New Worlds Through Books: Holly Smale
It’s World Book Day TODAY, hooray!
In the run up, we’ve been celebrating the power of books to change lives, asking authors and readers to tell us about a book which opened a door to a new world for them when they were young.
Sometimes a book turns up at exactly the right moment. At a point in your life when you need it . . .
. . . just one story – or one character – can perform magic: sending you on a different path and altering how you look at yourself or the world around you. It can give you exactly what you were looking for before you even knew you were looking.
A book can give you hope.
For me, that book was Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Other books have had a huge impact on my life, but none have been as perfectly timed. At the point where I picked up this out-of-fashion, deeply uncool and dusty Victorian novel in the school library, I was eleven years old: exactly the age of Anne at the start of the series. Just like Anne, I was also pale and freckly, awkward and gangly. I was overly verbose – with a tendency to use large words that didn’t always mean what I thought they meant – and an extremely overactive imagination that I encouraged and demonstrated as often as possible. I was passionate and earnest, optimistic and innocent: I, too, had put flowers in my hair and pretended to be The Lady of Shalott more than once.
I was also extremely unhappy. I’d been at my new secondary school nearly a year by that point, and it had been a deeply painful and lonely experience. On the first day I’d been singled out as ‘wrong’ – wrong face, wrong words, wrong general aura – and the bullying had started. By the time my first year was nearly over, I was a completely different girl to the pre-teen who had started school with so much enthusiasm and excitement. Within three terms I’d become shy, self-loathing, anxious: constantly on edge and desperate to disappear. The sunny confidence I naturally carried with me had evaporated. I had no friends. My days were spent alone, wondering what was wrong with me and how I could possibly fix it.
Then along came Anne Shirley, with her red-hair, freckles and uncrushable spirit. She, too, was lonely. She, too, was unwanted and unpopular. She, too, desperately wanted to find somewhere she belonged. But she fought, she remained herself, she rose above it and she ultimately triumphed.
And I loved her. I loved her in a way that I have never loved any fictional character before or since, with all the ferocity and loyalty of a lonely eleven year old. I saw myself in her, understood her pain, felt her hopes. When Anne is rejected by Marilla for not being “pretty” enough, I cried. When she sank to her knees in front of Rachel Lynde to give a melodramatic apology, I laughed because I did that too. When she made friends with Diana I was both jealous and ecstatic, and when she smashed Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate I cheered and looked around for a boy to treat likewise.
Every step of Anne’s journey – from lonely orphan to unpopular girl at school to beloved friend to paramour to champion – I took with her.
She became more than my friend: she was me, except just a few metres ahead. Showing me I could do it. Proving that I wasn’t weird, there was nothing wrong with me, that that things would be okay. That I was already enough.
So I carried Anne everywhere with me, tucked in my school bag. For those few years, she was my constant companion.
Knowing she was there made me feel stronger, more capable, prouder and more dignified. Her triumphs became my triumphs, and I tried my hardest to be brave and follow her lead. And when the sadness became overwhelming, I buried myself in her story and Anne was always there: giving me comfort, hope and ensuring that I was never alone.
Eventually, I left those painful years behind me. I, too, triumphed. And then – when I tried to write my first adult novel – those teenage years were what I kept coming back to, over and over again. I slowly realised that no book I had read as an adult had touched me in the way Anne had.
And I wanted to give teenagers another friend: someone they could turn to when they had nobody else, who would make them smile, who would let them know they were enough. Who they could carry with them if they needed her too.
So I created Harriet Manners: much like both me and Anne in character. I gave her red hair and freckles, as a little nod of gratitude to the girl who had changed my life. And – with the series Geek Girl – I tried to create a little bit of my own magic to pass on.
Much like people, books come in and out of our lives: sometimes providing entertainment, sometimes escape, sometimes lessons or guidance. But every now and then, the right book finds the right person at the right time.
And when it does? It’s a love that lasts forever.
World Book Day is an annual celebration of authors. illustrators, books and reading. Every year on World Book Day, thousands of school children dress up as their favourite children’s book characters to raise money for Book Aid International, so we can send more brand new books to libraries and schools in Africa and beyond. Last year they raised over £140,000 – enough to send 70,000 books to communities where children would otherwise have extremely limited opportunities to read! Learn more about World Book Day here.
Fundraise for Book Aid International this World Book Day and celebrate the power of books to open doors to new worlds!