If you can just look up

A letter to my younger, book-obsessed self

April Wang

To me of six years ago, trudging your way through fourth grade:

Hi. Hello.

Perhaps this letter is a little unnecessary considering you’ll figure this out anyhow. But maybe someday people will develop time machines and I’ll be able to deliver this note to you, assuming the technology isn’t stolen and used to cause an apocalypse in which all dogs have evolved into evil overlords like they do in your books.

Oh right. Your books. That’s what I wanted to talk about. 

In a way, my obsession with books obscured my view of the world. Graphic by April Wang

The first book you check out from the library is a huge picture book, with crinkling plastic peeling off the cheap cover. There is a musty, stuffed-in-a-box-too-long smell to it that intensifies whenever you flip open the pages — yet you think the book is amazing. You spend all day poring over it, fascinated by the jousting match between the knights. But not for a maiden, no; these knights are playing for honor and glory and BLOODSHED and —

My tastes have not changed. Clearly. But back to you. That was the beginning of your book obsession. 

You love books. And when I say love, I mean LOVE with five exclamation points behind it. You cause your teachers quite a bit of trouble, constantly trying to hide books under your desk. They say something along the lines of “April, pay attention please!” and you say, “OK!” because you want to look like a good student, and then go straight back to reading. 

Books are kind of your only friends. Because, like the pretentious little s—t you are, you surmise that books are the only thing worth your attention in life. From your books, you gather that kids have an abnormal capacity for evil. How can you not with all those stories about bullying and harassment and, god forbid, vengeful murder? Those kids, their emotions drip off them like slime in a swamp, muddling and sinister. Touch it and you’ll die. Who knows what disgusting creatures are hiding under those innocent smiles? What if they drag you down? What if they become friends with you but turn on you and ruin your life using their popularity and influence? What if they kill you?

Such is the overactive imagination of a kid who spends too much time reading about murder, political drama and war. 

Books are easier to deal with. They don’t ask for anything. They don’t even talk. You spend your time poring over the worldbuilding of fantasy and sci-fi books, or the exploration of themes in realistic or historical books. It doesn’t take much for the words to leap off the page and surround you in a little bubble of wonder and heartbreak and delight.

But it gets lonely in that bubble. Believe me, I know. Eventually, sitting alone on a bench gets kind of old. It gets kind of cold. You spend a little more time than you’re willing to admit listening to the screams of kids on the playground echoing in the distance. You talk to these three other girls in your class every now and then because class gets boring and they’re at the same table as you. But otherwise, you keep your eyes trained down on your books, plugging your ears and letting a crick grow in your neck as you consume the pages. 

I wish you’d look up sometimes. I wish you’d see that kids may be dumb, but kids are kids. What you imagine as paper-thin smiles are just that. Smiles. Their passion may run deep, but their intentions are as shallow as a papercut.

The joy you get from tracing out words pales in comparison to the dizzy high of laughing with someone else. If you had just looked, just maybe given them the tiniest chance, I would’ve been saved from those years of letting my lips rust closed. I wouldn’t have gone through the pain of trying to wrench them open again. 

There are things I wish you (I) had done differently. But you learn eventually. You know those three girls in your class? They live on the same street as you. One of them talks too much and calls you up to get boba and makes you laugh like a madman when she yells random things in the middle of the street. One of them argues constantly and will join you in mental breakdowns over academic stress and will be there to grill you for those last-minute study sessions while you’re fast-walking to school. One of them says very little but will agree to be your DUO partner in Speech Club to struggle through three years of embarrassment together instead of alone and deliver you lava cakes fresh out of the oven to satisfy your need for food. 

They’re great. I love them.

Picture this. One day you’re walking home with your head buried in a book, and you slam face-first into a telephone pole and go tumbling to the ground. You sit up, waiting for the world to stop spinning, and see your friends around you. They are laughing their heads off because they’ve been telling you for years to “stop reading while walking, there’s no sidewalk and you’re going to get hurt, you idiot!” They reach out a hand to help you even though they’re still kind of laughing at your misery (how rude, really).

And it probably isn’t the moment you realize, but it is a moment that you finally stop looking down at your books, and instead, look up to see all the people around you.

Looking forward to that day,

April Wang