Beth Johnson Sonderby brings us this week’s Why You Should Read… On the face of it, Beth has written a love letter to Bruce Coville but, honestly, this is really an essay on why we should all read — enjoy!
I’d like to share a story with you. It’s a rather personal story, but I want to share it anyway. Because I think sometimes we forget what an amazing thing it is, that unique bond between writer and reader, between reader and story. We invest a lot of time in reading because we enjoy, because it’s entertaining and because, sometimes, we find something that means more to us than we ever imagined it could.
My story begins when I was nine. Now that I’m twenty-four, it’s easier to say this: When I was nine, my father committed suicide. It was, as you can imagine, a tumultuous time for me. My father and I tended to knock heads and didn’t get along most of the time; I dealt with a lot of confusion and guilt because of it. We had been living in Florida for two years, a place where I was happy, where I enjoyed school and swam everyday for about three quarters of the year — but after he died, my mom moved us back to Rhode Island. My autism was, unbeknownst to me, beginning to manifest itself, causing me issues with my peers.
It was also at this time that I began reading in earnest. I’d developed a love for horses (which continues to this day) and tended to read books about them to get my “fix”. Back then, in school we got these glorious…newsletters, perhaps? They were formatted like newspapers, but were filled with books that kids could — with the help of their parents — order. They came once a month and I sincerely hope they still do. It was in one of these, early in the school year, that I found a book called Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville. In my nine-year-old brain the idea that a unicorn is really just a horse with a horn on its head made perfect sense, and I’d always rather liked unicorns anyway, so I got my mom to order the book for me.
It was love. Not just any love, but an intense, almost obsessive love of the sort a girl usually reserves for her first serious boyfriend. I had the book with me often, read it over and over again until the cover fell apart, and told everyone who would listen how great it was.
And it was great, but it was far more to me than just a good book. It was my escape, my safe place, my hidey-hole.
Some days it was the only place where I felt like I had friends. The main character, Cara, was about my age and had uh…let’s just say family issues of her own. There was Lightfoot the unicorn (my personal favorite), the Dimblethum and the Squijum and so many characters and places and things that were so much more interesting than anything in the real world. And I wanted so desperately to get to Luster, the world in the book.
Every month thereafter I combed that wonderful book-filled paper for the promised sequel. I had to know what happened next. I had to go back to Luster for a new adventure. But no matter how many of those papers passed through my hands, the next book never showed up. I persisted for longer than most children that age would have, but even I grew distracted in time and forgot to keep looking for the next Unicorn Chronicle. I eventually figured that it would, like several other series I’d read around the same time, be left unfinished.
I was about sixteen when that changed. I came upon my far too loved copy of Into the Land of the Unicorns. I’d grown extremely careful with my books (the condition of most of them now would likely astound you) and, remembering how much I loved the book, decided to do it the honor of replacing my copy. I went to the bookstore and there on the shelf, sitting next to a fresh copy of the first book, was Song of the Wanderer — the second book. Finally! If we’re lucky (and wise) we never lose our sense of wonder, and goodness knows I’ve never lost mine; I was more than ready to go back to Luster and find out how my old friends were doing.
But there comes a small dilemma: I was a good deal older than I’d been when I first read Into the Land of the Unicorns. Surely the sequel couldn’t live up to those memories. Surely it would be too childish, even with my imagination (which is and has always been as overactive as a highly-caffeinated monkey with ADHD). But Coville seems to have been extremely aware that his initial audience had grown up. Song of the Wanderer was a thicker book, with more meat on its bones and a tapestry of threads that began growing more complex. Suffice to say I was happy with the end result.
And then came more years of waiting. This time I never stopped looking; I remembered to browse Amazon or the Internet in general from time to time, hoping for signs that book three (at that point slated to be the last) was on its way. I grew up, spent a great deal of time writing myself, met the man who is now my husband. Eventually my (our, really, as I was far from the only one waiting for this book) patience was rewarded and Dark Whispers made its appearance, along with exciting news: It was not the last book after all! Now I’m a very cynical reader these days and usually the announcement that a series is getting an unplanned extra book(s) makes me feel like someone’s cash cow. Not this, though. The more pragmatic side of me thought “The man’s written like a hundred books, I doubt he’s strapped for cash here”, while my inner nine-year-old was certain Bruce Coville would never betray me like that. Yes, we do sometimes get a little too attached, don’t we? Well, what can I say? Even I can be persuaded into reader bias sometimes.
Like Song of the Wanderer before it, Dark Whispers had grown up with me. It was even thicker and meatier than the last, with more story, more characters, more plot threads, more to love. There were a few slow moments (sorry, Mr. Coville, nothing in this universe makes me that biased) but by the end of the book I’d kind of forgotten they ever happened. The added complexities served to make it far more than a children’s book.
Now, sitting on the couch next to me as I write this, is The Last Hunt. A gorgeous hardcover, gloriously thick at roughly 600 pages long. I keep looking at it, maybe kind of hugging it a little, but I haven’t yet started reading. Part of me almost doesn’t want to. I’m a big believer in the idea of The End; I hate when a series drags on and on for innumerable books, long after the writer ran dry of plot. So while part of me is relieved that my beloved Unicorn Chronicles aren’t getting such treatment, part of me is also upset that it’ll be over. These books have been part of my life for so long and an influence on me as both a reader and a writer.
And that there is the most important part. Into the Land of the Unicorns introduced me to fantasy and started off a chain of events that ended with me becoming a writer myself. I realized, many years later, that although I could never really go to Luster, I’d found ways to visit many worlds. I read them, but I also wrote them myself. I discovered the joy of writing stories and having other people read them. A lot of writers say you should always write for yourself but I admit, a lot of times I’m not so good at that. I remember how much these books (and others) have meant to me over the years and I want to pay that forward. I know there will always be people like me, who need a safe place to hide from all the things life can throw at you. I keep these things in mind and when life throws me a curve ball (or a rejection letter) it’s easier to pick myself up and dust myself off.
So, authors, if you ever wonder sometimes why readers can get so impatient, now you know. You’ve left a mark on us, sometimes a bigger one than you realize. We get frustrated, we might even rant and rail, but it’s because you made us care. I’m a young autistic woman who’s never been that good at expressing her feelings outside of the written word, so I’ll keep it simple: Thank you, Bruce Coville. A lot.
If you’d like to contribute to our Why You Should Read series, please get in touch!
I hadn’t heard of Bruce Coville, but he’s gone on my wishlist as of now!
That’s really beautiful, Beth!
Thanks Beth. I loved Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien series and Jennifer Murdly’s Toad when I was in Elementary school. Back then, if you asked me my favorite author, this was the guy you’d hear.
I remember my daughter loving this series. She read them, but we also had the Words take Wings audio productions of the first 2. So they were listened to over and over again as well. We also did the waiting and checking game for book 3. I didn’t realize there was a book 4. I will have to track down a copy for her.
I may even have to go read the series myself.
My 11 year old son also loves the My Teacher is an Alien series!
I admit I read Young Adult books, and Children books and a lot of Juvenile books, and yes I have read Bruce. I think Fantasy transcends age.
Kat, that’s awesome! Those were the best, and I still believe some teachers are aliens…
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