Finding Books in Books -- Jane Kelley
When I was writing Nature Girl, my editor Shana Corey suggested I include a book that my character Megan was reading. This was a little tricky. Megan was hiking the Appalachian Trail and didn't have easy access to her library. Shana said a book for Megan would enrich my novel. This made a lot of sense to me. Readers are by definition book lovers. Of course we'd want to know what a character was reading.
So I had Megan's mom stick a copy of My Side of the Mountain into Megan's backpack along with the peanut butter sandwich and the water bottle. Megan didn't appreciate that book, but readers were glad to have it along to provide some humor and contrast to Megan's troubles in the wilderness.
After Shana gave me that advice, I have always used characters' beloved books as an opportunity for sharing something about them. We all carry books with us, even if they aren't actually in our backpacks. This was crucial in my second novel. The Girl Behind the Glass had an unusual narrator whom I was struggling to bring to life because, well, Ruth was dead.
I like giving myself challenges. Necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, however, I had boxed myself into a corner - actually the empty closet where something terrible had happened to Ruth long ago. I knew nothing about my character except that she lived in a deserted house. Then I remembered Shana's suggestion. I made Ruth a book lover. One particular book was essential to the plot; Ruth had hidden it in the attic when she was alive.
Which book should it be? That question is always wonderful to explore. Picking the book to accompany a journey is one of my favorite parts of planning a trip. For Ruth, I had a different task. She lived a long time ago. So I chose my mother's favorite book.
The Bastable Children by E. Nesbit is the story of four children who have lost their mother and whose father is in financial peril. The children, with great humor and spirit, set out to repair the family fortunes. Their adventures were actually an excellent model for what I always try to do in my stories––combine moment-to-moment realism with improbable escapades.
Mom was delighted that I used her favorite book. And when I say her book, I mean the actual copy she read as a child.
She expressed the hope that modern readers would seek it out. This is what Ruth said about it in my book, after she was finally reunited with her fictional friends.
"The Bastable Children were exactly the same after nearly eighty years. They hadn't died. They hadn't even aged. Their adventures were still funny and scary and sad. And the children still found their treasure and lived happily ever after in the end. That is the magic of books."
That is the magic of books. I recommend including them in your work. They can be a hidden gem. A touchstone for a character. A comfort. An inspiration. All the things that they are to us.