I’m a late start reader. I mean, I always read books as a child, but around middle school, I stopped reading because I was tired of white characters acting as the heroines of a tale I’d never be a part of. I’ve never read Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, or any of what many deem the quintessential YA reads. Obviously, those books are seen as very racist/’problematic’ now, but growing up, I always had the feeling that books and stories weren’t meant for me.
In my junior year of high school, this all changed. I had the privilege of reading Toni Morrison’s Sula, and I was in awe. It wasn’t the first time I read a non-white character, but it was one of the first books in a long time that hit me in the gut.
But, I was still stubborn about reading because I was, for years, forced to read “the classics” because academia lives and dies by the canon. I yearned for more characters as flawed and layered as Sula, but I didn’t even know where to start. It wasn’t until the summer of 2017 when my, at the time, eight-year-old niece put a book in my hand that I really began to love books. I only read a handful of books that first year of ‘resurgence,’ which included the gripping novels The Hate U Give by the incomparable Angie Thomas and The Education of Margot Sanchez by the equally stunning Lilliam Rivera. In 2018 and 2019, I discovered more and more books because I grew an appetite for reading and collecting that expanded to middle grade, picture books, and graphic novels. I had finally found characters that reflected me, and it brought so much peace to my heart. The last four years have opened me up to the literary world that I dream to be a part of.
I was always a closeted writer because I thought that writing couldn’t be more than a hobby for me. I didn’t even decide to major in Creative Writing until a discussion with my ENGL 102 teacher who suggested I should. Giving in to books and writing has always been hard for me because I never thought my voice mattered. I still deal with those closest to me belittling my dreams and telling me that books are a waste of time.
In June, I joined the Pine Reads team, and it was genuinely one of the best things to happen to me. Amazing things have come of it, but it was bittersweet. I was finally doing something I loved, and in the first few weeks alone, I secured an interview with my all-time favorite author, Elizabeth Acevedo, and soon after I was getting the opportunity to discuss books unapologetically. But I was struggling with my depression. I was miserable, losing sleep, deep in overdue assignments, crying and anxious every day. I could barely bring myself to shower, and I felt so trapped within myself. There was very little else I looked forward to besides reading books, and I read the most fantastic books this summer that all left such a mark on me. The books I read (A Song Below Water, The Poet X, This Is My America, Clap When You Land, Each of Us a Desert, and Anger is a Gift) all taught me one crucial thing: I must use my voice and I can get through anything. These protagonists inspire me every day because although they’re ‘made up,’ the collective knowledge that Elizabeth Acevedo, Mark Oshiro, Kim Johnson, Bethany C. Morrow and other authors share with the world is powerful.
Every single one of these books broke me and consoled me. One in particular spoke directly to my feelings. It felt like Oshiro was reflecting my experience of feeling “unending loneliness” and “to be empty within.” When I tell you I bawled, I really was tissues deep, can’t catch my breath, calling my boyfriend in tears distraught because I love the characters so much. That book made me feel so seen. It was a very visceral experience, especially because I began reading this book only a few days after I tried to end my life. I have been in a rough place mentally for years and it’s certainly taken its toll, but I can honestly say that books have changed me. They shape who I want to be and have saved my life. They save my life every day. Just recently, I’ve had the honor of interviewing a few authors that touched my life this summer and I will always treasure that.
In this little corner of the internet known as Pine Reads Review, I am able to celebrate the people who inspire me every day alongside people just as passionate as I am. It’s been a pleasure being a part of this team, and I can’t wait to do more in the coming months. I know my time at Pine Reads won’t be forever, so I’m currently working on a site to post my own content that centers on inclusivity and representation. Eventually I’m going to publish books that hopefully achieve even a fraction of what the books I’ve read have done for me.
Thank you to Stephanie Pearmain for giving my peers and me this opportunity and a place to uplift new and established authors and their works!
PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro