I cannot remember who first introduced me to the work of Roald Dahl, but it is his books that sparked a lifelong love of reading for me. I grew up as the only girl between two brothers and our house was peppered with sports equipment; our calendar was controlled by games, practices, and tournaments. We all played sports, and I was frequently the only girl on the boys’ baseball teams, in the age division, and for a long time, in the league. Off the field, I loved school, reading, and arts & crafts. So, at times, I felt a little different or out of place. Like most kids, I often wondered how to act or how to be.

I can’t remember now exactly when I read Dahl’s Matilda, but I remember identifying with the storyline about a young girl who felt out of place and who found comfort in stories. She was young, but was smart; she was independent and self-sufficient. She read books far beyond her age. Eventually, she learned she could control objects with her mind and she used these powers to outsmart the terrible people around her. In short, she became a hero.

It wasn’t that our situations were the same that I felt an affinity with Matilda – I certainly wasn’t surrounded by terrible people as she was – but I think it was because she, too, felt a little different and she too, liked to read. I loved reading before Matilda, but I think that story made me feel like reading could lead to superpowers. She wasn’t a boy with a cape; she couldn’t scale buildings or fly; she didn’t have some extraordinary strength (and to be fair, it wasn’t the reading that gave her her superpowers, but that is what stuck with me). Rather, she had a library card and some quiet time and a few people that believed in her. So, it was also Matilda that made me feel that reading curled up in the back of the school bus or sitting out recess to finish a book wasn’t something to be embarrassed of, because that’s what she did. I wanted to have the mountains of books she did; I wanted to read everything she had.

Now, I am sure I haven’t read everything Matilda did and I have been privileged to have had no real terrible things or people to overcome personally, but one part of her story did resonate. I did stumble into some superpowers. From reading stories, I learned empathy and kindness, connection and perspective, humility and humanity. I could hear stories from other people who were not me, who did not grow up in the world I did, who did not express their stories in the same ways as I would. It isn’t only children’s books that did this and continue to do this for me, but back then, Roald Dahl and so many others started it.

These days, I mainly read and write nonfiction. I love how language creates moments and images; I love how writers make words live together on the page. I now study essays & poems, but sometimes I still think of them as kinds of stories. And I still think reading them (or listening to them) leads to those superpowers of connection, compassion, and humanity.

But my connection with this children’s book goes beyond that, because it has also taught me why representation is so important. All young people should be able to see themselves in a story, to have that moment of realization, identification, and inspiration. Everyone deserves to see themselves as the hero, no matter their age, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or disability. No matter if they read themselves in a book, hear themselves in a song, or find themselves in dance, theater, or the fine arts. The ability to see glimpses of our own stories in others is important, because I think it prepares us to be open to other stories completely different than ours. For me, it started with Matilda. And as an adult now, I am still a woman who loves to read and who still believes in its superpowers.

– Bailey Boyd (Ph.D Candidate)