Author Guest Post

The Quiet Power of Books

April 6, 2017
Deb Caletti
Author of The Essential Maps for the Lost

Essential Maps for the Lost is about Madison Murray, who takes a swim one morning in a lake and collides with a woman’s dead body in the water. The woman, who leapt from a Seattle bridge, was the mother of Billy Youngwolf Floyd, and as Billy and Mads’ lives begin to intertwine, we discover their similarities. Mads is a suburban girl who struggles with an overbearing mother and with her own depression; Billy is a city kid who struggles with his overbearing grandmother and his grief after his mother’s suicide. Mads wants to kidnap neighbor baby Ivy from her intense parents; Billy steals abused dogs and brings them to the shelter where he works, claiming that they’re lost. But there is one more very important thing they share – a love for a certain, special book, an innocent book from a sweeter time, a book with a map at its center: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

I am always surprised at how infrequently we see books and readers in novels. Only rarely do you see a character reading, or loving a particular book, or going to the library. For those of us who read these books, these are regular and meaningful events in our lives. So, where are the characters that read? I am a reader before I am a writer. My books stack up and multiply seemingly overnight. I get nervous when my supply is low. Books have most literally changed my life. I buy tons of books, yet still make my weekly trip to the library, and I know my own readers share these traits. But, weirdly, I don’t often see this part of myself reflected in the books I devour.

So, I try to sneak readers and reading into my own novels. I sneak libraries and bookstores into them, too. I sneak in the beautiful, life-saving thing of book love. I did it in Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, where the main character, Ruby, is a reader, and the old people who go with her on that road-trip-mission-for-love are the members of a book club. I did it in The Last Forever, too. In it, intriguing bibliophile Henry Lark and two librarians are the heroes of the story. Together, they help Tessa grieve her mother by getting the seeds of a dying plant into the Svalbard Seed Vault in the Arctic.

And I did it again in Essential Maps. Maps is a story about resilience and hope. But it is also about the quiet power of books – how they bring different people together in empathy and shared experience. How they provide understanding and comfort and insight. How they can work that magic in the moment, or over time. A book can still have good and important stuff to give years and years after it comes out. And a book can stay with you, the reader, over your whole life, even. It can permanently change you in small ways or large ones.

Deb’s actual copy

I read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, when I was ten, and from the first page, I was hooked on the story of Claudia and Jaime, two siblings who run away and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Essential Maps, Billy Youngwolf Floyd has a mother who jumped off of a bridge, yet he still laughs his head off when Claudia and Jaime hide from museum guards in the bathroom stalls, and Madison Murray, with her troubled family, still wants to sleep in Marie Antoinette’s bed, same as Claudia does. And I did it, too—I hid in my room reading books as escape. I looked at the map in the center of that book—an essential map—and I imagined myself in those grand hallways.

I still have my copy of Mixed-up Files. Oh, it’s beat-up. It’s bent and crackled and taped together. It is well loved, as any good book should be. I haven’t forgotten it, as you can tell. When I open the cover, I still remember the thrill of discovering the story. It was one of the books that solidified my love of reading.

As Billy in Essential Maps says:

The Book itself – it’s lasted. It’s so awesome, because here it is, talking about a happy family, man, how retro, hot fudge sundaes, a mom and a dad, the time when kids could just get on a train and no one freaked out, a time when you could break into a museum and not get fucking Tasered or something, and here he is, Billy Youngwolf Floyd, with a dad who drowned drunk, and a half brother he met only once, and a mother who jumped off a bridge after being depressed for years, and he chuckles like hell reading how Claudia and Jamie hid in the toilet stalls from the guards. He loves (shut up if you don’t get it) the running away and the need for a larger life… How every piece is a part of a bigger experience, and how you should never forget that. You know when that book came out? 1967! The Vietnam War, people! That long ago! Kids and kids and kids have read it, when there’ve been protests going on and presidents resigning and communist walls crashing down. When the book first came out, there were barely computers! It could blow your mind. They didn’t even have Pac Man yet let alone Night Worlds. They didn’t even have the Internet, which you can barely imagine. Today, though, little children are still reading the damn thing and wishing they could sleep in that fancy museum bed. You gotta love something that stays like that.

 Well, I do. And I’m guessing you do, as well. So, I’m going to keep tucking our reading lives between my pages. Like a secret handshake between us, I hope my readers will see themselves and the magic of their book love in my novels. I hope they’ll say, Yep, I know. Me too.