You Are What You Read 1

I was an avid reader throughout my childhood. I had such an instinctive respect for books no one had to tell me not to crease the corner of a page or bend the spine. I was shocked the first time I saw someone turn down a page just to mark where they were up to. It was like mutilating a baby.

Likewise, no one had to tell me that, once a book was begun, it had to be finished. I sensed the unwritten contract between myself and the writer: the commitment to get to the end, no matter what.

Had you asked me back then if I’d ever broken this self–imposed rule, I’d have said ‘no’. However, as an adult, I’ve been surprised to remember books I started and put aside. It wasn’t that I was bored. They were great books. No, it was almost an instinct for self–preservation. There was one particular book (which I eventually read as an adult) that I got out of the school library and started at least five times—never getting beyond the third page.

Even now, with all the self–understanding I have, I can look at those three pages in Alan Garner’s Elidor and wonder what I discerned in them to make me shut the book and take it back. And then to try again—and think twice about having done so.

How did I know the rest of the story would destroy my hope in what life offers?

I’m a firm believer in a happy ending. Not necessarily within the story itself but it must hold out the promise that all will eventually be well. By ‘happy ending’, I’m not talking about a Pollyanna sweetness–and–light finale. Far from it. My all–time favourite movie is the seriously underrated Colossus: The Forbin Project which certainly doesn’t finish on an upbeat note. The world has just been taken over by a giant supercomputer which, in order to enforce its benign tyranny, kills anyone who stands between it and world peace. Yet the final scene, as Forbin vows never to yield leaves no doubt the fall of Colossus was inevitable in the face of an indomitable human spirit.

So by ‘happy ending’, I mean one in which hope is restored. This is a classic function, according to JRR Tolkien, of fairytales: it provides recovery, return and renewal of health, regaining of a clear view.   

Last week, I was asked to review the advance copy of a new fantasy by a renowned author. I’d tell you what it was, except that others now hold the rights to my review. The story had a few elements of fantasy—in many ways being more akin to magic realism—but it certainly didn’t have much of the three elements Tolkien felt essential to a good story and particularly a fairytale/fantasy: recovery, escape and consolation.

The book was violent: the first sentence was violent, the first paragraph and page were violent, the first chapter was very violent and, after that, it lulled for a scene or two before building up to a new peak. About the fourth or fifth chapter, it suddenly dawned on me that the protagonists were both twelve years old. This meant the target audience was aged about ten. I thought I’d been reading a fairly typical YA novel but, in a moment of stunned surprise, I realised it was a book for juniors.

My life would be utterly different, had my early reading not impressed on me two things: first, there will be a happy ending and, second, don’t give in—keep on hoping for it. What taught me resilience as a child? The sort of book I read. The avoidance of books that would have destroyed my fragile belief that, at the end of the story—whether in a book or in life—there can be a genuine triumph.

Now I’ve heard writers suggest that there’s no point in giving children hope when there is none. And that’s why they write what they do—to be true to reality as it really is. However, I regard this perspective as simply that—a perspective. Well, perhaps a little more than simply a perspective: after all, if you put the power of faith behind it, it’s likely to come true. Just as putting the power of faith into the belief that hope would not, in the end, disappoint me made such a difference for me.

Now I’d be the first to admit that hope deferred makes the heart sick. Hope long deferred makes the heart very sick. And hope very long deferred makes the heart very very sick indeed. From the outside, clinging to such hope seems quite delusional, irrational and even pitiful. It looks just like you’re hanging out for the sort of ending that only exists in fairytales.

But the fact is: such endings do happen. For real. For true. They might take years, even decades, but they actually come to pass.

And this is why I write what I write. I write for the child I once was who so desperately needed hope. At the end of Many–Coloured Realm, after it seems the demons have won the final battle between good and evil, things don’t change at once. Years and years go by until, one day, in the twinkling of an eye, when none of the characters expect anything good to happen, triumph breaks in. Bursts in.

This is the ultimate message of Many–Coloured Realm: wait. Hope does not disappoint.

However, this is also why I don’t like the current diet of darkness served up in children’s and YA literature. Now, don’t get me wrong again; I don’t think books have to be all light and bright. I’m talking about the surfeit of ‘all things dark and unremittingly violent’. It’s one thing to live in the light and peer into the darkness calling it ‘dark’; it’s another to live in darkness and call the light ‘untrue’.

Today’s books would have given me the message as a child that the road ends in despair, rather than happiness; that there is no way out, instead of sending me to look for a solution that simply must be there. After all, my life still has some pages to go, just as the book does. It doesn’t end yet.

I am what I read. As far as I am concerned anyone who says we’re not affected by what we read is trying to excuse what they’re trying to sell us.

I am what I read. Bad things happen but my lifestory can end as most of my childhood reading did. After many trials and tribulations comes the time of happily–ever–after.


  1. I’m with you Annie, I’ve always thought ‘dog-earing’ the pages of a book to be a heinous crime. Books are meant to be treasured – like friends. My love of books came from my father, who bought me a new book once a month – needless to say, it never took me a month to read them, and I’d be bookless after two days and have to re-read a previous one.

    There are some books that I have read six, or even eight times. One book in particular (Defiant Agents by Andre Norton) I read pretty much on a yearly basis from the time I was thirteen until just a years ago – I have no idea what happened to it. It was my introduction to science fiction. My mother bought it at a sale because when she opened it at random she read, “fresh hoof prints” and thought it was a book about horses. There was something about that book that kept drawing me back again and again and again. There were heroes, there were villains and there were coyotes that could communicate with the MC Travis Fox by thought.

    I don’t do books that don’t offer hope. Hope is essential otherwise what’s the point to life?

    • Hi Lyn
      I must have read Beastmaster by Andre Norton a dozen times before one librarian took a look at the title and decided it was best kept out of the hands of innocent and impressionable children. I argued in vain that it was a kid’s book as she reclassified it into the adult section, out of my reach. Hosteen Storm is the hero who is telepathically connected with several animals. Sounds very similar to Defiant Agents.

  2. I like this very much, Anne! There is truth here.

    An aside. At one time, most people tried their best to protect children from adult themes, themes they weren’t ready for developmentally. Children are just not ready for some kinds of knowledge; and at one time, for many, this was a given. I believe that they must and should be protected, and have difficult things explained to them at their level when it is strictly necessary because ‘real life’ has come to them.

    Is it jealousy or envy of children that leads some authors to tear down walls that protect them from knowledge that is unnecessary as yet?

    • Hi Maria
      I don’t think it’s jealousy. I think it’s a belief that kids should be spared disillusionment about life. To do that, it’s necessary to tear down their illusions. Ironically, the process of sparing them from disillusion is in itself a matter of disillusion.

  3. Alison Collins

    I think that many people have just lost hope in anything better than our bad old world. Or that’s how they see it. There is no perfect God, and most things will go wrong. Why delude children? A sad outlook on life, and one that definitely deserves an answer.

    I do understand the part about avoiding reading some things. Because I have the kind of mind with a vivid, long term memory, I am very selective about what I read, because it does impact me.

    Alison Collins

    • Hi Alison
      I’m really curious that there are certain books we instinctively avoid even though they attract us. That check in the spirit that is so strong that, even as kids, we can’t ignore it. And that, even as adults, remains largely inexplicable.

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