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Meg Cabot

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Why Reading for Pleasure is Serious Business

Posted: 04/25/11 02:15 PM ET

When I was a teen, my preferred reading material was Star Wars or Wonder Woman comic books, and anything I could find in the spinning paperback rack at my town's library that featured a girl on the cover who looked like she was running away from trouble.

Caught up in dangerous political intrigue on a planet far from ours? Yes, please. Secret wife locked in the attic? Excellent.

What I didn't want to read was anything remotely related to what was happening in my own life. Why would I want to read about some girl who had the exact same kind of problems I did when I was already dealing with them on a daily basis?

What I wanted was a mini-break from my problems, and books--provided they were the right kind of books--never failed to offer me that.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels this way. I once heard that, during peace negotiations with Israel, Anwar Sadat read a Barbara Cartland romance novel in the bathtub every night to relax. Why not? How much further can you get from politics than a runaway bride?

So it probably isn't that surprising that when, as a teen, I stumbled across a book with a girl running away from a guy in a chariot--a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology--and read the myth of Persephone, I glommed onto it hard.

There aren't many Greek myths in which the female character doesn't get turned into a plant, tree, or animal after a run-in with a god.

But after being kidnapped by Hades, the Greek god of death, Persephone manages to end up both the goddess of the dead, Queen of the Underworld, and goddess of springtime. Pretty dark stuff . . . but then, whoever said high school is the best time of your life didn't know what he was talking about.

Many people perceive Persephone to be a victim, but I never saw her that way. In fact, I think some people underestimate Persephone, just like they underestimate the value of reading as an "escape." There are numerous versions of the myth indicating that Persephone was complicit in consuming the pomegranate that dooms her to spending six months (or four, depending on the retelling) of the year in the Underworld.

I won't say this myth is the one that turned me from a reader to the writer of over fifty published books, because it isn't. I've been writing (and drawing) stories as an escape from my problems for as long as I've been reading (since around the age of seven).

But the minute I read the myth of Persephone, my life was changed forever. I may not have known it at the time, but the proof is incontrovertible. It's memorialized in the Algebra notebooks I saved from the time (circa 1981-1985). You can see the actual doodles I made based on Edith Hamilton's Mythology (and the myth of Persephone) in my high school algebra notebooks, which I dug up not long ago. Instead of paying attention in class, I was apparently plotting out my own version of Persephone's story, which I planned on writing someday:


Not surprisingly, I flunked Algebra (I and II). This was particularly upsetting for my father, who was a professor of Quantitative Business Analysis, and who did a lot of pleasure reading of his own (spy novels), which is probably where I learned my love for books. I did eventually retake Algebra--remedially, at Indiana University--where he taught, and where I graduated with a B.A. in art.

But I've never been cured of my love for books featuring strong female protagonists (still often found in the spinning racks at local libraries, and also happily now in bookstores and on e-readers everywhere), and the men who love them for their strength. I adored reading about these women so much that, after moving to New York City post-college graduation, I spent years trying to get my own stories (and illustrations) published. I wanted to give girls who felt the way I had as a teen the same kind of "mini-break" from their own problems for which I had always longed.

That's why I'm especially excited about my new novel, Abandon, a re-imagining of the myth of Persephone, but with a twist: it's set in a modern day high school.

Today, some people look down on so-called "escape" reading, especially when it comes to teenagers--particularly girls--and the books they choose to read.

But I think it's important to understand that what may look like "escape" reading--whether it be a comic book, a romance or graphic novel, sci-fi or mystery--is actually serving an important and complex purpose. The troubles these girls seem to be running away from--and I don't mean the girls on the covers--may be more overwhelming than they're letting on. By giving me a chance to escape from them for a little while, the books I read as a teen about girls with even bigger problems than my own helped me deal with them.

So who has the right to say which books are "just for fun," and which ones will end up changing a life forever?

All I know is, those books in the spinning racks at the library helped me through some of the toughest times of my life, and sent me down the path on which I'm still traveling today.

And for that, I'll always be grateful.