How Books Saved my Life

Posted: February 18, 2016 in Uncategorized
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When our awesome newsletter coordinator Travis Pennington sent this month’s Agents of the Roundtable question around, I opened it as usual with no idea that it would provoke such an emotional response in me. You won’t get it either. Not at first. Here’s the question. Read on to the answer.

What were some of the books you read before becoming an agent that made you want to have a career in the industry?

All of them. No, really, all. See, I grew up severely asthmatic with extreme allergies. It seemed like the outdoors was trying to kill me. I couldn’t run off and have adventures like the rest of the kids, so I did my adventuring from the comfort of my own home. I first discovered THE SECRET GARDEN (by Francis Hodgson Burnett) along with Mary and fell in love with Dickon when I was stuck in the hospital in the fourth grade. My mother had cleverly brought the book to read to me and then left it behind when she went home. Of course, I couldn’t wait for her to return to find out what happened, so I finished it off. I think I read at least a book a day from then on. I was hooked. To this day, books are magic for me. They take me to worlds outside my own and expose me to wonder, magic, love and epic adventure on a regular basis. Being part of making books happen…that’s an absolute dream come true.

I had tears in my eyes as I finished typing this. Silly, I know, and yet…

And yet, the next thing I did was open a new Word file and type How Books Saved my Life. It sounds over-the-top—melodrama if not outright hyperbole (see how I just slipped those SAT words in there?) but it isn’t. It really is true.

I did not have a great childhood. I’m sure many of you didn’t have a great childhood. I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m stating a fact. I don’t know how many of you read my piece in DEAR BULLY: Seventy Authors Tell Their Tales, but that will give you some idea. What I’ll say here is that I was constantly in and out of the hospital for my asthma—in the emergency room, usually late at night, several times a month, admitted about once a month when I was very young, trickling to just a few times a year when I was a teenager. My nose constantly ran; I always looked like I had two black eyes (we called them allergy shiners); I almost always had a low-level wheeze even when I wasn’t in full-blown attack. I couldn’t play sports and in cold weather had to wear a mask over my face to heat the air before it could reach my lungs. You can imagine how well that went over. In addition, I was short, skinny, too smart and had Urkel’s fashion sense. I kid you not.

But you know what? When I look back on my childhood, that’s not what I most remember. I remember the books. SECRET GARDEN was the first book I ever finished. I had no idea how I passed my time before, but I know that after that, I grabbed everything I could get my hands on. I can’t possibly remember all the books I read, but early favorites were THE CHANGEOVER by Margaret Mahy, THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare, A WRINKLE IN TIME and other books by Madeleine L’Engle, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell, THE MONDAY HORSES by Jean Slaughter Doty, to whom I sent my first fan letter (and who graciously answered back), every horse book I could get my hands on (BLACK BEAUTY, the entire Fury, Misty and Black Stallion series…), ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by Lucy Maud Montgomery… It wasn’t long before I graduated to anything I could get my hands on. For instance, the first book I grabbed from my father’s shelves was STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert A. Heinlein which is…eye-opening at eleven. I’m sure he saw me reading it, but either he didn’t remember the content or he never considered that just because I could read something didn’t mean I should at that age. From his shelves I also discovered Isaac Asimov, Eric van Lustbader, Ken Follett, Tom Clancy and probably a million other suspense/thriller, sf and other writers. From my mother, the dedicated romance reader, I found Regency romances and the wonderful drawing room banter (not to mention characters with actual fashion sense). My godparents were the fantasy readers, and I couldn’t swear to the book that got me started in the genre, but I was soon off and running with Stephen R. Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series and millions of others. I don’t know who turned me on to Sherlock Holmes (my grandmother was the mystery reader, so she seems the likely culprit).

Fiction is the providence of the misfit. None of those heroes or heroines fit in, whether it was a wild horse struggling against abuse or the bit or a free-spirited girl who grew up in Barbados trying to adjust to Quaker society and being branded a witch for her differences. Books are not written about the people who mesh and go blithely through society never making waves. Books are written about those who don’t fit in and refuse to let injustice or incarceration or bullying or brainwashing break them. They stand up and they fight and they make a difference. They effect change. It may not be world-bending each time, but changing even is single mind is earth-shattering. It’s amazing. It’s heroic. Don’t think so? have you ever tried changing a single mind set in its beliefs? Have you ever tried engaging one of those “Don’t clutter my mind with facts” sorts of people? Ever get anywhere?

Books do so many things. They make people think, and offer a safe environment for it, because, after all, it’s not your society or election or religious system being called into question. They also offer a place to belong and others (reality-based, however fictional) who have gone through trials and tribulations and come out the other end. They’ve survived. Maybe battered, but better, stronger, knowing they can. They leave us with the same message.

Yes, books provide escape, and they offered up the armchair adventure that I craved. But they also shaped who I am today, not only because I went into publishing to become part of the magic, but because part of each of those heroes and heroines lives in me, and I’d be letting them down…I’d be letting myself down…if I didn’t live up to their example.

_________

As a side note, books are not the only positive things I remember from my childhood. I want to give credit where credit is due. My parents never complained (that I remember) when I woke them up at two a.m. because really, truly, nothing was working to fight back the asthma and I needed to go the hospital…again. In fact, they would, as they could, make it into positive time. They’d play Hangman with me in the ER to distract me. My Mom and I would pick up donuts or Kentucky Fried Chicken or something I considered a real treat on the way home (depending on the time of day or night).

I remember the extremely nice lady in the school office who brought me little things like shells that were a treasure to a child. And the nurses who braided my hair when I was stuck in the hospital. And making hand puppets with the nice lady who came in a few times a week to run a playroom/craft area for the kids so that I could perform my own make-believe.

I was stuck in the hospital with only the five channels they had back then when the Mets won the 1986 World Series, which I was so excited to see and would never have watched had I been home. I also just happened to be flipping through CNN in 1984 when Ronald Reagan, not realizing the microphone was on, “playfully” talked about bombing Russia. Historical events I would have missed otherwise.

And I finally did find my place in the world some time in middle-school when I discovered theatre and all my other misfit friends. I say this with all love and know they’d agree, because my local theatre friends and I dubbed ourselves the Freaks of Duchess County, changing to Freaks of the World when many of us moved on. Because yes, we know all about growing and changing and the power of the word.

I remember so much more, but I’ve taken you far enough down my memory lane.

Writers are my rock stars. Always have been. Always will be.

Comments
  1. I realize as I’m rereading this, that I don’t actually talk about how books saved my life. I suppose it’s more that they gave me a life – many lives – until I could find my own.

  2. Maria Kay says:

    Beautiful! No wonder you became an agent and a writer.

  3. Your post made me cry. I can relate so much. ❤ It was beautifully written and very heartfelt. Wish I could give you a hug in person. You are so genuine, Lucienne. It's one of the things that connected me to you years ago. I love how you love your writers and show it (and writers & people in general). How you reach out to people no matter how small.

    Thank you for sharing your heart and memories with us both good and bad. What a beautiful memory to remember all those who reached out to you in the middle of such traumatic difficulty. I am sorry you had to endure so much at a young age. It most certainly shaped you into the amazing person you are today. God most definitely chose you to be a representation for books for many purposes. XO

  4. Me too. I was a lonely, depressed kid (the “weird” kid no one was friends with). Books were my friends. Of course, now writers are my friends too 🙂

    • Pete always says “weird” is just a side-effect of being awesome. I agree!

      • deborahblake1 says:

        It probably is, but as a kid, you don’t know that. Also, asthma sucks. As a kid I only had mine during ragweed season, so about three months of the year. But I remember sitting inside, watching everyone else run around enjoying the fall, and waking up in class at the end of October from a drugged haze, wondering what the hell I’d missed. Not to mention starting college with my inhaler in one hand and my books in the other.

  5. What a lovely article. It hit home as I was the strep throat kid. I didn’t have the trips to the hospital you did but I spent so many hours alone. Except I wasn’t alone-my mother nurtured my love of reading with the horse Book of the Month, every Walter Farley book made (I still love Sam Savitt’s illustrations), the entire Wizard of Oz series, I could go on. Books were my safe place. I was so bad about going to my room and closing the door that my parents made a deal-spend two hours with family and company (especially for holiday dinners) then you can go to your room and read. Because of that, I chose to write books. I hope that somewhere out there is a reader who feels transported by my books, just as I was as a child, and even now. Thank you for sharing.

    • Oh, I hear you on the family gatherings! I’d disappear into a bedroom and be lost for hours. And I understand about the strep throat! My boogeyman was bronchitis (of course), but my son once had strep throat five times in a year. He just kept recatching it until a nurse suggested that we throw out his toothpaste tube along with his toothbrush, since kids often touch one to the other and the germs transfer. It was like a miracle when he didn’t catch it again!

  6. You are very talented and wonderful. I will always be grateful to have you as my agent and my friend.

  7. Vince says:

    So great to read these types of posts. Kids like us too often felt alone and different. Books were a way to find acceptance and release while we waited for others like us to be found. Nice job!

  8. The more I read of this, the more I thought “I could have written this”. I was the chubby kid with asthma and chronic bronchitis, the one who had to wear corrective shoes for defective ankles. By third grade, I was weaving tales to try to fit in by means of imagination and humor.

    While other kids spent the summer racing bikes or playing in the playground, I holed up at the library with Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, and all of the books you listed above. I guess since our physical bodies let us down, our minds fed themselves. I still can’t pass by a book display in a store or flea market.

    I’m excited. I’ve been researching literary agents. I think I’ve found the right person to submit my first novel to. I think you’d like it.

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