“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”-Oscar Wilde-
Have you ever read a story that stays with you long after you close the cover? One that you know has shaped you as a person and comforted you when you needed it most?
I miss reading stories that fill my cup.
That simple admission leaves me feeling empty, like a vase whose flower has long since been discarded, sitting idly by until the next bouquet arrives. As of late, I have recognized a void that used to be filled with the pleasant company of a good book. I know that I’ve been reading things that come like fast food—social media articles that are cheap thrills, but bland, greasy to my soul, with no lasting impact—and I’m hungry shortly thereafter.
I grew up with a love of the written word, thanks to a hardworking mother who taught me to marvel at stories and the imaginative lifeblood they gave to an eager young mind.
I lived for story time—could not wait for bedtime—where these tales would come to life in my imagination, a time I’ve always held sacred.
Field trips to the local library in our quaint little town made me feel like Bilbo Baggins setting foot outside Hobbiton, never quite knowing where his feet would carry him. Growing up, I didn’t want toy stores—I wanted bookstores. I still get a secret thrill in those hallowed spaces, even more so in one whose nooks and crannies are stacked with dusty tomes of classic works of yore. I’ve tried to instill this sense of fascination in our daughter as she embarks on this literary genesis as a young reader. Just last week, we discovered some children’s classics on a shelf in the back of an antique store, and she would not let us leave without purchasing three.
In my kid-free years, I could build a leaning tower of reading Pisa by my bedside, laden with historical fiction, spicy mysteries, and classic literature that made my heart happy, as I got a glimpse into eras I often dreamt of, or I’d rather occupy. Like many who do this with the continued replay of their favorite film, I have several choice novels I use like calming goats to bring me solace and ground me.
Now, as a mother of two, there are petitions for tales filled with wonky half human, half animal characters, or princesses who are also ninjas, peppered in with a dash of cardboard books about various modes of transportation that elevate me to expert on all things tractor and snow plow (thanks, son). I even know, by heart, what the Brown Bear, Brown Bear sees (Eric Carle!). Scintillating for an almost 40yr old brain, no?
2020 hit us like a wrecking ball, and I told myself that this summer was geared towards a cathartic healing, and my burgeoning reader in the house has needed a similar balm to her spirit, so this Mama made an executive decision to dust off the best works of one of my most cherished 20th century female writers, L.M. Montgomery. It was time for her to meet the red headed, big word spouting, idealistic kindred spirit I used to wish I could be.
Cue Anne of Green Gables.
This series has been sitting in disuse on the top shelf of our family bookcase, and now I know that it should have been given more attention. Thankfully, I’d showed her the 1985 Megan Follows film version I grew up watching on VHS with my Gram, so she was primed, but even I found new and special aspects to enjoy that I’d long since forgotten.
Now, my old copies have no pictures, and there are words in there that someone would gladly need a thesaurus for, so it took us a bit to ease into the text. Y’all, we are half way through this bedtime reading journey, and my daughter has already begged me to read the other half dozen novels that comprise this series.
She’s smitten with the friendship between Anne and Diana, two bosom friends who grow alongside one another through some unique trials of girlhood that bond them together for life. She asked me if she was ever going to have a bosom friend like I do with her Aunt Stephanie, and I saw a glimpse of myself at seven years old, hungry for the same connection.
She feels a kinship to this little girl who has the same zest for living, imagination, and love for the natural world in all its forms. Anne’s triumphs and struggles in school shows her that even she can overcome what feel like permanent pitfalls in elementary school. Anne is helping her through it and she doesn’t even see it yet…but I know she will. There are many moments where I’ve compared myself to the strict and straight Marilla, doing her best to shape Anne into a clear-headed child, but secretly loving the wild soul she’s raising, just as she is. Then there is the doting Matthew (*sigh*)—his sweet gestures to Anne and his continued pride in her achievements warm my heart, and remind me that children just need to use their wings a bit and not feel grounded by their parents all the time. See? We are both profiting by this book.
If we really do continue with Anne’s journey, she will bear witness to a love story one could only hope for and a boy who admires the uniqueness of a girl who was born to stand out. I had such a crush on Gilbert Blythe as a girl, and he was the standard of measurement I used with each boy I came across. I want her to know that love isn’t in poems and flowers, but in friendship, constancy, a little friendly competition, hope, and sacrifice—- it isn’t “diamond sunbursts or marble halls,” because those are frippery and gossamer. Sometimes, almost losing what you didn’t realize was right in front of you is a powerful lesson, too. It’s one I had to learn myself! Gil shows Anne that her debonair fictional men are nothing compared to him, and in a world where our young girls use Disney princes as standards, Gil shatters those illusions. Using “Carrots” as a nickname may not have been his best choice, but we can forgive him if Anne can. When my own girl asks me what type of boy she will choose for her life, I’ve been known to tell her that I hope it will be a Gilbert.
My greatest joy in choosing this coming-of-age tale over such menial young reader stories is realizing that she connects to the story just as much as I did. What’s even better is that I have a renewed sense of joy for reading—I want to get to bedtime so we can read another chapter, and I am just as excited and surprised at each episode as if it’s my first time to experience them. I know the outcome, but I try to linger in each moment with my daughter, talking things over with her after we finish, just to see what lessons she’s gleaned from it.
That’s how you know a book has changed you—when it still can, even two and a half decades later.
Anne Shirley, you’ve helped heal us both. Thank you, my old familiar friend.