As a child growing up in uncertain, fear-filled circumstances, writing and reading kept me sane and provided an escape from my day-to-day horrors. I was raised as a Christian with abusive parents, the second oldest of eight kids. I’m not sure where my sense of justice and fairness came from, since it certainly didn’t come from my parents, but it was something I always held onto. My mother told me a few years ago that at age 9, I had asked her why she allowed my father to treat her so terribly. I don’t remember asking her that, but I do remember needing there to be balance. I needed twisted stories to be made right, but I also needed a fair amount of pain to start the story. I discovered early on that children’s books about monsters and fighting were limited. As a teenager, even a young one, there were many more options. When I couldn’t get to the public library, I had our family’s meager store of books in the second floor’s living room.
If a story had low stakes, people who didn’t change, or the absence of justice, I couldn’t finish it. I found it to be pure nonsense – hogwash. I couldn’t find hope in monsters that were never vanquished and no peace beyond shallow solutions. But if a story went dark, even the ones I read when I was a child, and then revealed growth and light, then I found hope. I could relate to being surrounded by darkness and fighting to be free. Unless there was some sort of lesson being taught that needed the story to work otherwise, monsters needed to be defeated, characters needed to grow, and worlds needed to become better in some way.
Sometimes nonsense can do some heavy damage while claiming the name of good. Sometimes hogwash doesn’t always seem clear right away, hidden behind a supposedly pure or Christian message, some adults can forget they were children once too, and they may try to hide and spare instead of giving children and teenagers the tools to thoughtfully consider a difficult passage or book.
1. Animorphs series by K. A. Applegate
There’s actually a lot of good in Animorphs, which revolves around alien races fighting a war on earth while one race–the Yeerks, a slug-like alien that needs a host body to survive–takes the humans as host bodies and only a group of teenagers, given morphing powers by an alien from the Andalite race, can fight them. The idea is incredibly unique, the aliens are incredibly interesting, with some aliens that were good, and some aliens that were evil, but with logical and reasonable rational behind decisions. Everything flows and makes sense, until it didn’t. I tried to find the exact book that ruined my love of the Animorphs, but I was out of luck. I think it was a Jake story, because Jake is the sort of character that would make a decision like this, with his kindness and sense of fairness, but it was a bad decision. I devoured the series until I got to the book where one of the characters—I think it was Jake, idealistic Jake—had the ability the kill Visser Three, a well-developed, horrible adversary who kept the Yeerks fighting back even when they were ready to quit because of his own determination and drive. And Jake let him live.
I couldn’t forgive this for several reasons. The first was that it was a purely plot-driven decision, to my adolescent eyes. Visser Three was the only true adversary that the series had developed, and taking him out would have dented the entire series if they weren’t ready to end the story. The second was that Visser Three deserved to die. He deserved the consequences of his decisions, which included taking over so many host bodies that nobody knew who was human anymore. Earth was unsafe, and this small group of teenagers were the last force against the invaders. The third was that this decision removed any and all stakes for me in to be invested in the story. If characters could just make decisions based on flimsy emotions for the sake of the plot, I couldn’t waste any more time in the world. It was complete hogwash. There have to be stakes. There have to be consequences.
Memorable quote, because there still is a lot of good in these stories:
“But mostly, I remembered what I’ve always believed. What my mom taught me. That while some things are just plain awful, most things in life can be seen either tragic or comic. And it’s your choice. Is life a big, long, tiresome slog from sadness to regret to guilt to resentment to self-pity? Or is life weird, outrageous, bizarre, ironic, and just stupid?
Gotta go with stupid.
It’s not the easy way out. Self-pity is the easiest thing in the world. Finding the humor, the irony, the slight justification for a skewed, skeptical optimism, that’s tough.”
2. Elsie Dinsmore series by Martha Finley
Elsie Dinsmore is supposedly perfect. The series revolves around her life, from childhood to death. Over the course of the books, Elsie submits to a beating from her father because he had claimed she had sinned when she hadn’t, and she was able to prove it. In later books, she showcases some horrible racism and she marries her father’s best friend, someone a good at least 20 years her senior, who had been watching her since she was 13. I never made it that far in the series, because I read part of book one, and then I had to resist the urge to burn all of the books. My father bought this series for our house, and I gave it a decent shot, but I couldn’t ignore the fury in me from the lack of actual issues and adversity and the completely unreasonable response of Elsie to everything that happens to her. She was not a strong girl or woman, just a doormat with unsafe ideas regarding faith and relationships.
“Though not a remarkably precocious child in other respects, she seemed to have very clear and correct views on almost every subject connected with her duty to God and her neighbor; was very truthful both in word and deed, very strict in her observance of the Sabbath–though the rest of the family were by no means particular in that respect–very diligent in her studies; respectful to superiors, and kind to inferiors and equals; and she was gentle, sweet-tempered, patient, and forgiving to a remarkable degree.”
3. Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke
While pregnant and grieving at her husband’s funeral, Marty gets a proposal from a stranger. The story is set in West and they are all pioneers, so Marty doesn’t have much of a choice besides marrying this stranger and becoming a mother to his child. Fortunately, he’s somehow a good man, and they fall in love and get married and also Marty converts to Christianity at the end of the story. I hated this story and others like it in our little family library. I read all of the Christian romance novels we had, because when I was short on reading material, I wasn’t going to be picky, but I regretted it. I wanted to be that girl, like my childhood best friend, who devoured books like that, and dreamed one day of her prince coming and having a wonderful wedding and living happily ever after, but I couldn’t. I was living in my parents’ “happily ever after” and it was hell. Home was not safe. Love was withdrawn if you made a parent mad or made a mistake. Beatings were common. Food was scarce. I couldn’t buy into the false idea that life is just hard just for a moment, that God takes away some good just to replace it with something better, that if you just find someone who loves you, then everything is going to be okay. Life for me as a child was much more gritty, much more difficult. There were no stakes in Love Comes Softly, or any of the other similar novels I read. It wasn’t for me. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t help other people – the pure success of books like this and this book in particular shows that it resonates with people, which is fantastic. I’m glad. But no thank you.
“Home is where you will always have a place, where you will always feel loved, and you will never be alone.”
Life is difficult and messy. Pretending to be perfect or trying to be perfect just ends in frustration and even more difficulty, and when I looked at the mess in my own life, the only way for me to find solace was to find the messes in other people’s lives and see how they survived and passed through their pain. I needed hope in difficult circumstances; I wanted to go on a journey with people and characters that I cared about. Finding those stories is what gave me the determination to survive, grow and escape. My literature preferences helped me see the importance of college, traveling, and being free.
1. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
Corrie ten Boom’s memoir, The Hiding Place, was one of the gems hiding in the family library. Corrie’s family was one of the families who sought to help the Jews in Holland when Hitler invaded. They were caught and sent to a concentration camp, where her Father and sister Betsie passed away. Corrie later uses her family’s home to provide shelter and safety for those in need. Throughout her memoir, Corrie didn’t hide her flaws and weaknesses, and the immense strength she showed through horrible circumstances was humbling for me. Her family wasn’t Jewish, but she suffered through the Holocaust and a concentration camp because of her father’s drive to be compassionate and help the Jews. She lost her family because of those decisions, but none of them would have chosen any other path. It was comforting to me as a child to see the other side of a difficult circumstance – of being beaten, starved, humiliated, and being able to survive. I didn’t go what she went through, and I didn’t see the same horrors, but it was immeasurably comforting to know that she understood pain. There were other people in the world who knew pain. I held onto her story in my own darkest moments.
“Young and old, poor and rich, scholarly gentlemen and illiterate servant girls—only to Father did it seem that they were all alike. That was Father’s secret: not that he overlooked the differences in people; that he didn’t know they were there.”
2. The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis
The Horse and His Boy by CS Lewis was the first fantasy chapter book that I ever read. I connected with the main character, Shasta, living in Calormen, who was raised by a man who didn’t love him and was ready to sell him off at the first opportunity. Shasta runs away with a talking horse named Bree and they set north for Narnia. They meet a young woman named Aravis and her talking horse, Hwin. They have several adventures, which includes Shasta being mistake for a prince and learning about an attack on Archenland and Narnia. With Aslan’s help and guidance, Shasta is able to warn the king in time, and they are able to defeat the attackers. Thrown into difficult circumstances and forced to grow up quickly, Shasta’s growth, heroism, and eventual triumph were encouraging to read. Aravis, Shasta’s future wife, goes through a different sort of growth which I found interesting. Although confident and strong, she is also brash and selfish, and Aslan works very deliberately in her life, using things such as consequences and punishments, to help her gain humility.
“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”’
3. The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher
I found The City of Gold and Lead, which is the second book in the Tripod trilogy, at the library. The Tripods, three-legged machines controlled by the “Masters”, have invaded earth and control humans through the use of caps, which make humans compliant. There are three boys who are a part of the resistance, Will, Beanpole, and Fritz, who win the local games to get inside a Tripod city. They find that human males are slaves while females are murdered and preserved on display. They also learn that the Masters are planning to fill earth with their own toxic air. Looking back as an adult, I can see some problems with the story. There are no female leads or strong female characters in general. Beautiful women are stolen away by the alien Tripods and put on display in their city for their beauty to be preserved and admired. But as a kid, I didn’t care. I was amazed by the fact that the series doesn’t begin with an invasion, but rather in the midst of an alien race having already settled earth and enslaved humans through metal caps, which essentially lobotomized the humans and made them compliant. I was excited to know that sometimes—sometimes things aren’t good, and they’ve never been good, but it’s still important to fight back. Sometimes life is already very awfully, incredibly bad, and then you have to fight to make it better, and it doesn’t always stay better. This book rooted my deep love of sci-fi and monsters. When I think about sci-fi and books that informed my love of reading writing, I always come back to the Tripod trilogy. The imagery was utterly fantastic to me as a kid, and especially eerie were the descriptions of the city.
“One enjoys friendship most when times are good, when the sun shines and the world is kind. But it is the sharing of adversity that knits men together.”
Elizabeth Silverstein has written since she was 12 and had read for much longer. She has a small dog that drives her crazy. She writes marketing and journalism pieces at silversteinwriter.com .