Books Instead of God? by Kira Peikoff

Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing Living Proof (Tor Books) by Kira Peikoff, but today I’m pleased to welcome Kira for a guest post in which she talks about the importance of books in her life as a child.

Kira PeikoffA child of two atheists, I was four years old the first time I set foot in any house of worship. It was at the urging of my then-best friend Caitlin, also aged four, who had dunked her head an extra time for my sake during her Mormon baptism to ensure I wouldn’t end up in Hell. (This gesture cemented our status as true best friends, even though I didn’t know what any of it meant.)

But Caitlin also had a mischievous side; when I joined her at church on that unprecedented Sunday morning, she took advantage of a pause in the Jesus hymns to announce to the congregation: “Kira doesn’t believe in God!” That was also the first time I learned that my upbringing was, apparently, unacceptable.

My parents were raised Jewish, but both rejected religion altogether as adults, so my childhood was utterly devoid of God and all the traditions that go along with a religious faith: weekend prayer, Bible reading, fasting, etc. Some people might then believe that I was raised without a moral code. After all, isn’t religion’s purpose, at least partially, to teach you how to be a good person?

In my case, having great role models in my parents molded my sense of morality, but I was lucky to have another set of fantastic teachers: books. I’ve been a reader ever since I can remember. Instead of a diet of Hebrew prayers, I was fed great children’s literature. I can’t think of a better way to teach kids lessons that will stick with them forever than to introduce them to characters that will engage, inspire, and move them—all while honing their fledgling moral compasses.

Here are some of my favorite books that have stuck with me through the years, and what I learned from them:

A Wrinkle in Time—The importance of individuality, and that it’s OK to be different; also the power of love to overcome challenges.

The Secret Garden—The value of friendship and beauty.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—The delight of fantasy and adventure.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond—The evil of prejudice and the value of compassion.

Shane—What it means to be a hero: loyalty, determination, and bravery.

To Kill a Mockingbird—The values of justice and tolerance.

The Scarlet Pimpernel—Admiration of ingenuity; courage and love.

The Little Prince—I read this in French, when I was a teenager eager to outgrow my childhood—a fitting time to remember that children possess a virtue that many adults do not: they are tapped into the power of their own imaginations.

As the iconic phrase says, “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.

There are some of mine. What books from your childhood made the biggest impact on you?

Kira Peikoff graduated with high honors from New York University in 2007 with a degree in journalism. After four years of various reporting internships including The Daily News, The Orange County Register, Newsday, and New York magazine, Kira realized that fiction was her true love. She then spent a year working full time on what would become her debut novel, Living Proof. After writing Living Proof, Kira worked for several years in the editorial departments at two major NYC publishing houses, which gave her an invaluable inside look at the publishing process and the rapidly changing industry. Currently, Kira is working on her second novel, teaching creative writing to kids and teens through a non-profit organization, and tutoring literature to students across the globe. To learn more about Kira, visit her website.

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11 Comments

  • John J. Pierce

    May 9, 2012 - 2:14 pm

    For me, it was Robert A. Heinlein’s “juvenile” sf novels (That’s what Young Adult fiction was called back in the 1950’s. SPACE CADET, RED PLANET, FARMER IN THE SKY, THE STAR BEAST, TUNNEL IN THE SKY, CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY… They were all about their young protagonists learning to deal rationally and ethically with futuristic but very realistic situations. Here are two examples:

    With Red Planet (1949), Heinlein brought a new dimension of ethical responsibility to juvenile sf. In nearly all juvenile fiction of the time, “responsibility” meant only obedience to adult authority. Oh, there were villains, but they always came from the criminal or otherwise socially undesirable classes. Parents, teachers, police and other duly constituted guardians of society were always right. But Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton are teenagers on a colonial Mars where the adults are not always right, and responsible adults don’t pretend otherwise. Doc McRae, who treats ailments like Mars throat at South Colony, admits that one of the first doctors on Mars was an idiot who set back relations with the natives by trying to unroll a Martian who had curled up into a ball to protest some sort of offense by a fellow Martian after the manner of his kind.
    When Jim and Frank arrive at their boarding school, they run afoul of the new headmaster, Mark Howe, who dissolves the student council, censors mail and otherwise abuses his authority. He even confiscates Jim’s companion (more than just a pet) Willis, a Martian creature who can not only speak but also repeat conversations like a tape recorder. Jim rebels, and encourages Frank to go along with him. They steal Willis back, retrieve their guns, grab some food and head for home, all before they learn, from conversations overheard and repeated by Willis, that Mars Company, which legally rules the planet, is planning to crack down on the colonists as harshly as Howe had on the students.
    It is now the young heroes, not their elders, who must take responsibility for their world as well as their own lives, with nothing to guide them but their own judgment. With pluck and luck, including aid from the Martians – with whom they have previously established water brotherhood – Jim and Frank make it back to South Colony. Jim’s father, without having any idea why they’re wanted by the authorities, wants his son to surrender. But Jim refuses.

    His father said, “Son, you can’t take that attitude.”
    Jim said, “Can’t I? Well I do. Why don’t you find out what the score is before you talk about giving me up?” His voice was a bit shrill.
    His father bit his lip. His mother said, “Please, James—why don’t you wait and hear what he has to say?”
    “Of course I want to hear what he has to say,” Mr. Marlowe answered irritably. “Didn’t I say that? But I can’t sit there and let my son declare himself an outlaw.”
    “Please, James!”
    “Speak your piece, Son.”

    One would never have found anything like that in the Tom Swift books. Jim continues to play an active role after the settlers defy the Company’s ban on the usual seasonal migration to North Colony. Marlowe, unwilling to see that violent conflict is inevitable, manages to get the settlers boxed in at the school complex during a layover on the way north, where they are besieged by Company goons. Jim not only takes part in the breakout, but has Willis bring in the Martians, who literally “disappear” Howe and the Company’s Resident Agent. And in the end, it is only Jim’s relationship with Willis – who turns out to be a young Martian of Importance (at least, that’s one interpretation) – that stays the Martians from wiping out the colonists.

    In Farmer in the Sky (1950), Heinlein adds a touch of realistic family conflict to the story of pioneer life on Ganymede, a terraformed moon of Jupiter. When George Lermer, a widowed engineer, gets a shot at emigrating, he puts his son Bill on the list, too. Bill has always thought himself on close terms with father; he even calls him by his first name. At the last moment, however, George reveals that he has married his draftsman, Molly Kenyon, whose daughter Peggy is “a twelve-year-old brat,” he berates his father, who is tempted to thrash him for the first time in years at such a cruel outburst.
    Bill Lermer has to continue coping with his jealously and estrangement as well as a harsh life on a new world where farmland must be painstakingly wrested from barren rock. Peggy, unable to adjust to the thin air, has to live in a pressurized room, and dies of exposure after a quake destroys the world’s heat trap as well as their home and sends the temperature plunging. Bill and his father survive, as does Ganymede; George and Molly even start a new family. Father and son are reconciled, but Bill has become his own man; when George wants to send him back to Earth to complete his education, Bill won’t hear of it: “I am where I belong. And I’m going to stay!”

  • Josh Stallings

    May 2, 2012 - 8:52 pm

    Kira, what a great post. I just read a Pew research study the found that the best educated in religion were atheists, that came as no surprise to me.

    Coming up dyslexic I had a strange relationship with books. They beat me up, and I loved them. I have memories of my elder sister reading to me from a collection of fairy-tales. Very adult and non-Disney versions. Beauty and the beast was always my favorite. My father whilst still around read us Pooh. I have always loved AA Milne will always have a sweet spot in my heart.
    My mother had a copy of Peter Pan from her childhood, fantastic.
    I just realized that all of my childhood books where later distorted by Disney, the bastards.
    I loved all things Roald Dahl.
    And the amazing artist Pène du Bois with his Otto stories about a giant dog. More pictures than words, perfect for my young self.
    The book that stays with me is one I read to my boys almost every night; Where The Wildthings Are.
    Thank you for sending me down memory lane.

    • Elizabeth A. White

      May 9, 2012 - 2:20 pm

      I think Where The Wild Things Are was powerful for many, many people, as evidenced by the outpouring of love and reflection upon Maurice Sendak’s recent death.

  • Kira Peikoff

    April 29, 2012 - 10:15 pm

    Thanks for the mention of so many other wonderful books in the comments. I especially enjoyed Judy Blume and Tintin as well. Sadly, I still need to read Watership Down!

  • Elizabeth A. White

    April 26, 2012 - 7:39 pm

    I was also a big fan, and still am, of Watership Down for the same reasons Shannon mentioned. Including the rabbit factor. 🙂 I was very partial to S.E. Hinton’s books as well, especially That Was Then, This Is Now and Tex.

  • sabrina ogden

    April 26, 2012 - 7:11 pm

    Judy Blume books were a huge part of my life growing up. Where The Red Fern Grows… Nancy Drew Mysteries. Sadly, most of my reading was done during lunch during school and was never an encouraged activity at home.

    This is a wonderful post, Kira. Thanks so much for sharing ths with us.

  • Elyse/Pop Culture Nerd

    April 26, 2012 - 5:52 pm

    A wonderful post, fun and thought-provoking at the same time. Caitlin sounds like quite a character, and you have great taste in books, Kira.

    As a child, Hergé’s Tintin books and the Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken had the biggest impact on me. They’re amazing adventures with young protagonists I aspired to be like when I grew up (I did get to be a reporter like Tintin!).

    Thanks for hosting Kira, Elizabeth.

  • Shannon

    April 26, 2012 - 1:35 pm

    Watership Down made a very strong impression on me when I read it at about age 12. I don’t think I even fully understood some of the “big picture” themes at the time – reason v emotion, individualism/freedom v conformity/oppression – but looking back I can see now why I liked it so much… besides it being about rabbits. 😉

  • Mark Pound

    April 26, 2012 - 1:17 pm

    I, too, grew up without religion or, for that matter, ideaology.

  • Mark Pound

    April 26, 2012 - 1:16 pm

    I liked To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Where The Red Fern Grows, and The Bridge To Terabithia when I was a kid.

  • J.D. Rhoades

    April 26, 2012 - 1:02 pm

    Robert A. Heinlein’s so-called “juvenile” novels made a huge impression on me, particularly Have Space Suit, Will Travel. The protagonists of the juveniles are often younger versions of the “competent man” characters in the more adult novels: smart, skeptical, and outspoken, with a strong sense of honor and of right and wrong that’s often at loggerheads with the mores of their society. That had a big influence on my own world view.