I’ve always had an insatiable appetite for reading, but up until the third grade, I only read Japanese comic books outside of school assignments. Japanese was my first language, and I learned to read it when I was itty bitty thanks to my mom’s ardent training. She made these crazy felt animal letter books and a giant phonetic sound board — under my mother’s tutelage, learning Japanese was a lot of fun. In fact, even though I was born in the heart of L.A., I had very little command of the English language until I started kindergarten.
My parents would take me to the Kinokuniya bookstore in downtown Los Angeles at the beginning of every month, and there, waiting in shrink-wrapped glory were my beloved “Ribon” and “Margaret” comic books. They were girly publications, each about the size of a phone book (remember those?). Bursting with sweet and innocent illustrated stories of romantic love and friendships and rivalry and the occasional martial arts or bizarre alien tale, it took a good two or three hours for me to read through the entire tome. I learned a lot about Japanese culture and history and gained a skewed perspective on heterosexual relationships (females should be subservient and wear mini skirts at all times; no one was ever gay, though cross-dressers were plentiful). What made them extra special were these things called “Furoku”, which were essentially swag bags of cuteness overload. Stationery, stickers, pens, little illustrated recipe books…each month, something different came with the books. I’ll never forget the style how-to book that confidently stated that lace ankle socks should be worn with cropped jeans. I treasured the furoku and read the books over and over and over.
In the third grade, it all changed. Mr. Noble — my teacher — called me forth one day, which scared me to no end. I was a good student, but a quiet one, never one to raise my hand to answer questions unprompted. Whether I knew it or not, I had swallowed whole much of the Japanese comic book female stereotypes — except for the mini skirts. My mother would have killed me.
“Do you like to read?” he asked me. “Yes?” I squeaked, unable to tell him that I didn’t actually read much in English. He looked at me gently and said, “Try reading more at home, your world will open up in unimaginable ways. Books are magic.” I already knew that, of course, and I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this. I still can’t figure out why he took me aside that day to tell me specifically that, but teachers often took me aside so I’ve never questioned it. I worshipped Mr. Noble and hoped to marry someone like him one day. If he told me to go shave my head and tattoo a question mark on my scalp, I probably would have done it. Nowadays my memory of him is vague: dark hair, glasses, a rotund physique. A deep, comforting voice that made me feel like everything might turn out okay. He provided a sense of ease — a foreign concept to a child of immigrants attending the fourth school in the same number of years. He laughed a lot, and I liked that.
A few days later I went to the local library and filled out a form for a card. Back then there were no electric barcode scanners and librarians still stamped the due date on the little manila-colored, lined sheet of paper glued to the inside cover. Wooden card catalogs lined the walls and people actually used them. I remember feeling self-conscious about my book choices as the librarian stamped away (preteen horror and Sweet Valley High) , but once I settled into my bed at home surrounded by my new hoard of borrowed books and well-worn comics, I felt that ease and knew everything would turn out okay. And as Mr. Noble promised, my world opened up.
Books are magic, even the bad and scary ones, and decades later I still read every day. In the past couple of years I’ve stopped buying books, except on my birthday. To celebrate my birth, I stocked up on a few new sewing books and the ones above: Goldfinch, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Hidden Child and Wildwood Imperium (Carson Ellis is one of my favorite illustrators). Surrounded by books: my idea of paradise. Do you have any good book recommendations? I’d love to know. I’ll add it to my to-buy-list for my next birthday (or check it out of the library)!