“The setting of our urgent lives is an intricate maze whose blind corridors we learn one by one—village street, ocean vessel, forested slope—without remembering how or where they connect in space.” – Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
“To me, it’s so weird to have a gate around a neighborhood. Seriously, are they trying to keep people out or keep people in? If somebody puts a gate around Garden Heights, it’ll be a little bit of both.” – Starr, in The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
What is childhood but a map of what’s considered normal? Children are born knowing and internalizing their surroundings, starting with (hopefully) a parent’s arms, moving on to rooms in their homes and then expanding to the streets outdoors. It’s how it goes: Healthy children start exploring, wondering – and then crawling, toddling, zipping away, using the maps (both literal and emotional) that are at their feet.
The house I lived in until I was 12 was in a neighborhood with twisty roads and lots of hills. Or at least I think so; I haven’t truly seen it in over 25 years except for maybe two quick drive-throughs. I imagine if I were to go back now, it would feel easy to navigate, but even at age 12, it felt very labyrinth-like. One day when I was about 5, I went “jogging” with my mom. I decided I had had enough – because 5-year-olds and jogging with adults don’t usually go hand-in-hand – so she agreed that at SE 18th Street, we could part ways because that would be just one turn and about 10 houses away. And it was 1981, so of course. (Side note: SE 18th Street is also a steep-ish hill that my brother and I later decided to ride down while sitting on his skateboard. All was well until a surprised driver at the bottom of the hill nearly hit us and then trailed us home to yell at us in our driveway. AH, MEMORIES!)
When I got to the bottom of that aforementioned hill, however, I turned right instead of left. I was 100% convinced that I was going the correct way, even after I reached the elementary school that I walked to every weekday. Common sense would have told me to turn around and double back past 18th Street, but I just couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Instead, a neighbor who saw me wandering took me in to call my parents. (Again, 1981. I did not know these neighbors at all. If I were a 5-year-old today, I would most certainly be microchipped and then flown home by a drone via an app on my mom’s phone.)
That was one experience of wandering the topography of my home, making a mistake, but undoubtedly going right back out later with my bike to meet a friend. I knew those streets – well, obviously in a limited sort of way. (TURN LEFT, Amy!) At least I felt like they were mine.
Last month I read An American Childhood by Annie Dillard and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas concurrently. I didn’t really mean to, but I had to return the Dillard one to the library quickly; both books are easy enough to dip in and out of. If you’re not aware (or have forgotten), An American Childhood is Dillard’s 1987 memoir of growing up and “shedding” childhood in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The Hate U Give, if you’ve been living under a rock, is the book-turned-movie that puts the very real emotion and politics of police shootings of black men into a fictionalized format. The praise for this book (and movie) is overwhelming.
On the surface, the two books could not be more different – for starters, one is memoir and one is fiction. (That being said, Hate is far, far from fantasy and mirrors current events in the US.) Dillard is white; Starr (Thomas’ protagonist) is black. An American Childhood is gentle and poetic, and I really wish I could have underlined much of it. (One drawback of a library book.) The Hate U Give is straightforward, dialogue-rich, and Thomas’ intentions never confuse. I’m not comparing them for the sake of demonstrating that one is “better” than the other or that one is “realer” than the other. Instead, I was so struck by the way a setting, a home, a map can make a child feel and the confidence it can provide as a child, naturally, sets his or her sights on places further afield.
Dillard grew up in what many might call a refined, community-oriented, and safe area. She writes, “Walking was my project before reading. The text I read was the town; the book I made up was a map…What joy, what relief, eased me as I pushed open the heavy front door!—joy and relief because, from the very trackless waste, I had located home, family, and the dinner table once again.” Well, isn’t that pleasant – my hope is that my children may share those feelings.
Starr also grows up in an extremely community-oriented area; nonetheless it is not always safe: It’s gang territory. According to Starr, “I can call Garden Heights the ghetto all I want. Nobody else can…Rose Park occupies a whole block, and a tall chain-link fence surrounds it. I’m not sure what it’s protecting—the graffiti on the basketball court, the rusting playground equipment, the benches that way too many babies have been made on, or the liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and trash that litter the grass.” Well, some of that is not so pleasant. But pay attention to Starr’s initial words: This is her home.
So what’s the same? These two books are about two young women’s homes and how they’ve chosen to navigate life beyond a tiny, prescribed area. Whether upper-middle-class baby boomer, or young girl navigating life in a place where opportunities feel limited, a recognition is going to ping some readers right in the face and heart. We can only properly read maps when we are sure-footed in the ones that launch us.
In her Newbery acceptance speech for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L Konigsburg talked about why she felt so compelled to write stories. She needed stories to reflect her world. “Where were the stories about growing up in a small mill town where there was no one named Jones in your class? Where were the stories that made having a class full of Radasevitches and Gabellas and Zaharious normal?…Where are all the parents who are experts on schools? They are all around me in the suburbs of New Jersey and New York, in Pennsylvania and Florida, too. Where are they in books? Some of them are in my books.”
What makes these two books so moving and so important – and in minor ways, so similar – is the idea that different people can see their lives and realities reflected. Perhaps sometimes a book is a map that we need. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have a hard time finding my “book maps” as a young girl. The 1980s were the golden era – literarily speaking – for white, suburban girls. Beverly Cleary books were already classics, Judy Blume and Lois Lowry were pushing the boundaries, content-wise. The Babysitters Club (yessssss!!!!) and Sweet Valley Twins (I was not allowed to read the more mature Sweet Valley High) provided easily recognizable fluff. (Although they did both address “issues” in their own simplistic way. Never forget: Stacey has diabetes.)
I suspect that what has partly compelled Thomas to write is her desire for a different type of literary map. On NPR in 2017, Thomas shared, “I absolutely have experience with [straddling two worlds, like Starr.] I went to a mostly white upper-class private college here in Jackson, but I was from a neighborhood that is known for all of the wrong reasons and, for lack of better words, we will call it the hood. So I knew I had to fight against the stereotype of being a ghetto girl, and I had to fight even harder to show that I was intelligent and that I was capable of being there, just like my counterparts.” That might have been Dillard’s impetus as well, for like her father (who once traveled down the Mississippi on a jazz boat), she feels constrained in her “safe” life. So here they are with “book maps” for baby boomers – and for black girls who witness men in their community getting shot. (That’s a painful clause to write.) What a gift that these two authors have given for those who need assurance that someone else knows the rhythms and nuances of their lives.
But what about when your streets truly don’t have any names – when your road map is a long caravan and then maybe a flooded sports complex? Or perhaps it’s completely disappeared and covered in rubble or ash? Book maps are important for those kids too – particularly when it may be the closest they can get to a road, an avenue, or a boulevard…anything that provides a path, even one they can tuck away in their mind for later.
“When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.” – Annie Dillard