This fall, my church is doing a series on children’s literature. We were invited to write about a favorite book from ages 3-13, why we liked it so much, and what ways God used it to shape our lives. Here is mine.
John Green, author of recent young adult best-seller The Fault in our Stars, said that he enjoys writing fiction for teenagers because it’s still acceptable for teenagers to ask big questions about suffering and death and the meaning of life and who we are as people. We adults still have many of those same questions (maybe even more of them), but something makes us pretend that we have answers instead.
One of my favorite books about the questions of life and death is A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle. I have to admit that it is a book that features a couple of love triangles and humans communicating with dolphins via ESP. However, L’Engle uses the cute boys and the dolphins to discuss some much larger ideas about affirming life when you are surrounded by death and suffering. The book starts at the funeral of a coast guard commander, a family friend of the main character, Vicky Austin. He died saving another friend of Vicky’s, Zachary Gray, from a suicide attempt. At the same time, Vicky’s grandfather is dying of leukemia. Several times throughout the book, the joys of friendship and delicious food and family and kissing boys are affirmed as an important part of life, as proof that the darkness of the world cannot overcome the “ring of pure and endless light” that Vicky’s grandfather quotes from Henry Vaughan.
I read A Ring of Endless Light over and over. It stayed in a place of honor on the shelf just above my waterbed. I couldn’t relate to Vicky’s experiences with boys and I wasn’t too sure what I thought about communicating my thoughts to dolphins. But I was fascinated by what her grandfather said about a community he had worked with in Alaska, how they would gather with a dying person and “release” him or her emotionally. How they ensured dignity and respect for the dying by making sure that a person knew when it was time to go.
The night that my dad was dying, the hospice nurse said that people my dad’s age often have a hard time letting go at the end because they have so much left to live for. When it was my turn to say goodbye, I repeated the words I had read so many years before. I told my dad that it was time for him to let go, that we would all take care of each other. That we loved him and he should stop fighting. That we would be okay. That we would go on. I rearranged and recited the words as if they were a liturgy that I was trying to inhabit as I sought to understand what was happening. I can’t say if it eased any of his suffering, but I know that it felt as if I was stepping into something true that carried me through the river of pain I was experiencing.
As a middle-school librarian, I have staked my career on the idea that what we read when we are young is formative. I think it matters. This is one of those books that matters to me. I am grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for having given me the words to say when I needed them. I still need to hear the big questions that it is asking and the reassurances that light shines on in the midst of the darkness.
We will go on, I told him, because I read it in a book. And we have.
What book(s) from childhood are special to you?