I am a full-fledged bookworm, and I am proud of it. I’m that person who will never leave home without her current read and keeps a notebook that holds an ever-expanding reading list with her at all times. One of my favorite hobbies is collecting old paperbacks from the ‘50s and ‘60s (anything from dime-store pulp to things like The Feminine Mystique thrown in for good measure). The majority of my Friday nights until I moved to New York City for college were spent at Borders bookstore when Borders was still a glorious thing, either hanging out with friends or setting up camp with one of my parents in the café, equipped with a stack of books I wanted to read and a coffee to fuel me (I still have my Borders Rewards card in my wallet and refuse to throw it out. My loyalty runs deep, despite my second home becoming a DSW). Even now, my days off are spent in my favorite bookstores, throwing my money at books faster than I can read them.
I have avid readers for parents, so it was inevitable that I would pick up the habit early. And maybe it’s because I was surrounded by readers my whole life that I never find my habit weird until someone comments on it (and someone ALWAYS comments on it; if I had a dollar for every time I was reading in my favorite coffee shop and another regular asks me how I go through books so quickly…). But seeing bookworms in movies and on TV as a kid definitely did its part to normalize my insatiable appetite for books. In those impressionable years, I met strong female characters who were smart and well read and saw a love of reading as an asset rather than some sort of odd hindrance. I saw girls my age—at the time, anyway—reading far above their grade level, and women who treasured the pages that fell through their fingers. And in environments where an overt love of books is somehow a mark against you, the knowledge that these characters exist goes a long way.
The four bookworms I’ve included here are the ones who had the biggest influence on me as I grew up, the ones that helped me embrace that label and wear it proudly. And why shouldn’t it be worn proudly? “Bookworm” is not a dirty word and should not be treated as such (in fact, my wonderful writing partner Maggie and I use “Bookworm” as a term of endearment with each other. I guess I just like reclaiming things). So here’s to the written word, the stories put on the page, and the ones who devour each tale—in the real world and in fictional places—and are still hungry for more. We’re super cool, I promise.
I can think of no better way to start than with the first bookworm I remember seeing on screen. Like most little girls growing up, I was into the Disney princesses. But Belle was always MY princess, even before I started relating to her bookworm tendencies. In order to make the start of first grade less terrifying, I remember carrying around a puppet (and I use the term loosely; all you could really do with it was let it sit on your hand, because for some reason these people thought rubber was a good thing to make a puppet with) of Belle in her yellow gown. It made my hand ridiculously sweaty, but at least I had my princess with me.
Then I started reading all over the place, and I got her on a different level entirely. Being so enthusiastic to tell anyone about the spectacular story you just read? Check. Spending most of your free time in the local bookstore? Check. (You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to ride one of those shelf-long ladders the way she does, before the crushing reality sets in that I am not, in fact, living in a cartoon.) The straight up bliss over being gifted a book? Check. That scene where she’s walking through town with her nose in a book, zero attention paid to her surroundings? I feel that so hard. Once during my Freshman year of high school, I was so engrossed in Jodi Picoult’s The Pact while I was at the lunch table that I was completely oblivious to the fist fight that broke out directly in front of me. (When the principal called everyone at that table into her office, convinced we had something to do with the fight, that book allowed me to escape the marks on my permanent record that everyone else got because I literally had no idea what was going on until it was basically over. Reading saves the day, you guys.) This holiday season, I ended up watching The Enchanted Christmas special from the late ‘90s because apparently this year was all about childhood nostalgia for me. In it, Belle decides to gift the Beast a homemade storybook for Christmas, because she’s delightful and of course she would. THAT is my princess.
What I really love is that in spite of everyone in her town thinking she’s peculiar because she likes books—WHY IS READING SO PECULIAR THAT YOU HAVE TO SING ABOUT IT, YOU JAGS—she refuses to compromise herself. Honestly though, did I miss something here? Why does this automatically make her a pariah in her community? Also, between literally everyone in town except the bookseller and her dad writing Belle off because she likes to take her imagination on a journey every now and then, and Gaston trying to win her heart by shitting all over what she loves best (by saying, and I quote, “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas, and thinking…” Okay, Maximum Douche Level achieved not even ten minutes into the movie, good job, thank you for playing), I want to know how that bookseller is still in business. Because she doesn’t buy those books; she borrows them. Where is your money coming from, sir?
Regardless, even though Belle questions—for a fleeting moment—whether her love of books is odd, her contentment in her habits is a testament to staying true to yourself. She won’t stop being excited about the stories she reads, she won’t stop reading them like mad, and she won’t stop being transported to wonderful places through the pages. That was a pretty cool thing to see at such a young age, and it’s a pretty cool thing to revisit as an adult. I can’t tell you how excited I am for the live action take on this in March but until then, if you want to read, be like Belle and read your heart out.
Let me refer to my notes to sum up why Matilda’s on my list: “She’s reading Moby Dick and she’s fucking six.” Part of me feels like I could just leave it at that. (I won’t…but I could.) Because make no mistake: Matilda’s reading habits are goals. In her few short years, she’s already tackled Moby Dick multiple times (I’m sure there are people out there, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s actually read that thing all the way through), and could read Charles Dickens every day for fun. She taught herself more than I think I’ve learned in my lifetime—and I’m working on a second Masters degree—by spending her days in the library and dragging a wagon full of books home with her. Seriously, she can multiply crazy large numbers in her head and casually whip out facts about how fast a mouse’s heart beats, all because of the books she’s read. This kid is amazing.
And no doubt Matilda read in part as an escape; her brother is horrible, her parents neglect her except to scold her for being bookish and smart, and I’m pretty sure the way the Trunchbull runs that school is so many shades of illegal. She deserves to have her stories, and the best stories take you out of your surroundings and drop you into another place. This is a child who got everything you possibly can out of reading before ever hitting double digits. For every math and science book that served as her education, there was a novel and a world for her to get lost in, and a beauty within the lines that comforted her. If there was ever a character to show kids how wonderful reading can be, she was it.
So you’ve got this reading prodigy, which is great, but what makes Matilda truly amazing in that regard is the adult who wholeheartedly appreciates and encourages that love of reading and that quest for knowledge. Enter Miss Honey, who is the kind of adult every book-loving kid should have in their life. In a sea of people who don’t appreciate Matilda for the delightfully intelligent child she is, Miss Honey is the one who will slip a copy of The Wind in the Willows to Matilda when her parents aren’t looking, and the one who wants to hear about everything she learns during her time in the library. Fostering a love of books in children is definitely something to be praised, don’t get me wrong. But to also show at least one other person who appreciates that gift for what it is? That is everything. When you’re faced with environments where voracious reading gets you made fun of, the knowledge that someone values that part of you as much as you do makes a world of difference.
Plus, she had really awesome powers that I wish were an actual thing you could acquire (although, perhaps without the prerequisite of terrible parents). If I could pour cereal with my mind, it would make my life so much easier.