4 Unexpected Lessons I Have Learned from Reading Novels by Melissa Young

by | Dec 16, 2020 | Voices from PEN/Faulkner

I have been reading since I was two years old, and there are so many reasons that I fall in love with a book. Sometimes the way a sentence is written is so beautiful, I read it over and over to let it fill my soul with its magic. Sometimes the way a character is written is so life-like that I feel like I have made a new friend. Of course, there are also the life lessons and general knowledge woven into the story that make me a better, smarter human. Perhaps the things that stick with me the most, though, are the unexpected ways that books have changed my life—ways that most of the authors likely never intended. 

1. Teachers are people with jobs, and they are doing their best.

We had just finished reading The Giver by Lois Lowry in my eighth grade English class. I had finished reading it long before that day and had read the next book in Lowry’s then-unfinished Giver quartet, Gathering Blue. The day of our final class discussion, poor Mrs. Stark asked us to speculate the cliffhanger ending. “What do you think happened to Jonas and Gabriel?” To which I replied, “We don’t have to guess, there’s another book in the series.” Thus, my first argument with a teacher ensued. 

For those of you who have not read Gathering Blue, there is only a small section that hints at the fate of Jonas and Gabriel after The Giver. But I had read it, so I was angered by Mrs. Stark’s assertion that the sequel had nothing to do with what we were learning. Once I cooled my temper, I realized: my teachers are people. Mrs. Stark was a person with a life and a job, and her job was to make lessons about books for us to learn. Her job did not include researching an entire series to avoid sassy remarks from her students.

2. Letting a book make your choices for you is never the right choice, so pay attention.

The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer showed me that I was assigning far too many similarities between the people in my life and the characters in the books I read—even when the similarities did not exist. Make no mistake: connecting to a book by seeing part of ourselves and our lives is vital (this is why diverse books and #ownvoices are so important). However, we must each learn when to draw the line.

Clumsy and pale, I was stuck in my own love triangle in my own small town, and I was all too ready to assign the roles of Edward and Jacob to the people vying for my heart. Since I was Team Edward, the other person never had a chance. I had allowed this story to choose for me. I had also conveniently ignored all the bad character traits that made Edward real—many that my high school sweetheart shared and were not a good match for me.

3. Read the books you want and share them with the people you love.

I have much younger cousins with whom I might have nothing in common except for The Isle of the Lost by Melissa de la Cruz. I have been reading across recommended age lines since I was 13; this not only means reading “up,” but also reading “down” whenever I want. When I heard there was a middle grade book about the children of Disney villains and heroes, there was no way I was missing that. My little cousins read it around the same time, and the story of these characters is something we still talk about together. 

In high school, my friends and I all read Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire in preparation for seeing the musical. We talked about the book and sang the songs for weeks. This seemed like insignificant teenage silliness at the time, but it carries so much more weight now. Since one friend died six years ago, this book, the musical, and everything “Wicked” have become a source of remembrance and pain. More importantly, this story has become a thread, connecting us all in a bond stronger than friendship.

4. Books can surprise us if we let them.

I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel as part of my book club. Usually, I read the synopsis and reviews about book club books prior to delving into them. I had seen the movie trailer, so I decided to refrain from research this time. My expectations were for a book about a boy and a tiger in the ocean, a story of survival, and that I would cry a little. They did not include a soul-rocking theological journey. I have been on a similar journey for many years and never expected a fantasy adventure story to ring so true to my own life. Martel’s book may have been just as beautiful if I had known the content beforehand, but a surprise like that is something I hope everyone can experience once in their reading life.

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