a reading life.

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?

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6 Comments

  1. My mom gave me a copy of this book a couple weeks ago and I’m really looking forward to reading it (I’m working my way through the other L’Engle books I have first.) Praying for you and your family during these next few days and wishing peace on all of you.

    Posted 9/24/2012 at | Permalink
  2. This is so lovely and true. I didn’t read A Ring of Endless Light till adulthood, but I love it (and all of L’Engle’s work) deeply. She asks the big questions so well.

    I turn back to books like Little Women, the entire Anne of Green Gables series and others when I need the comfort of good friends, space to ask the big questions and reassurance that it will all turn out all right (eventually).

    Posted 9/24/2012 at | Permalink
  3. Yes, A Ring of Endless Light. Yes, big questions. Yes, good words form us. Yes, Kari, to you and your story. Thank you for sharing this with us. (p.s., didn’t you always wish you could visit Grandfather’s house? Stalls full of books, a banging screen door, sand and sea?!?)

    Posted 9/24/2012 at | Permalink
  4. Melissa

    Kari,
    this is amazing post, books have helped me through so much in life. I love reading your posts, they almost always seem to hit home with me.

    Posted 9/24/2012 at | Permalink
  5. Mark Allman

    Kari,
    One book that influenced me alot as a young boy was Farmer Boy. I think I learned discipline and good work habits from reading that book. I grew up on a farm and the book helped me to look at my responsibilities in different light. The other thing that I read growing up that had a huge influence on me were Star Trek books. I deeply admired their courage, honor, integrity, and how they stood up for what was right against evils in the universe. :) I wanted to be like them. I now have over 300 Star Trek books in my library.

    Posted 9/27/2012 at | Permalink
  6. You know, I’ve never read any of of L’Engle’s fiction! Only her non-fiction. I’ll have to rectify that. For me, I think it was the Little House Books and Anne of Green Gables books too. I felt such kinship with Laura and Anne. The Little House books were the first books I really “loved.” I cried when the series was over. That’s why they’re so special to me. And with the Anne books, they helped shape my love for language. I loved Montgomery’s writing and Anne’s desire to be a writer corresponded to my own.

    Posted 10/14/2012 at | Permalink

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