This piece was originally published on the Island Books blog.
Growing up, I loved getting lost in books: It didn’t matter to me if the book was adventurous, dramatic, suspenseful, or fantastical; as long as it transported me somewhere else, I was happy. I’d be so immersed in my book that I’d barely hear my parents calling me for dinner. Another chapter— just one more— often took priority over the chores my father asked me to do with decreasing patience. That love of reading has stayed with me. I love the way books push you out of yourself and into the lives of others, and how, with the best books anyway, you return to your life altered by the experience.
When Matt and I got married, he was convinced we would end up on Mercer Island raising our family. I was less sure. It was his home, not mine, and I wondered if it would ever feel like a home to both of us. Matt would often sell me on the merits: the small welcoming community, everyone knows each other, excellent schools, the beautiful setting. I saw all great qualities, but still was not entirely convinced. Then one afternoon, Matt took me to Island Books. I perused books, saw neighbors run into each other and exchange pleasantries, and watched more than one customer get a book recommendation from employees who seemed to know their taste already. Fourteen years later, Mercer Island feels very much like my home. It has been a wonderful place for Matt and me to raise our four kids. We’ve also become proud business owners in the community, opening a Pagliacci Pizza just a short walk from Island Books, where I—and my children—are regular customers.
When Laurie and Miriam asked me to be a guest blogger, I had no idea what to write about. They assured me I would be great and suggested I write about what I was reading. Still, what to say? I’m a reader, not a book critic. As I sat before a blank screen, a stack of my latest favorites on the desk, Luca, 13, walked in and told me all about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, the book he’d just finished reading at school. “I cried,” he said. “But it’s ok because everyone in the class is going to read the book and they will all be crying.” Gracie, 15, also admitted to crying while reading it. They both agreed that it was a good cry, though, and the sadness was part of what made it such a moving story. She told Luca he should read the book that inspired John Green to finish his novel, This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl by Esther Earl.
That night at dinner, the conversation turned to books that have brought us to tears. My most recent tear-jerker was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I’d read it on an airplane. The person sitting next to me noticed my reaction. She took a photo of the book, then two airline attendants joined in the conversation and also took photos so they’d remember the title. I wondered why reading The Iliad in college hadn’t moved me the same way. Somehow Miller’s beautiful retelling of the Trojan War pulled me vividly into the lives and world in a visceral way, like living a dream.
Jojo, 11, and Luca talked about the Harry Potter books, one of our all-time favorites. They debated which was sadder [spoiler alert!!!]: the passing of Fred Weasley or Dumbledore. Luca also mentioned Wonder by R.J. Palacio and its sequel, Auggie & Me. He liked the books because Auggie felt like someone you might know and you really wanted things to work out for him. “Empathy,” exclaimed Jojo.
When Jojo was younger, I read The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate to him. He was in kindergarten and we were both enjoying Ivan and Ruby, but there was something about the story that made him very sad: the animals that belonged in the wild were living in a mall. I almost quit because he would get so emotional about it every night, but he wanted to continue. At the end, when Ivan and Ruby are living much better lives, he was teary. “You can cry happy tears,” he said. As a mom of boys, I was elated Ivan taught him that.
Nico, our stoic 18-year-old, noted that he had never shed a tear while reading. He did admit that while reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (a school assignment) he came really close. Matt, my husband, remembers Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls bringing him to tears during his school days.
Gracie talked about a book she had read a few years ago, A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. The main character in this novel has synesthesia and sees colors when she hears sounds. Throughout the story, Mia speaks to you as though she is your friend. This creates a personal connection with her. When sad things happen to Mia in the book, it makes you sad as well.
This led me to recall one of my all-time favorites: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Even though this is a novel about four friends navigating early adulthood, it is truly an ode to Jude and his life’s story. Three years later, just thinking about the book gives me goosebumps. Even though it was so heart wrenching, I wouldn’t dream of a happier ending. The sadness and emotion are central to what makes this one such a gem. Stories that mirror all the crazy beauty of life, in all its rich complexity, and, yes, the immeasurable sadness, too, are what most appeal to me—and, it seems, my children. Reading can be a kind of falling in love— transcendent and life-changing. The right book can be a pathway to becoming a lifelong reader. You just need to find the book that appeals to you. Sort of like the way a wonderful independent bookstore was a key ingredient in the life-changing decision I made to make Mercer Island my home.
Watching my kids being stirred deeply by books, especially in these days of never- ending competition from temptations like Fortnite and Instagram, makes me so happy. Although, when it’s dinner and I’m calling, and calling…
–-Michelle Galvin, Mercer Island, WA