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?