Formative books

This weekend I started re-reading one of my favorite childhood books.

I remembered this as the book that made me want to become a marine biologist, which is the first “what do you want to do when you grow up?” job that I remember having… besides those irresponsible, starving-artist things like “dancer” and/or “writer” that made my parents cringe and tensely explain about “back-up plans” for when those “careers” inevitably didn’t work out… This was also the book that first put the idea of swimming with dolphins into my head where it took firm hold and has never let go. Needless to say, I did not become a marine biologist (even though I didn’t change my mind on this until just before deciding on which college to attend). I also have yet to swim with dolphins. But I will.

The other thing I’m realizing while re-reading this book is that, unlike some formative childhood books that you re-read and realize they weren’t as good as you remember them, this one is still good. Actually, it’s not just good, I think it blows away nearly all modern YA I’ve read. I know. Bold statement. But here’s why: the book is written in a way that doesn’t simplify everything into black and white, good and bad, employing simplistic vocabulary with high drama and romance along the way. The text isn’t “dumbed down” for young adults. The vocabulary is rich, the writing is descriptive, the world is complex and modern (it’s not fantasy / sci fi / dystopian), and even though the main character gets confused and conflicted because of a pretty girl, it’s no more than your standard teenage boy hormones and not some dramatic love-triangle nonsense. The “strong female” character around which the story revolves, is not even in a “lead” role. She is a highly intelligent pre-teen who is wiser than her years, yet still vulnerable, open, and honest in a way that makes her more realistically “sassy” and “spunky” than all those modern YA heroines combined.

In short, this is the kind of book that makes me nostalgic for the time before social media and cell phones and ubiquitous technology… you know, before the “dumbing down” of society where everything has to fit in a short attention span sound bite and be categorized into “is this a good thing, or a bad thing?” buckets for people who’ve forgotten, or never learned, how to think for themselves.

It’s also the kind of book that makes me think that everything I’ve ever written is complete crap and I’ll never be this good a writer.

So, what is this amazing book? You’ve probably never heard of it before. It’s not one of the “classics” that make it onto reading lists. The author has more well known books, books that are definitely on those lists. But out of all those books, the book at the top of my “formative books” list? The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle.

If you’ve never heard of it, and you like YA, marine biology, anything else by Ms. L’Engle, and/or dolphins, you should check it out. You will not be disappointed.