By Julia Mills

An abridged version of this article was originally published in the September 6, 2023 edition of The Ayr News.

The first book I remember reading is Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. It’s a sweet story about a girl named Fern, her pig named Wilbur, and, of course, a talking spider named Charlotte. It was the first time I remember feeling something when I was reading. And it was a complete surprise to me that reading could do that because when you’re young, reading is this skill that you have to master, with marked milestones and special (BORING) books to get you there and teachers and parents looking over your shoulder making sure it’s getting done. It’s not fun. It’s hard. And stressful. And if helping my kids learn how to read has taught me anything, it is filled with tears and tantrums and a lot of talk about quitting from both the learner and the grown-up alike. Which is why it is no surprise that studies and surveys have found that most adults don’t read for pleasure, just under half of us do.

But it’s also why Charlotte’s Web was such a revelation to me as a young reader. And then The Baby-Sitter’s Club series by Ann M. Martin. And Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal. And then A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle. And Lurlene McDaniel books. And then, horrifyingly, the Flowers in the Attic series by V.C. Andrews. Because reading wasn’t just work anymore. It was interesting and exciting and fun. It opened up worlds and perspectives that I hadn’t considered before (like, what would keeping four children in an attic for years on end look like so the mother could marry her ideal husband without the offspring baggage of her first loser husband? Seriously – Flowers in the Attic was horrifying).

Now, I can’t imagine my life without reading because I was privileged enough to discover that it was fun when I was younger and had a mom who loved to drag us to libraries because they were free entertainment for an overwhelmed parent. Sitting in Brantford Public Library and taking out stacks of books is still part of some of my most favourite childhood memories. And then it was my high school library that kept me supplied. And then my university had libraries (PLURAL), which was both amazing and overwhelming.

To this day, I still turn to books when my brain is busy and I need to escape my reality for a little bit. I get excited when an author I love has a new book coming out or I read about a debut author with a story that sounds unbelievably imaginative. I’m guessing it’s what my husband feels when he finds a new podcast or YouTube channel or news item about the NFL. And every night before bed, I read to get rid of the screen noise and the being-a-mom-noise and the people-demanding-things-of-me noise so my brain can sleep.

For me, there is nothing like taking a trip outside of my experience and life and stepping into someone else’s, whether it’s Meg trying to find her father and fight The Black Thing or following Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield as they traverse life with their perfect size six waists and their blonde hair and blue eyes, or starting up a club to make money and baby-sit for an entire city, or watching Cathy deal with the fact that her older brother is in love with her and her younger brother has died due to neglect (Seriously. Flowers in the Attic was messed up).

Now, my tastes are more varied and mature, but a good story still gets me tearing up, laughing, freaking out, and feeling relieved when a resolution of some sort has finally been found. This year alone, I have helped a woman rebuild her life while helping a stranger tick off their bucket list items on a cross-Canada road trip (The List of Last Chances by Christina Myers); watched in wonder and anguish as a young woman discovers she is not the boy she had been assumed to be her whole life (Dandelion Daughter by Gabrielle Boulianne-Tremblay); had been terrified that a white female author would be found out for stealing the work of a dead Chinese female author minutes after her death and passing it off as her own (Yellowface by R.F. Kuang); and was inspired by an Indigenous mother in the 1600s as she fights to protect her two-spirit daughter, born of a mixed marriage with a white man, and caught between the long-standing culture that embraces the magic of the two-spirited and the harsh Catholicism that tells her she is to be shunned (Daughters of the Deer by Danielle Daniel), among so many others.

Each time I finish a new book, I am forever changed by the words of the author and the world the was created and the characters that leave indelible imprints on my mind and heart. Sometimes, books are disappointments, like movies or albums, but usually, even the misses teach us something (I read my first erotic novel written by a man this year (Pretty Boy Rock Series by Ryan Stacks, with S.R. Watson)—it was…enlightening). And even more true is that those misses for me hit their marks with other readers who found exactly what they were looking for (the series I gave two stars to has a slew of five-star reviews).

So, to the grown-ups that were kids who struggled with and hated reading, who fought their parents and teachers and wanted to burn all the early reader books, I would ask you to rediscover reading for pleasure, instead of pain. Love documentaries and stories about real events? Biographies, memoirs, and true crime might be your jam. Romantic comedies make you swoon and Bridgerton totally fluttered your knickers? Check out this new generation of romance—it’s spicy and fulfilling. Can’t get enough of Game of Thrones or The Witcher? Fantasy is where you want to take a spin. Looking forward to the next Star Wars or Marvel drop? Check out science fiction, where our world is amped up by technology we can only imagine. And if you hate words beyond all measure but love art and the cinematic ability of imagery to tell a story, may I introduce graphic novels, which have proven to be a very successful gateway to reading for many who struggle with it? It’s like a comic book in novel form, but still accessible and interesting with freaking cool art.

Not sure where to start or worried you’re going to pick the wrong title? Hit up your local librarian or come on down to Music & Books. People who love to read LOVE to help others find their next great one and would be honoured to suggest a few books that might ignite the fire that school doused all those years ago.