When I told people I was working on a new website, a few people asked me to be sure I kept up this speech I gave at the launch of my first picture book. It’s about what reading means to me:
My cousins and I had a grandfather we never knew. Somehow, even though he died before we were born, he was still the great patriarch of our family. He was “The Fa”—according to our parents a wise and gentle man. A perfect father.
But how could that be right? Our grandfather was abandoned by his parents not long after he was born and lived in the tuberculosis ward of an orphanage until he was 9 years old. How could a person with such a childhood grow up to be a good parent? When I asked my uncle Bryan this, he admitted that he had often wondered the same thing, and had finally come to the conclusion that my grandfather had reinvented fatherhood, using the Victorian novels in which he had immersed himself as a child as his only guide.
After that I always felt a great kinship with the grandfather I never knew. By no fault of my parents I lived through a somewhat Dickensian childhood. But it was ordered, restored, re-invented, inspired, lifted up and kept aloft by books. At my father’s funeral when I was twelve I didn’t cry until a certain woman came up and hugged me after the service. Not one member of my family knew who she was, but she was one of the most important people in my life. She was Mrs. Carmen, the children’s librarian at my school, the woman who had introduced me to James and the Giant Peach, The Rats of Nimn and The High King.
And so I arrived at adulthood with this odd belief that books were important, that they were not just entertainment, but tools to help you invent the story of your own life.
It is inevitable. At some point your own personal experience will run out. At some point you will come to a question that real life hasn’t shown you the answer to. And then you will have to make it up, out of thin air, the way my grandfather made up how to be a father. And your only guides will be James and the Giant Peach. The Bell Jar. One Hundred Years of Solitude. And The Snowy Day.