“When I read Ellen Foster I thought, ‘Now I understand why people really love books.’”
“I wasn’t a reader as a kid,” explains North Carolina author, editor, and hair stylist Frankie Bolt. As a non-reader, Bolt wasn’t expecting her mom to give her a copy of Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons on Christmas day of 1987. “This is an irreverent, delightful book. It reminded me of you,” Bolt’s mother wrote inside the book’s cover. “I hope you enjoy it. Love, Mom.” Since first opening the book almost 30 years ago, Bolt makes sure to reread it every three to four years. “In rereading it, every time I find something new,” she says. And while revisiting the book is an enriching experience, her initial read through was perhaps the most profound.
“This is an irreverent, delightful book. It reminded me of you.”
“I was probably 14 or 15 when she gave this to me. For her to give me a book was out of the ordinary,” Bolt says of the unexpected Christmas present. Though Bolt did not yet consider herself a reader, that would change after finishing the book. Gibbons’ tale of family dysfunction, friendship, and race, all told through the eyes of a determined, young female protagonist named Ellen Foster awoke her inner book lover. “When I read Ellen Foster I thought, ‘Now I understand why people really love books.’”
“It was the first book that I remember reading and thinking, ‘That’s something that I want to do.’”
Beyond unlocking an admiration for books, Ellen Foster sparked Bolt’s desire to become a writer. “It was the first book that I remember reading and thinking, ‘That’s something that I want to do,’” she tells me. While many aspects of Gibbons’ masterwork resonated with Bolt right away, the language “unlocked the magic of words” for her. “The language in it is so beautifully constructed without obstructing the story,” she says. “And I think because it’s narrated in the first person, I really identify with the Ellen revealing herself. For me, it was the first time I felt so deeply connected to a character even though we come from very different worlds.”
“The language in it is so beautifully constructed without obstructing the story.”
Bolt isn’t the only person who was moved by the book. In addition to winning several book awards, Oprah selected Ellen Foster for her book club in October 1997 and CBS aired an award-winning, made-for-television version of it in December of the same year. And although the book now approaches it’s 30th birthday, it seems more relevant than ever. From a targeted rampage shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina last summer, to several high-profile, police-related deaths of African-American men and woman in recent years, racial tensions in America are the highest they have been in some time. For this reason, Bolt sees protagonist Ellen Foster’s inner fight between her ingrained prejudice and racism and her appreciation of her African-American friend Starletta of particular importance. “There is so much current relevance with how the book covers race issues and the work that you have to do within yourself to address differences with anyone,” she says.
“In rereading it, every time I find something new.”
This idea of doing work within yourself is one Bolt would like to see taught in schools. “I would love to see diversity in books offered or more ability to choose,” she says. “The canon has been determined by a white male population. They are classics for a reason, that’s true. But they are also classics because of who made them classics or the ability for those voices to be heard at the time that they were writing.” Bolt believes that books like Ellen Foster could be a necessary breath of fresh air for modern high school students. “Not to discount the talent or great literary contribution of any classic writer,” she says, “but to me, this book should be taught in every school in the south.”
“To me, this book should be taught in every school in the south.”
Since reading Ellen Foster for the first time, Bolt has read countless books, including the 200 she read and annotated for her recently completed MFA program. When asked if she owns any other physical books that have the same level of meaning to her, Bolt replies, “This is it. This is the one.” And, despite her mother’s role in this story, Bolt admits that her mother may not know the full significance of the book’s influence. “Isn’t that a crying shame?” she asks as we finish our conversation. “I should tell her. I feel like that conversation will come the day that I have my own book. I can say to her, ‘If you wondered how much you made you made me, this is how much.’”