Photo: Jayne Ross
I have this yellow cardigan that I bought a few months ago from Target, and it’s by far my favorite article of clothing that I own. In recent weeks, friends have started to point out just how I often I wear this cardigan. One of them jokingly calls it “the Jayne Sweater.” I suppose I could be embarrassed by this, but hey, if the sweater fits, might as well wear it. And I do— with just about anything. It’s perfectly warm and cozy, it’s roomy and comfortable, and it has pockets. Pockets!
I have a pair of pair of shoes much like this sweater: my Rainbow-brand flip flops, gifted to me for my most recent birthday. Not even a full year old, these leather sandals have darkened and creased from countless walks through rain, sun, soil, and concrete. Their brown soles have molded perfectly to my arches; the straps hug the tops of my feet. Those flip flops have quite literally carried me through dozens of memorable days, and each time I slip them onto my feet, I feel that immediate sense of comfort that comes when one reunites with something familiar.
Thinking about these two pieces of clothing makes me think about my favorite books. They, too, fit me like a cozy sweater or a well-worn pair of shoes. And I think it’s important to revisit them often, because each time I do, I learn something new.
I reread one of my longest-standing favorites, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, when I was home over winter break. I first read it when I was in fifth grade. It’s a quick read, probably 150 pages, but it can hold my attention today just as well as it did nine years ago. It’s a beautifully written story about Annemarie, a young Danish girl, who find herself tasked with seemingly impossible courage as her family works to smuggle their Jewish neighbors across the shore to safety in Sweden.
Reading it reminded me just how many unique glimpses of history I’d been given through the books I loved as a child, and how many important, lifelong lessons I’d taken from them. As a fifth-grader, I’d read Number the Stars as a touching tale of bravery and friendship; as a college student, I realized the novel was not only that, but a harrowing reminder of what can happen to a country when a government unexpectedly goes wrong. I looked at the other books on my childhood shelf with a renewed sense of respect: Cynthia Kadohata’s novels taught me about discrimination against Asian-Americans, Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl books forever changed my perspective on what really makes a person beautiful, Ann M. Martin’s A Corner of the Universe showed me what life was like for those with mental illnesses only a few short decades ago…. I could go on and on. Those books, from the moment I first read each of them, shaped me in ways I could hardly comprehend at the time.
And now, 19 years old, I am taking a class on Harry Potter here at Tech. It doesn’t count towards any of my majors or minors, but I figured it’d be silly to pass up the chance to take a college-level course on one of my favorite book series of all time. I was right. Professor Jane Wemhoener asks the class deep, thought-provoking questions each time we meet, and we have discussed everything from growing up to social protests as demonstrated by the inhabitants of J.K. Rowling’s beloved wizarding world. Books I first devoured in seventh grade have taken on new meaning, as I and 50-some other students grapple with the books’ complex, sometimes-dark themes that feel as much a part of our modern society as Harry’s fictional one. Suddenly, they are not just heartwarming stories of loyalty and magical spells, but a compelling allegory for the human condition overall.
Children’s books like Number the Stars, Harry Potter, and the countless others I read as a curious kid don’t lose their relevance as we grow up. If anything, I’ve found, their relevance only grows alongside us. They have a brilliant way of presenting their subject matter in a manner simple enough for children to digest, all the while not shying away from issues of love, loss, and everything in between— issues that never really stop affecting us. They can teach us about history, about empathy, and about human nature.
I will always have a soft spot in my heart for those books that have rested on my shelves and in my memory for so many years. They are as comforting and familiar to me as that yellow sweater and my worn-out pair of Rainbows. But that is why it is so important to keep coming back to them: sometimes, we forget that the things most familiar to us can teach us the most surprising lessons, time and time again.