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The Book That Changed My Life: Write What’s Missing

The Book That Changed My LifeIt started in seventh grade, the day my best friend brought a beat-up paperback to school and asked me to hold it for her. Garla’s mom was very religious, so at times I found myself keeping stuff for her at my house, things her mother wouldn’t approve of, like her DeBarge and Prince records. That day it was her copy of The Outsiders.

It was the 1982 Dell paperback edition with C. Thomas Howell on the cover. Since I was its temporary keeper, I read it, too. It launched our obsession with S. E. Hinton’s books. We read them all: Tex; Rumble Fish; That Was Then, This Is Now. They were stories about kids outside the mainstream, balancing between the desire to belong and the desire to be accepted for who they truly were. Kids who were tough on the outside but tenderhearted, with heads full of dreams no one else in their lives dreamed for them. Kids who were contradictions.

I loved them all, but it was The Outsiders that left a lasting impression. I read Gone with the Wind because Ponyboy and Johnny did. To this day, I have Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” burned in my memory — go ahead, ask me to recite it. The Outsiders was the book that captured the feeling of escape you get from reading, especially when you feel like you don’t quite belong in your own world. And it was the first book in which I remember being able to catch a glimpse of myself.

Growing up in the eighties, I never saw people who looked like me, my family, or my friends in books. The authors I knew weren’t writing about what it was like to be a child of immigrants, a Hispanic (before the terms Latina or Latinx). They weren’t writing about what it was like to have your roots split between countries, often holding on to a life and memories that weren’t yours. Floating between worlds, speaking Spanish with your parents at home and English with everyone else.

Like Ponyboy, who lived in a world where looking and acting tough were crucial to his survival but who really just wanted to read and write and watch movies, I felt like a contradiction, too. I was a brown girl with nerdy interests. I liked to watch professional wrestling. I wrote role-play letters with my best friends based on John Jakes’s Civil War drama North and South. I spent PE class alone, as far away as I could get from the threat of a ball to the face, reading. But in all the books I read, not one was about a brown girl who felt like she never quite fit in. We were so absent from the pages of my books that I never even imagined our stories could live there.

The Outsiders ends with Ponyboy thinking about a paper he has to write for his English class. His teacher tells him he can write about something that is important to him. He thinks about his friends and their experiences, everything wrong and everything good in their lives. “Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then…It was important to me.” So he decides to write about his own world, not as the Socs see it and not as the newspapers portray it. He writes about his world so that others know it as he experiences it.

I didn’t know what it was like to be a poor white boy from Oklahoma, but I knew what it was like to feel Outside, Other, to not see myself or my world in media or, when I did see it, to see it distorted through someone else’s eyes. The Outsiders was an early mirror, as well as an inspiration to — as Ponyboy did — write what was missing.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.

Celia C. Pérez About Celia C. Pérez

Celia C. Pérez is a reference and instruction librarian at Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL. She is a former co-chair of REFORMA's Children and Young Adult Services Committee and served on the 2014 Pura Belpré Award committee. Her middle-grade novel, The First Rule of Punk (Viking), was a Pura Belpré Author Honor book winner.

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