I read George Eliot and Dickens with a lot passing over my head, but I turned the pages, certain I would not have to confront too much melancholy.

Why did I hate well-meaning books? I wonder about this constantly. Because now I’m writing for children. And I find my dark view of the world seeping in, creating loss, thinking about growth and lessons. I think it’s possible to write for children about darkness, especially if done with taloned black humor. But I put it past my abilities to write anything earnest about the pain others go through.

Would my middle school self like the the stuff I’m writing now? I wonder. My middle school self desired fantasy, transformation, wings. But I wanted them all without cost. When’s the right time to learn the truth?