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June 20, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Here We Go Again!

Posted by nicole

Welcome back to our second installment of Throwback Thursday: Books Edition! This week, we were so excited to write about our favorite books from when we were kids that some of us went a little overboard. So, without further ado (is that still a thing people say?), here’s our throwback, round two!

I think it's safe to say that CHARLOTTE'S WEB is most likely on every little girl's favorite children's books list. After much consultation around the office, it seems that so many of us learned what "salutations" meant when Charlotte, the spider, introduces herself to Wilbur, the pig. For many kids and very much for myself, this timeless masterpiece is the quintessential story of a unique bond and an unconventional friendship that defines the extreme lengths a friend goes to save another in the most dire situations.

I read Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN the summer before I started ninth grade. I guess I should probably lead with the fact that I was the mooniest kid ever (in retrospect, the most brutal combination of a romantic and a fatalist), so I identified with Francie Nolan like it was nobody’s business. I mean, I didn’t grow up in a Brooklyn tenement like Francie (even before it was cool!), nor was my dad a singing waiter with an alcohol problem, but those kind of beside-the-point details don’t really carry too much weight when you’re 14 years old and books are your only tunnel out of your own limited experience. As far as I was concerned, Francie was bookish and sensitive and dreamy, so we were the same. I even went so far as to read the book in any tree I could find --- even though I lived  in the suburbs and was basically missing the metaphor --- for a real meta reading experience. And seriously, how could anyone not empathize with Francie’s devastatingly palpable heartaches and hard-won triumphs?

My family and I would take the Cross Sound Ferry traveling to and from Orient Point on Long Island to Groton, Connecticut whenever we’d visit our family in Boston. We’d drive the car onto the loading ramp, head up to the top deck and try to kill an hour and a half playing PacMan or eating lunch. On board, there were a few variables; during the summer, I’d lay out on the benches on the top deck; one time in November, the sea was coated in such a thick fog that we couldn’t see a foot past the guard rails; another time during a violent storm, I counted six people who vomited on the snack bar.

There was always one constant on our trips: Plum Island. I always looked out for it looming in the distance because it served as a good marker for our voyage’s progress. The curious name piqued my interest, and upon further research, I learned that it was a government-owned, high-level security center for disease testing on animals --- spooky stuff. Did you know that if there were ever a power failure and pathogens escaped, Long Island would be the first place to perish from the Bubonic Plague or Ebola? Imagine my small, 12-year-old self tossing that thought around my head night after night.

My obsession led me to come across PLUM ISLAND, a novel by Nelson Demille, which given my newfound interest in this mysterious island I just had to read. The novel follows detective John Corey, who spends time on the north fork of Long Island recovering from a gunshot wound. However, it isn’t until Corey is asked by the local chief of police to act as a consultant on the murder of two Plum Island employees that rumors begin to swirl: Was their murder related to their activities on Plum Island? Had they been exposed to infectious diseases? Were they working on bioweapon techonology? Had they stolen a vaccine?

I think I finished that book in less than a week: record time for me. The mystery was intense, the scenes were depicted vividly and the characters were extremely believable. Sure, I may not know much more --- hell, I know nothing about it --- but this book helped build my interest in the mysterious Plum Island even more. 

Like almost every other human, I love to talk --- especially about things I love, which is why this blog is ridiculously long. Anyway, I’m Latina, so it’s crazy to think that my favorite book as a teenager --- and probably of all time --- is about two girls in 19th century China. Perhaps what drew me to Lisa See’s SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN was that my BFFL had just finished reading it and apparently loved it. For a girl who never read, she seemed to have devoured the book.

The main character, Lily, is 80 years old when the novel begins and I remember worrying that I was in for boring Chinese history lesson. As a 14-year-old, all I wanted was romance and girl-on-girl crime and gossip. And although SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN didn’t have any of that, it had something better, something much more valuable. The novel had an amazing story. The language was elegant, the plot proceeded tastefully and for the first time I found myself considering the novel’s author and how talented she was. 

After SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN something changed in how I perceived books. I still read my IT GIRL novels, but I now knew the difference between novels like IT GIRL and SNOWFLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN. Lisa See opened my eyes to what I considered deep, substantial literature. It became my gateway to “adult” books and I was lucky to have found it at 14.

Chris: PENDRAGON: The Merchant of Death
What is it about a good fantasy book that makes it so difficult to put down? I remember it like it was yesterday. As a scrawny, 11-year old bookworm with a deep passion for science fiction, I was anxious to pick up a fantasy series that was not Harry Potter. Weaving between the endless rows of tables stacked with young adult books at my first middle-school book fair, I found just what I so desperately sought. Partly hidden behind a mountain of books --- which towered far above my head --- was THE MERCHANT OF DEATH, the first book in D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon series. While I admit I was initially intimidated by its 372 pages, I bought the book because I was mesmerized by its mysterious cover.

Once I started reading, I could not stop. I found myself staying up late as I breathlessly turned the pages of this fast-paced book, anxiously awaiting the next big twist in the plot. I became enthralled by Bobby’s ability to ride “flumes” through space and time. I followed Bobby Pendragon through his adventures in Denduron, where the villain ---Saint Dane --- was provoking war between the elite Beedoowan and the enslaved Milago miners. I couldn’t help but feel Bobby’s fears every time he was faced with a new challenge. When Uncle Press was captured by the Beedoowan and scheduled for execution, I felt just as confused and homesick as Bobby. Once I finished this book, I instantly prepared myself to follow Bobby’s next journey to the territory of Cloral. What I most appreciated about this riveting fantasy adventure was that, in my adolescent mind, it allowed me to become Bobby Pendragon --- the fate of the universe rested in my hands. In the mind of an 11-year old, anything is possible.

DR. FRANKLIN’S ISLAND by Ann Halam was like my Bible in middle school. Every day after lunch, we would have a period of silent reading during which we were allowed to choose a book from the library’s selection. When I couldn’t find any new titles that caught my eye, I would eagerly return to my favorite standby, a science fiction novel about three teenagers who survive a plane crash and find themselves the subjects of a genetic engineering experiment in which they are turned into mutant animals. Think: LOST meets Jurassic Park --- minus dinosaurs, plus humans. For reasons unknown to me now (but which can probably be owed to the fact that I was 12 years old and pretty weird), I could not get enough of the story. It might have been the friendship between the characters, the remote and exotic setting, or the idea of genetic engineering in general, but something kept me coming back to this book over and over again. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s the one I always think of when I recall my favorite books.