Timeline Q&A: What book shaped you?

Reflecting on the most unexpectedly influential book of my life.

Every now and then I get hit with a question that performs an unexpected gut check on me.

Today it was a really simple one: What book shaped you the most?

My first instinct was to go with something that would paint me as an expert; a role I’m honestly comfortable playing because I enjoy being viewed as a human library.

My fellow astro geeks would say it’s cause I’m an Aquarius and I have a God complex.

But I’ve learned enough about myself to realize it’s because teaching and sharing resources/answers has been the one thing I’ve always been good at.

It’s the one place I don’t doubt myself. And as a creative individual who lives with doubt on just about everything from what I’m going to cook to what I’m going write or paint…it’s nice to have a safe harbor.

2020, however, is the death of comfort zones, so I challenged myself to give an honest answer and not one from my confident neighborhood personal representative “The Expert”.

When I really considered the question, I had to say hands down and unequivocally it was The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka.

And I know you’re probably thinking…

A kid’s book Jael…really?

Really, really.

It’s a simple retelling of the three little pigs from the perspective of Alexander Wolf better known as A.Wolf. But it was hilarious and thought-provoking, because all of the reasonings for the goings on of the original story were thoroughly explained to the point where I actually felt pity for the wolf. According to Aristotle’s Poetics (there’s the Jael we know and love), that’s exactly what a good story is supposed to do. For a book to change my entire perspective on how I viewed a classic bad guy was mind-boggingly amazing.

Why?

Because I was 7 or 8 at the time and Disney ruled my world. I was used to bad guys being bad because of fear, or social norms twisted to logical conclusions. I was used to “down on their luck” characters turning to evil because :Mermaid Man voice: “EEEEVIILLLL!”.

This guy Jon was like “Hold up. What if homeboy had a reason for knocking on them pigs doors besides hunger? Dude was knocking after all, so there had to be some civility at play…”

I didn’t know it at the time, but the questions this man was asking of a classic fairy tale, and the way he answered them set my little brain on fire.

I’d read kid books before— I think I was in the middle of one those read the most books win a free prize lunch contests when I stumbled on this gem, and even though I was reading on an 8th grade level at the time, I chose to knock back kids books because if I’m anything, I’m an efficient winner— but this was a different kind of kid’s book.

It didn’t insult my intelligence. It didn’t assume humor had to be all slapstick and poop jokes. It was funny because the situations were funny and the characters had depth— even the three pigs.

I was so excited by this damn good story, I wanted to share it with everyone.

But I had a challenege as I was at my mother’s office at the time. There was no way I was going to get a bunch of grown adults to read this amazing story in the middle of office busywork…unless.

Because I’m efficient winner, I hatched a plan. My mother’s coworkers were family — my mother had a knack for creating one whereever she went. I had aunts and uncles of all races creeds and colors at that office. And I do mean all. This was New York City Housing Authority; my mom sat next to an Orthodox Jewish woman, across from Hatians, Jamaicans, Trinis, White folks, a loving Egyptian man who called my mom Shu Shu because he couldn’t pronounce her name (Charmaine…but he made the worlds best stuffed grape leaves for her to make up for it), you name the culture, they were there.

And if I knew one thing about my multicultural family from years of selling fundraiser items to them to win stupid prizes, it was that they would do anything for me— including reading my story.

So I took to the typewriter in the corner of my mom’s office and I banged out my first short story: a re-telling of Hansel and Gretel from the perspective of the Witch. And I used everything I had just learned. I wrote it in a couple of minutes and — without proofreading — shared my masterpiece with my office family and they loved it (or at least made me feel they did with the appropriately timed chuckles).

I gained something unexpected from my manipulation of my mom’s work family.

I found joy.

I loved watching them laugh and share in my imaginary world with this thing I made — a place that I could never bring anyone into before because I was the smart weird kid (I have an abrasive personality). But for once I didn’t have to worry about it. People were enjoying what I made.

I didn’t know it then, but that was the day I found my calling.

I’m not traditionally published yet, but one day I will be (told you I am an efficient winner). And when I am, I’m gonna talk about the story that started it all.

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Jael R. Bakari

Jael R. Bakari

I create thought-provoking content for people crazy enough to believe they can change the world. #fortheblacksheep www.jaelrbakari.com