April 26, 2011

Bridge to Terabithia & Other Treasures.

Over the weekend I re-read Bridge to Terabithia, which was one of my favorite books as a kid because it made me feel less alone. I was a terrible dork in elementary school, but when I rolled around in the pages of books like this one I could escape the cold, hard facts: I was unhappy and chubby and not included on the invite lists to the cool kids' pool parties. Mostly, I was suffering from my parents' divorce. But books like Bridge to Terabithia made a real difference, fitting into a place in my heart where something badly needed to be fit.

The book is about a lonely, bummed-out fifth-grader named Jess Aarons whose life is upended when smarty pants city girl Leslie Burke moves to his rural town and teaches him how to escape his grim family life with his imagination. It's every bit as powerful and beautiful and tragic a book as I'd remembered.

Inside the front cover of my copy, I found an inscription written out by author Katherine Paterson.

It says:

For Ellen Mallernee with best wishes for your writing. - Katherine Paterson, 4/21/93

I was 10 years old in April of '93. I don't remember the circumstances of meeting Katherine Paterson. I wonder if my mom nudged me forward to the table where she was dashing off signatures. I wonder how I told her. Was it, Excuse me, Mrs. Paterson? My name is Ellen Mallernee. One of these days I want to be a writer just like you.

I have always, always known what I wanted to be when I grew up. There was never any grappling with what to major in during college or what to do with my free time.

In high school I made sure to be editor-in-chief of the school paper, writing articles objecting to whomever was hocking loogies in the water fountains; in college I acted as entertainment editor for UT's Daily Beacon, writing flowery concert reviews that make me blush now. I was also editor-in-chief of the university's literary magazine, The Phoenix, for which I had the undeserved honor of selecting the poems and short stories that would make the cut. I majored in creative writing and was mentored by my insanely gorgeous, insanely married writing professor (but, woefully, never got the chance to engage him in an extramarital affair). Right out of college I started working for the alternative weekly that I'd interned with the year prior. Then came more writing jobs, until finally I've realized another writing-related dream, one that I used to speak of casually. One of these days I want to be a freelance writer. 

I sometimes get annoyed with myself for being so indecisive, but there are three things I've felt very sure about in life -- being a writer, being with Nekos, and being a mom -- and I'm grateful to have felt so steady on my feet as I started down each of these paths. Thank God I was given the tools to funnel my dorkiness and sadness into something that's brought me great satisfaction in my life. I owe that to my English teacher mom who supplied me with piles of terrific books but I also owe it to the books themselves and to the tenacious little girl who devoured them.

Revisiting Bridge to Terabithia has made me want to re-read more of my pre-teen favorites. Here are a few that I can think of offhand.

Which were your favorite books growing up?


  1. I've never read Bridge to Terabithia, but I've always heard great things about it. I got Middlesex after your last review and I am loving it!

  2. You read books that won awards, whereas I was reading Sweet Valley High. Key to why I can't find an agent for my novel? Perhaps.

    I also loved To Kill a Mockingbird.

  3. Bridge to Terabithia was one of my favourites as well! Loved it. Also, I loved The Giver, and anything by Roald Dahl.

  4. Bridge and My Side of the Mountain were some of my favorites!! Have you ever read The Giver by Lois Lowry? Or what about The Cay by Theodore Taylor?

    You have totally inspired me to revisit my fave preteen/teen books, too. Oh I was such a dork, and was on The Battle of the Books (sort of like a quiz bowl for books), and also the Editor of my HS newspaper.

    Anyways, I totally relate. Thanks for the post! Loved remembering.

  5. Those are all some of my favorite childhood books!

    But this post really inspired me. As I get ready to graduate and go on to college, I've been struggling to choose a major. It's never actually been a tough decision- I've been a writer for as long as I can remember. That's really all I've ever wanted to be.

    But my parents are wary of my desire, because they're afraid I won't be able to feed myself.

    This post inspired me because it's about being the things I've only ever wanted to be- wife, mother, writer- and that it actually worked out for you.

    There is hope for me!

    Thank you.

  6. i was never and am still not much of a reader. i'm happy that unlike me, Lily seems to really enjoy books.
    i always went to the arts, coloring at all times.
    you are very fortunate to know at a very young age what you wanted to do when you got older.
    i never knew. now that i'm a mom, i know what i was supposed to be.

  7. The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver. Most of my favorite books today are still from the 6th grade. I've always been a writer, too, and I can recall moments of encouragement from teachers way back when, that helped me to become me. So special! <3

  8. Thanks for all the great comments! This was a wildcard post so I'm glad you guys read it.

    I've never read The Giver and several of you are saying it was/is your favorite. So I'm going to check it out for sure!

    Thanks for all the other suggestions too.

  9. What a nice post, Ellen. I have always loved books and reading too and your description of yourself as a young person sounds very familiar. I thing the 'dorks' always turn out to be the 'cool people' later in life when it counts, anyway (just wait til you go to your 20 year h.s. reunion!)

    I loved The Secret Garden and anything by Judy Bloom. How funny. And I just got June a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit for Easter - another favorite as a child. I tried reading it to her today and she got really bored, but someday soon!

  10. Ellen, I love reading your blog! This post, in particular, takes me back to when we sat next to each other in Geometry class and you would write (AND illustrate) stories about my future :) I'm go happy you have stayed true to yourself and are exercising you literary muscle for all of us to enjoy! Love!!

  11. @Erica, awwwwww. Thank you - I love your blog too! And I love that you remember that.