Friday Thoughts: On the Power of Words

I’m reading a book at the moment (*gasp*), called Letters to the Lost – which, in all honestly, will most likely have a review on here far sooner than this post does (since I write Friday posts weeks in advance) – all about a girl who has lost her mother and a boy who lost his sister years ago and has pretty much lost himself.

The book, to me, is pretty hard hitting. I didn’t think, when starting it, that it would be so bad. After all, I’ve read a lot of books about mental health and self harm and even the terrifying Only Ever Yours, which to this day, creeps me out. And compared to many of them, this book is easy. 

Except this; grief is not an easy thing. Its often pushed away, ignored and underestimated, as shown by the main characters friends, who six months after her mothers death, don’t understand why she still struggles.

And while you know the characters in the book are not real, when you’ve struggled through your own grief and the characters coping mechanism mirror your own… its extraordinarily hard to read. Only a few chapters in, I had to pause and put the book down, because it made me feel like I could barely breath.

And just like the power of grief, the power of words is also often underestimated. Every piece of writing ever read has the power to change us. Look at Harry Potter, for example. A series that shaped an entire generation, and changed the way people look at childrens books forever.

In 1996 – a year before the first Potter book came out – the average childrens book was around 140 pages long. Ten years later, it had increased to 170, and ten years after that (2016) it had gone up to an amazing 290 pages. (information from here)

The theory is that well before Harry Potter, people believed that children would never be able to sit down for that long and just read. So they never bothered publishing long childrens books – since they were apparently less likely to sell. Then along came Harry Potter (whose first few books were relatively  short, but still far longer than the average for the time. The first book was 223 pages- about 75000 words), and suddenly they were seeing that children were sitting down and reading it, and enjoying it! And of course, the series got longer and longer- the height of it being book 5 with a whopping 257,045 words (or 766 pages). And guess what? Children were still reading it. 

Publishers suddenly saw that if the story was good and engaging, then any child would read it, without being too intimidated by the size of it.

Of course, not every long childrens book is good. Its still about quality rather than quantity, but it gave longer stories a way to finally shine.

Staying on Harry Potter for a bit longer (I mean, I am of the Potter generation, can you blame me), there was also research done that showed by reading books such as Harry Potter, it helped you become a ‘better person’ more open minded to things, less judgmental… (here) Because Potter is a story of friendship, love, good VS evil and a whole lot more. Sure, there are the the downright despicable characters (I’ve never seen a fandom like Potter, where you say Umbridge’s name and everyone hates her), but they teach you how not to be, and the lesson learnt is that if you act like Umbridge, you too could be carted off by magical creatures into a giant forest. There are the characters that bring out the arguments. Draco Malfoy, the bully of the story. We all know he was a terrible child, but, as seen in Cursed Child, forgiveness is always important. Snape – who I won’t stay on because I refuse to accept he was ever a good character, because really, a teacher should never ever bully a child. But then there are the characters we all adore. The Weasleys, who show that you should always help others and have your arms wide no matter who you are. Hermione, who for a while was seen as awful, who turned out to be loyal and smart. And Harry – a boy who had lost everything, grew up in an abusive home and still became a wonderful, lovely person.

And talking about characters – did you know that you pick up the traits of characters you identify with? (That explains so much about me, since the Weasley twins and Lila Bard are my bookish siblings…) So next time someone judges you for reading something, find them a book with a really lovely, non judgmental character and it might change their minds! (read stuff about it here)

The thing is… so many people assume that books and words are just that; pieces of dead tree inked with symbols we somehow perceive as letters.

But books well and truly shape us. Think back to your childhood favourites; to this day, I can name many of them, and I still have a whole bookshelf dedicated to most of them. And books more recent; I have another bookcase where I store all my favourites, ones I go back to time and time again, or just the ones I read that caught my heart so much I knew I would never let them go.

Sometimes we read books at the right time; Celaena, from Throne of Glass, came into my life at a time I needed her. I was tired and frightened and lost, and I remember thinking, as I read it, if she can survive then so can I. Books, and their characters and their meanings can make more of a difference to someone than most people will ever imagine.

And then there are the words that maybe the world do not see. Your own words. People say that every person has a book inside them. I disagree. I think people have their own universes inside them, ever expanding and creating and dreaming, and with every book read or written, that universe grows more and more.

But we are taught to push those worlds away. Our childhoods and teenage years are all about education. It’s reading for the sake of dissecting, rather than reading for the sake of enjoyment. Its writing for essays rather than writing for joy.

At school, many of my books would have real school work in the front, then plots and mini stories in the back. I remember having countless arguments with my English teachers, because according to them, I didn’t write correctly. Even at 14, I knew for a fact there wasn’t a correct way. Writing is personal, even fiction, and every one of us has our own style. School batters that out of you. They tell you that even creative writing has it’s own form. That your characters must be identical and your writing all the same, and they grade you on how near to their own you can write. How- how can you grade something like imagination and voice?!

My English teacher from year 10 actually told me never to bother being a writer because I couldnt write. I mean, I dont know if I can, but you can look for yourself if you want. But because I refused to conform to what school taught as ‘creative’ (eg, fitting into the box and not being creative) I was punished and put down.

Her words could have had power over me. If I wasn’t stubborn, I might have believed her and stopped writing. But while education tried to box my universe down to size, I wouldn’t let them, and I let it flourish.

It’s why you should always be careful with those words you wield; often, they have more power and punch than, well, a real punch does, because words – spoken or written – can burrow under the skin and stay there and shape people long long after they were said or the book was closed.

In Letters to the Lost, the main character writes letters to her mother even after she had died. By chance, someone else read a letter and was effected by the words. They resonated in them and he understood the pain the girl felt, even without knowing her.

Sometimes, that is why we write. Even a published author can write for themselves, not knowing who would read their words and who would understand them. Sometimes we don’t write to be heard or seen; we write because our own words can change us too. Everything we read, everything we write, it shapes all of us more than we will never know.

Letters to the Lost, Brigid Kemmerer

 

Juliet Young has always written letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother’s death, she leaves letters at her grave. It’s the only way Juliet can cope.
Declan Murphy isn’t the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he’s trying to escape the demons of his past.
When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can’t resist writing back. Soon, he’s opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither of them knows that they’re not actually strangers. When real life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart. This emotional, compulsively-readable romance will sweep everyone off their feet.

Taken at face value, this book might look like your average YA high school book. You know the ones; friends to enemies, Bad Boy with a Rep meets Gentle Loving Girl. With just a bit more angst than maybe normal. (I say maybe. High School/College Romance style YA/NA books seem to compete with each other for most amount of angst possible in one page)

But take that face value and… I dont know. Throw it out the window, or something just as fun. Because this book is more than that – and hell, while most people would count it as a romance (since the main characters are a boy and a girl talking to each other. That all it seems to take nowadays) I don’t.

This is a book about two people, who have both lost someone in their family, and that one thing has shaped each of them every day of their lives. Its a book about anger and friendship and love- not just romantic love – and mainly, grief.

Grief being the main thing the whole plot centres around.

I know grief. It and I have shaken hands on more than one occasion, and sometimes it likes to pop up again, just to remind me that now we are acquaintance, it will never truly leave. And reading this book – it was hard, at times. Because I understood how both characters felt. Their helplessness and anger and denial – not necessarily that the person is dead, but that you’ve lost them.

There was a part about a quarter through the book when Juliet’s dad pulls out all her mums stuff and starts talking about selling them, and Juliet screams at him and just starts crying. That bit, strangely, was one of the hardest parts for me to read, because it still happens.

People don’t understand grief. Not even those that have been through it. Because everyone copes (or doesnt cope) differently, and I think this book was amazing and putting that across. Not even six months after her mother dies and all her teachers and friends don’t understand why Juliet isn’t back to ‘normal’. They keep making comments about it, trying to stop her from going to the cemetery or hoarding her mothers things. Because people don’t get over things like that so quickly.  And this book – the grienf doesn’t just disappear to make way for a romance and oh mt god the fact that is so rare is wrong. It was wonderful to read and see how both characters struggled with emotions, both positive and negative, and watching their journey through the chapters to see how each changed the other.

The only thing I didn’t like was the formatting – in most double narratives, the chapters start by being headed by the character name. In this one, that doesnt happen, so the first few chapters can be hard to navigate through, especially as each chapter starts with a letter from the opposite character. But you do get used to it after a while so its not that bad.

five stars