Coming of Age and Literature: The Power of Reading as an Adolescent

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Editor's Note:

Kathleen Anne Kenney is an author, freelance writer, and playwright. Her writing has appeared in Big River, Coulee Region Women, and Ireland of the Welcomes, as well as other publications. Here, Kathleen discusses how reading impacted her when she was growing up. Her newest novel, Girl on the Leeside, will be released June 20th.

In the film “You’ve Got Mail” the charming character played by Meg Ryan speaks passionately to the also charming character played by Tom Hanks: “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” This devastatingly true statement was written by the brilliant Nora Ephron.

Speaking for myself, I was drawn to writing from a very early age because I was surrounded by books. The youngest in a large family with reading-addicted parents, the lives I led immersed in stories were as real and valuable to me as the life I led in our bustling, loving home. I was raised in an Irish-American family – we were Catholic – and, luckily, my parents had a catholic taste in literature. Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, John Le Carre, Rumer Godden, Iris Murdoch, W.B. Yeats and Pogo were jumbled together, amidst many others, in the dozen or so bookcases spread around the house.

At no time can I remember my parents ever fighting or giving each other the silent treatment. They adored each other. They also adored being parents. So I was happy; I was really a happy kid. Can a writer emerge from a persona that isn’t going through any more than a token fledgling angst?

My novel is entitled Girl on the Leeside. And while I wasn’t sheltered nearly to the extent that my protagonist is, I was raised ‘on the lee: the side that is sheltered or turned away from the wind.’ If Mom and Dad could have arranged it, our childhoods would have lasted twice as long. I was the youngest by three and a half years, and my parents tried to make exactly that happen with me. I was a sophomore in high school before I was allowed alone in the house in the evenings. I was “Little Guy” – for years my brothers, and sometimes Dad, called me that. I was a senior in high school before I wore my first pair of high heels. I craved books that took me on adventures while I at the same time held onto my innocence within the walls of my bedroom.

I loved our busy home and busy neighborhood, but reading was absolutely what I did whenever I had time to myself. (Bedtime was maddeningly inconvenient, so routinely I read by nightlight, hanging over the space between my mattress and headboard. I wore glasses by the time I was seven). In early childhood my favorite books were Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, the Madeline books, and everything by Virginia Lee Burton, Dr. Seuss, Maj Lindman, and Beatrix Potter. I vaguely remember believing animals could talk.

The Betsy-Tacy series showed me that I could be a writer – if Betsy could, I could! So I started scribbling stories in notebooks. In grade school we had reading and math groups designated by skill level: Rockets, Jets, and Planes. (Really – this was a thing). I was a Rocket in reading! In math I was a Plane (more like a Helicopter, actually). To my school’s credit, much of the advanced reading included stories about other cultures around the world, stories about children living during war, etc. Snow Treasure and The Snow Goose affected me profoundly – when children your own age are in real danger within a story you’ll never forget how you identified with that fear. And how you hope you’d be as brave as they were in the face of it. Who doesn’t read A Wrinkle in Time and make it part of their DNA? The Navajo story Annie and the Old One handled death and family traditions in a such a universal way that I was comforted in the aftermath of my grandfather’s passing.

Once the formidable pre-teen years arrived, boys were ‘meh’ – I had four brothers, after all. I’ll admit Nancy Drew became a favorite, along with books by Edward Eager, Roald Dahl, and Beverly Cleary, and early forays into Christie and Wodehouse. In high school I began to read plays, too: Neil Simon, Jerome Lawrence, Philip Barry, Thornton Wilder, and Shakespeare. That’s when I started writing with real determination. Even as a happy kid, I had my dreams – a jumble of dragons, ancient cities, witty drawing rooms, tropical islands, and time travel. The dreams are still there, still jumbled together. Because I suspect this Little Guy never fully grew up.