Way out at the end of a tiny little town was an old overgrown garden, and in the garden was an old house, and in the house lived Pippi Longstocking. She was nine years old, and she lived there all alone. She had no mother and no father….“Don’t you worry about me,” [Pippi said], “I’ll always come out on top.”
— Lindgren, 1950

Long before I knew them as literature, the books of my childhood communicated to me one deep message: people survive. If I close my eyes, I can still see the interior of the small library at my elementary school where I was drawn to the orange-and-yellow dustjacket of Pippi Longstocking. And how strange to realize that the ink-and-paper perfume of the Hutchinson County Library is grafted to some primal part of my brain, bound to the memory of discovering Charlotte’s Web. Decades later, I still remember the tactile comfort of running my fingers over the thready binding of the book containing “Hansel and Gretel.”

Within these pages, I found a way to name the chaos in the near-constant churn of my home. The orphan, the hero, the trickster, the monster, the quest, the journey through light and into darkness — these archetypes and patterns ordered the narratives that helped me make sense of the world. My friends loved the one-dimensional, too-sweet heroines of the movies, like Disney’s Cinderella or Snow White, but I turned away from them, back into books. There, the stories worked like a spell, promising me that words matter, and that imagination can take you away from painful reality.

These stories drew me in because I had that “shock of recognition” Melville describes, when you see your experience reflected to you in another’s words. Although my mother hadn’t died or abandoned me in the middle of a forest, my parents’ ambivalence, their seeming detachment from the responsibilities of raising four children, felt cut from the same narrative cloth as the attitude of parents in the books I treasured.

Cover Art: Louis S. Glanzman

If my life were a series, like my copies of Pippi’s adventures, Book Two would begin right around the time my parents got divorced. Readers would be familiar by now with their operatic screaming matches, with scenes of me finding my father passed out in the front yard, and with my mother’s refusal to get out of bed, signaling her deeper slide into depression. (There’s so much that’s dismal in Book One that honestly, it’s best to just skim it.)

Book Two opens at the Family Medicine Clinic where Dr. Ingham, drawing on his pipe like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, is asking fourth-grade me why I wanted to see him.

“Because I feel like I’m going to die. I feel my heart a lot to see if it’s still beating. And I worry that my parents will die, or my sisters and brother, or my Meemaw will die. Or that the world will end because God is mad.”

I can still remember the smell of that pipe, all these years later. The soothing applejack tobacco that ringed a halo above his balding head. His voice, deep and sonorous as a Sunday preacher, answered, “Oh Shanna, I don’t think you’ll die for a long time and I’m pretty sure none of your family will die for a long time either. I’m your doctor and you’re pretty healthy, so I’m not worried.”

I remember exhaling loudly, truly and utterly relieved to hear this news.

“Send your mom in here for a minute, and then wait for her in the waiting room,” he said.

He told my mother that he was worried about my constant stomach aches (later revealed to the result of an ulcer), and prescribed me the same chalky liquid given to nervous petroleum executives in my hometown. He also told my mother it’d be okay, if I became particularly agitated, to occasionally give me a quarter of one of her yellow five-milligram Valium.

The following books of my life will introduce you to all kinds of characters as my home life swirls with the volatility of the relationships forming and fracturing around my parents. Some of those characters will perform acts, when they’re alone with me in the dark, that aren’t easy to describe because they’re the kind that make you wonder why no one ever went to jail. Inferential readers will note the subtext within the shadows and whispers and crying.

What the books will show is 10-year-old me trying to read the cooking instructions for spaghetti so that I can feed my three younger siblings; my parents are always too distracted by their entanglements with those other characters, and don’t make time to make dinner. My mother will chase one entanglement all the way to Wyoming and be absent from an entire book. My father, who spends most of his time at Red’s Lounge and only comes home after two a.m., also doesn’t get much page time.

The spaghetti scene works as a vignette of neglect. At 10, I don’t really understand how to time the boiling water, so the noodles aren’t fully cooked, but my siblings spare my feelings. “It’s really good,” they say, because they’re hungry and because it’s what we have. The noodles crackle as they try to chew them. I’ve put food coloring in their glasses of water so that drinking will feel like something fancy.

These middle books take a turn away from darkness into Pippi-like scenes of ingenuity. I learn to forge each of my parents’ signatures, signing school documents so that my siblings can get vaccinations, school lunches, and other services that require parental permission. I learn how to use a wrench to turn the water back on at the meter after the city shuts it off. An extended scene shows how I deepen my voice to sound like my mother when I call the electric company.

Because I like to read, I know how to create stories to explain why the bills aren’t being paid, stories that are compelling enough for the electric company to keep the power on.

The idea that Pippi might serve as a model and muse for real-life girls who must try to find a way to “come out on top” of trauma is an idea echoed by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Swedish author Stieg Larsson, in one of his rare interviews, said that Pippi Longstocking was the inspiration for Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s main character. Of Pippi, Larsson wondered, “What would she be like as an adult?” As Nathaniel Rich of Rolling Stone writes, “Instead of being endowed with physical strength, Salander is a hacker magician. With a few keystrokes on her laptop, she can access every piece of information in the world.”

It was easy for me to see Pippi within Lisbeth Salander and to see Lisbeth Salander as a version of myself, both characters a study of female strength and ingenuity. When I give books to students, friends, and colleagues, I am often giving them a message I think will help them. I choose the books and stories because they are freighted with models of hope.

Story as Medicine

For me, hopeful stories are critical medicine. These stories linger inside me like long-term time-released wisdom. Down deep, past all of my adult sophistication, they are grafted into my earliest memories. Sandra Cisneros, in her brilliant short story “Eleven,” writes that we are comprised of all the ages we have ever been, “like the rings inside a tree trunk or [like] wooden dolls that fit one inside the other.” There are versions of Pippi, of Gretel, of Charlotte inside of me. The call to think, to be brave, to use words in such a way that those words are wrapped around me — these attributes glimmer from each archetypal character like a diamond chip.

The story of Hansel and Gretel seemed to describe my life so well, full as that story is of adults who couldn’t be trusted, or adults who abandoned children, or adults who would, given the chance, eat children whole. Teaching “Hansel and Gretel” to bored, jittery seventh-graders helped me remember that it’s a story about conjuring hope in the midst of fear.

What I love about the story is that it centers on the bravery of children, on their resistance and victory. The first time the children are abandoned, well, it’s to be expected in their family. Though their stepmother seems to make their lives an experiment in finding new ways to be cruel, their father’s passivity frustrates her most homicidal inclinations. Because Hansel doesn’t deny the low-level threat humming under each day in his home, he is the model of planning for contingencies, of innovating around disaster. Sometimes, the text suggests, a good idea is like stones on the ground that will return you to safety should things go horribly awry.

For me, hopeful stories are critical medicine.

Most of Hansel’s courage, I suspect, is a protective response to Gretel. However, it’s Gretel who is the true figure of courage. She faces down a monstrous creature, a witch who fattens up children for her personal feasting. With her brother caged and a cooking fire kindled, Gretel refuses to despair, to cry, or to run away. Instead, she turns toward the witch. And when it comes time, she acts: into the oven goes the monster.

Illustration: Theodor Hosemann [Public Domain]/Wikimedia Commons

The witch fatally underestimated Gretel. Because Gretel seemed compliant with the witch’s orders, the witch believed she had broken Gretel’s spirit. But she just made Gretel more creative, more disciplined, more committed to action. That act of final resistance, embodied by her own strength, of pushing the witch into the oven — that’s what sticks. That’s what I call on when it comes time to do the thing I think I cannot do.

Story as Magic

I read the story of Hansel and Gretel to my students during the last week of school because I want to tuck that message inside them as they go out to face their own dark woods, their own monsters, their own calls to action. Maria Tatar writes, in the preface to her annotated version of the story, that it celebrates the triumphs of children as it also addresses their anxieties about starvation and being overwhelmed. “It is the presence of magic — not the magic of Wonderland, Narnia, or Oz — but a form of magic that settles down comfortably in the world we inhabit….[We enter] a world where good magic always triumphs over bad, where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, where the small and meek get revenge over the large and powerful, and where children succeed in surviving.”

The magic of a story is that it gives us a way to view our own struggles and offers us symbols and imagery to describe our own acts of opposition and of creativity. The writer and doctor Gavin Francis, in the 2016 Sheridan Lecture on Medicine and Literature delivered at Brown University, said that a story helps us “explore ways of being human, grants glimpses of lives beyond our own, aids empathy with others, alleviates distress, and widens our circle of awareness.” In short, stories can heal because they give us words to describe what hurts us: “The language we use to articulate our pain has the power to transform our experience of it.”

It was a “common grey spider” named Charlotte A. Cavatica who taught me that it’s heroic to use language in service to others. Charlotte demonstrates how to repurpose what might be considered ordinary into art. Because, after all, what is art but something created that makes us slow down and pay attention, something that makes us see the familiar as remarkable? Wilbur, a pig just as common as any other barn animal, becomes “Some Pig,” “terrific,” and “radiant” in Charlotte’s writing. Her insight about people’s need to “believe almost anything they see in print” literally stops the machinery of Wilbur’s death.

Illustration: Garth Williams

Charlotte is eminently wise, patient, and practical — traits to which I aspired. In Charlotte, I saw the possibilities of who I might become and where words might take me. Charlotte’s example taught me that the deepest privilege in life is weaving your vocation into your relationships: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

Story as Therapy

E.B. White probably didn’t intend his book to be used as a form of medicine, but that’s what it was for me. I read it when I needed to hear Charlotte’s calming maternal voice tell me that death is a part of life, but that death can be softened by knowing that you’ve done good work. Dr. Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has said the practice of using books to help children deal with personal issues is called bibliotherapy. Reading literature like Charlotte’s Web helps kids turn despair into optimism “because the child finds that there can be ways of solving problems,” Brooks believes. As explained by Sarah Begley in Time magazine, “A major part of resilience is that you start focusing on things you have control over.”

This idea, of giving students literary models of tenacity rather than teaching brittle techniques of “grit,” seems to be a more effective curriculum. Libraries in ancient Greece were seen as “sacred places with curative powers” and, in 1969, the Association of Poetry Therapy formed to establish poetry therapy as a treatment.

I quit calling myself an English teacher and began calling myself a literacy salesperson.

Our personal narratives of struggle and success can also serve as texts from which we can draw to help students connect to their own strengths. Parker Palmer wrote that “by remembering ourselves, we remember our students.” To be the best teacher for my students, I have to remember this. I remember so that I can gain their trust, because I want them to read and to write their way out of where they are. I remember that my best teachers put books and paper in front of me and showed me that words can take you up and out of the worst situations.

Several years ago, I quit calling myself an English teacher and began calling myself a literacy salesperson. Stories help me sell readers on books and books help me sell hope to my students. I want them to know that writing, if you go deep enough, can help you cope with your present pain and can begin to help you believe that pain can be redeemed — literature shows us that it can.

We need these lands of imagination, the writer A.S. Byatt writes, and their signposts that point toward eventual solutions: “We fill our heads with improbable happy endings, and are able to live — in daydream — in a world in which they are not only possible but inevitable.”

This article was originally published in the journal English In Texas.