Coming of Age

I’ve been an avid reader from around age 2, a love of knowledge instilled in me by my dad that hasn’t waned much through the years. I have spent my life reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. I’d read instructions on the back of a bottle, games on the back of cereal boxes, comic books, history books, dictionaries and thesauruses, fictional novels and biographies. For the most part, I read to escape the real world, to lose myself in my imagination and wander the realms of the imaginations of the authors who wrote the books. Every so often, there are books that change our lives and shape our thinking. This blog post is about three of those books.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

I read this book when I was around age 11. Eleven seems like a big year for me; a lot of things happened in my life that year – my baby brother was born, my great-grandfather died, my mom told me some not-so-admirable things, I was trying to come to terms with being a perpetual target for bullies… It was one of those life-changing years. Bridge to Terabithia is a story about two friends from very different worlds – one poor but with a very close family, one wealthy but with a very modern, less close family.

Jesse and Leslie become best friends, and together they create a fictional magical world they call Terabithia where they go to escape the pressures of their young lives and over which they rule as its king and queen. Throughout the story, we get glimpses into their lives and then, abruptly, everything changes – suddenly and tragically.

Bridge to Terabithia was one of the first books I read in my pre-teen years that dealt with death on a mature level. It stuck with me months and years later, and to this day is one of those books that marks a period in my life where the struggle between child and adult is evident. I have bought this book for each of my nieces when they turned 11.

Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl

I was around 13 when I read this book, and its effect on me was profound. Somewhere around the ages of 11-13, we are just starting to discover the world outside of ourselves and our place in it. We start learning about the long-distant past and the history of our world, both good and bad.

Anne Frank’s was one of the first diaries/biographies I read of a girl I could relate to. She had just turned 13 when her family went into hiding in Amsterdam during World War II. Reading her diary was like catching a glimpse of a girl my own age; we shared the same insecurities (about our bodies and selves), the same thoughts and obsessions (movie and music stars, etc.), and yet we were so far apart, living on opposite sides of the ocean and in different eras in history.

This was probably the first book that made me truly understand the depths of monstrosity humans are capable of. To realize that this girl, who was so much like me, was ostracized and shunned simply because of her heritage and/or religion was humbling. This is a book that has stayed with me throughout my life because there is still such hate in the world today. You’d think that we’d smarten up as a species.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.

This is another book that I have bought for all of my nieces, this one when they turn 13, and it has become among their favorite all-time books as well. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming-of-age story of a young girl named Francie Nolan in early 20th century Brooklyn. It tells the struggles of growing up in a poor family with an alcoholic father. This is the first book that really introduced me to such adult themes as alcoholism, poverty, and abuse, all of which are timeless struggles.

Francie’s love of reading and books drew me in and her strength in overcoming the obstacles life threw at her kept me engaged. The tree in the meager courtyard of the tenement building where she lives becomes a symbol of that strength, and at the end of the book, Francie sees herself in a young girl sitting on a fence reading a book under the shade of that same tree, which has managed to flourish through the years despite the limited space and earth it grows in, much the same way Francie has managed to survive through all of life’s twists and turns.

These three books have stayed with me throughout my life and mark a specific point in time spanning a few years in my pre-teen and teen years when I was discovering who I was and who I was going to be. I’d recommend them to young girls (and boys) to read. While Anne Frank’s diary and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn may seem to be “dated,” their stories are timeless AND timely!

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