When Life Was Difficult, Reading & Writing Provided Comfort

I love reading book dedications.

Some people flip past them, but I always linger on that first page, even before I’ve cracked open the story and I try to imagine this person whom the author felt was so important that they dedicated an entire book to them.

The dedication of my newest book reads: “For Lauren.” Before the story of Emily Murphy and her sister, there was the story of me and my sister, Lauren.

Lauren was two years younger than me. She was outdoorsy. She’d spend weeks during the summer at Girl Scout camp, hiking through the woods and sleeping in tents. She was sporty. She loved to play soccer and was good at it — first outdoor, then indoor. She told the funniest stories and loved animals and was so talented at photography.

And when Lauren was a sophomore in high school, she developed an eating disorder.

What I knew about eating disorders up until that point came from the Full House episode where DJ begins to restrict her food and over-exercise. Her problems were solved in a half hour episode. That wasn’t anything like what was happening in my real life.

Lauren formed rules for herself and for us. She would only eat certain foods. If our family ordered pizza, we’d have to eat it away from her because she said the fumes would make her fat. One time, her best friend called when she was on the treadmill. I brought the phone to her and she screamed at me because I had interrupted her; she hadn’t gotten all of her workout minutes in.

My whole family was worried and sad. My once vibrant, happy sister had transformed into someone I didn’t recognize. It was painful to see her like this.

My sister had to give up indoor soccer. She went to therapy. She saw a nutritionist.

She struggled with her eating disorder for years. Sometimes it seemed to get better — she graduated college and worked at some of the National Parks. She’d be goofy, adventurous Lauren. Other times, it seemed to get worse. She had to enter inpatient treatment.

Five years ago, my sister died. In part, this was because of complications due to her eating disorder.

It’s a hard thing for me to talk about. Growing up, I didn’t know if many of my friends knew about my sister’s struggle and how difficult it was for our family. I often felt like we were the only ones this was happening to.

Even though I don’t often talk about hard things, I do write about them. As a middle-school teacher and author, I believe that books can provide safe spaces for kids to feel and to discover. They allow us to share in experiences. As a reader, I know this is true. I have found comfort in books. In reading about other people going through similar struggles, I have felt less alone.

Things That Surprise You isn’t an autobiography. It’s not my story or my sister’s story, but it does come from a very personal place. It’s the book I needed growing up. I hope that young readers who open it, read the dedication, and then the story, decide it’s a book they need, too.

I hope it helps them feel less alone.

Jennifer Maschari likes to write books about kids who are brave. She lives in Ohio with her husband and her stinky (but noble) English bulldogs, Oliver and Hank. She is also the author of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price. Learn more about Jennifer at www.jenmaschari.com.

Home to many classics of children’s literature like Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, Charlotte’s Web, Little House, and Ramona.

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