The Importance of Stories at an Early Age

As an emerging reader a decades ago, I loved a variety of books. Always an avid reader, I used to love to find a comfy spot and lose myself in a great story. My earliest recollection of a book that influenced me was a Beezus and Ramona book—not sure which one. In it, Ramona wants her dad to stop smoking. She creates a vertical sign that is supposed to read “No Smoking,” however, the lettering is humongous and it reads “Nosmo King.” Ramona’s dad knows perfectly well what it says, but instead looks at the sign and says something like, “Who’s this ‘Nosmo King?'” I could not only relate to wanting your dad to stop smoking, I could also relate to Ramona’s frustration at her dad for not taking his health seriously. I made my own sign and stuck it on my bedroom door. It would be many years and no signs later before my dad was able to quit.

Then one Christmas my grandmother gave me a copy of The Secret Garden (pub. 1911) and I fell in love with the heartwarming theme of healing after tremendous loss. While I wouldn’t have framed it this way as a 9-year-old, I can say it was empathy that first drew me in. Mary’s loss of her parents, then being sent to live with an unknown family member in another country, who despaired over the loss of his beloved wife gave me big feelings. It was the first book I’d read with death in it and I felt their sorrow. I needed to know what happened next. From the magical secret Mary discovers to how she shares it with her best friend and extended family, I was rooting for them all to find happiness again. The moors, the garden behind the wall, the manor—all that world building was fascinating!

This fascination led me to pick up The Hobbit and later, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The fantasy world-building in his works is top tier and they are books I’ve read more than once because of it. I wanted to be an author back then and create imaginary worlds like he did. His innovative and detailed character creation coupled with his ability to devise maps and languages of fake societies was nothing like I’ve ever read before. I learned that books need not be about realistic people, places, or things—that they could be completely made up yet still fun and engaging. Katelyn Brawn, author of the Hap-PIE-ly Ever After series, says something similar about her favorite book as a child.

”I read the first princess diaries book when it came out when I was about twelve. It completely changed my view on reading. I spent most of my childhood reading books that were “classics”—a lot of John Steinbeck and Louisa May Alcott. But then I realized that books could be fun in a way I didn’t know before. The voice of the protagonist was so relatable and I knew I wanted more of that! It’s one of the big reasons I started writing myself.”

By 9th grade, I moved on to Steven King and horror quickly became my favorite genre. The way King created realistic scenarios and tapped into personal fears kept me awake at night. After reading It, I slept at the foot of the bed in my sister’s room for a week. I somehow passed on my love of good scary story to my children. My middle kid used to read only “horror” when she was in elementary school. She remembered, “Oh, that book, The Jumbies, scared me to death—I think it’s still on the bookshelf. But when we would go to the library at [school] that was the only section I would check out books from. The scary section.” Those stories were always her favorite and now she’s a fan of a good jump scare and horror shows, especially the Netflix series’ by Mike Flanagan.

The influence of engaging stories at a young age extends beyond promoting literacy. No matter what genre, they nurture imagination allowing us to see possibility. They foster compassion and a better understanding of the world around us. Often great stories influence our path, like with me and Ms Brawn. Most of all, extraordinary stories are FUN. Tell me, what book or story influenced you as a young reader?

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