It Gets Better: Where Do You Find Comfort?

When I was at #KidLitcon, a conference for bloggers of children's literature in Minneapolis, I went to a reading.

One of the readers was Kristin Cronn-Mills, someone I'd never heard of. I was not feeling particularly optimistic. The reading was the almost-very-last conference-related thing, and I was wiped out from trying to be friendly but not weird, affable but not clingy, and related social contortions. I did not want to go to a reading. But go I did, and I sat in the very last row with my KenKen on my lap (because I have a morbid fear at readings that if I sit too close and look up the author will lock eyes with me, and then it will be up to me to somehow convey a moral support and I just can't take the pressure).

Not that this has ever happened. But, you know, it could.

So I sat there thinking that it would all be fine. I could do my puzzle, the conference would end, I would figure out a way to go to the dinner and find someone to sit next to even though I didn't know anyone. And I was utterly unprepared for what happened, which is that I was moved.

I don't know how else to say this other than she is a real writer. The book was alive, and though I started out half listening, half trying to figure out the different groups of possible factors of 120 (does anyone else do kenken? I am getting somewhat alarmingly dependent on the sense of relief that comes from decoding these) and then I was only listening. Tired, drained, stressed, lonely, but listening in that active way that happens when for no reason you can exactly name the words stop being words and stop even being a story and just take the place of everything around you.

Afterwards, there were questions from the audience. The author had said she hoped that the book might in some way offer comfort to kids who don't get much (the books she read from, both YA, were Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, which has a trans protagonist and is not out yet, and The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don't Mind, which featured a girl who kissed a girl and was freaking out)—and no doubt I'm horribly mangling what she said, for which I apologize sincerely, but she talked about identifying in some way as a mother to her characters, feeling the need to protect them, to offer comfort. She hoped her book offered comfort. So a gentleman asked her, "When you were a kid, what books offered you comfort?"

While the author struggled with her answer (because who can answer a question like that on the spot? Almost no one) I thought about it for myself.

I couldn't remember one. But I really wanted to. The whole thing just stirred me up. I thought about how much I hope that if I see my kids struggling with stuff like this, I will bring them one of these books. And how excellent it is that these books are there. But it was muddy, too, thinking both like the person who comforts, and remembering being the person who needed comforting. Whatever it was, I couldn't quite grasp the memory. Had I identified with anyone in books as a teenager? Or was even that comfort beyond me then?

I had almost given up when it came to me, the picture entirely clear: my miserable teenage self, having woken up at 2 am, in my dim green bedroom, winter outside dark and cold, despairing the way you despair when you're a teenager, because you don't yet really trust that all things pass. I was sitting in my bed reading, but I wasn't: I was with Lucy in the wardrobe, pushing through those endless folds of fur coats, just beginning to feel the cold air and the bark of trees, to end up in another world.

I can see now the hopefulness of it all, the tantalizing possibility that all you had to do was open the right door and you could escape. In a way, I think, it is what Cronn-Mills is offering, too. And to me now, the idea of some cold, miserable, up-at-night trans kid, finding her book and being moved as I was at her reading, having the story come alive and transport that kid to somewhere else, another world, that is its own powerful comfort to me as a parent, when it turns out I need a whole different kind of comfort: the comfort of knowing that kids can be reached, can be helped, can be made less alone even when you can't reach them yourself.

Do any of you remember what offered you comfort in your own dark—or any dark—days?

17 thoughts on “It Gets Better: Where Do You Find Comfort?

  1. I am not sure if I had a book that I turned to or not. I know that A Wrinkle in Time touched me and I read it over and over. I also was enthralled with Judy Blume and read anything I could find by her. I read a lot through about 6th grade, and then there is a blank. I didn’t read much until my senior year of high school when my wonderful English teacher had us do “SSR” every Friday for the WHOLE ENGLISH PERIOD. It was life changing. It gave me permission to be a reader again. But look, I am way off topic. Sorry.

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  2. I don’t remember being comforted by books that had stories that were actually relevant to what I was going through, or even by protagonists with whom I identified. I was comforted (and still am!) by escaping into narrative. I liked books about children facing really scary things, much scarier than my relatively puny problems, and winning. I read “The Dark is Rising” series about nine billion times. Another book that never failed to make me feel better was “Good Night, Mr. Tom.”

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  3. Even though I loved Harriet the Spy, it was The Long Secret that really gave me solace in the dark days of childhood. The idea that a shy and kind of passive person can find her voice was very…well, I hate the word “empowering,” but it was. It gave me hope that I would find mine, someday.
    As teenager, I loved William Sleator’s “House of Stairs” even though the story is the opposite of comforting– it’s a bleak, terrifying dystopia story. But the two main characters manage to hold onto their spirit and their humanity, and I found that hopeful, too (even though the book scared me so much I had to sleep with the lights on for days). Many years later I learned that the author had meant both characters to be gay, and I think I intuited that as a kid (even though I didn’t know it consciously about either them or me) got comfort– and hope–from that as well.

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  4. I’m with Sara on this; the books that gave me comfort didn’t offer relevance so much as they offered escape. In my experience, books that tried to be relevant felt like the were trying to be relevant, and the authors’ obvious effort exhausted me. Even now, I would almost always take a really great story over a themed book trying to reach me. My comfort books in junior high were all Nancy Drew, I think!

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  5. Little Women was my go to book for comfort. It was a regulated world, which valued the same kinds of things I valued, and in which good mostly succeeds and family is there for you (Beth’s death aside). It was a book that transported me to another place rather than made my current place better.

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  6. I’m with Sara and Bethany. It was more about escaping into a story than anything else. Still is, I suppose. My favourites were the Narnia Books, Lord of the Rings, Wind in the Willows, and the Earthsea trilogy.

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  7. it’s funny, isn’t it? It’s the fact of it’s being a good story more than anyhting else that works, a wholly imagined world. That’s what was so excellent about her reading. So many things lately have made me think that the universe is surprisingly susceptible to reverse psychology.

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  8. The comfort book that first comes to mind for me is the book A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle. I can remember reading this book and being pretty profoundly effected by it and then returning to it over and over during middle school.
    I think this is so true about how people need books that will reflect some aspect of themselves – even if it’s an adventurous, fantastical, unreal aspect.

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  9. I re-read lots of books for comfort – the entire Little House series, for example. But I think I also reveled in books with outsiders at their core – A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy and so on – in which the gawky girl who can’t fit in is the hero. I didn’t get into fantasy until my teen years, and then that genre probably filled that niche.

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  10. I feel like this is so stereotypical, but I liked having my rage and anger at the stupidity in the world reflected in Holden Caulfield’s. And my high school tried to ban Catcher in the Rye which probably only magnified my identification…
    In retrospect, it’s sort of funny since I was a decidedly nonWASPY girl, a successful student at a large southern public high school–not a Manhattanite boy who had flunked out of myriad prep schools…

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  11. I am not at all surprised to find so many of us referring to Madeleine L’Engle books. I remember Vicky wanting to find someone to talk to about comforting things like knowing if spaghetti was cooked by throwing it against the wall. I loved anything by ML’E but the Austen books were most comforting, because Mrs. Austen seemed to be able to handle anything, and the kids were so identifiable, and it just seemed like such a normal family. I especially remember The Moon By Night and A Ring of Endless Light–I think the whole premise of Meet the Austens was a little scary for me, an only child, to even consider for comfort. But I loved it anyway.

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  12. The dark days were the middle school years where I distinctly remember reading the Tolkien books at recess. Later, Chaiam Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev offered immense comfort as I struggled to retain my heritage (not Jewish but it still worked) but still pursue the arts.

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  13. Happy endings were what I craved in my comfort reading (still do). A Little Princess by Frances Hodgon Burnett was one of my number one comfort reads!

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  14. That’s such a great question. I don’t quite remember books “comforting” me (perhaps that’s sad), but I remember Enjoying books. I guess it’s another way of saying, “they didn’t offer me comfort so much as escape.”

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  15. I love this question. Undoubtedly, my comfort books were the Anne Shirley books. It was a safe world, a good place, and I returned to it over and over again. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books, too. I was so lonely during 6th and 7th grades and always felt that I needed a “Diana”…I did find her, in college!
    I love that so many others found comfort in Madeleine L’Engle. I am actually reading “An Acceptable Time” right now. I remember reading it, just barely.

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