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If you borrow this book, you have to return it: Natalie Lyalin.

April 26, 2011 \am\30 8:00 am

[For this series, I’ve asked many wondrous writers to reflect on an individual copy of a book that is very important to them. Writers and publishers have varied and often impassioned relationships to their analog books, as actual books are still arguably the “realest” physical manifestation of their poetic pursuits. I think that as the Kindle and other digital representations of text continue their upward spiral, it’s important to reflect on books as the uniquely funky-smelling, emotion-provoking, paper-cutting, dust/coffee/spaghetti sauce-collecting artifacts that they are! Check back next week for more top picks!]

Natalie Lyalin is the author of Pink and Hot Pink Habitat (Coconut Books 2009) and the
chapbook Try A Little Time Travel (Ugly Duckling Presse 2010). She is the co founder
and co editor of GlitterPony Magazine and Agnes Fox Press. She lives in Philadelphia
and teaches at The University of the Arts.


If you borrow my copy of Matilda by Roald Dahl, you have to return it. You have to
return it even though my copy of this book is stolen. I do not believe I intended to steal
it, but rather that I failed to return it to its owner, Emily Bossin, my 5th grade English
teacher. Most likely, Mrs. Bossin’s intention was to lend the book to her student rather
than turn it over for good. But I was a greedy book collector in my younger years, much
more so than I am today. Thus, the book stayed on forever.

In Matilda, adults often fail kids. For example, the main character, Matilda, is the
daughter of two terrible idiots. They lie, they are negligent to their daughter, they clearly
favor her brother (who is not that great, really), and they see neither her brilliance nor her
potential. In one particularly sad episode, Matilda’s father destroys her library copy of
Steinbeck’s The Red Pony:

But Matilda does not need her parents (though it would be nice if they were not so
horrid). She thrives with the help of Mrs. Phelps, a kind librarian who supports her
fervent reading habits and Miss Honey, her kind teacher. And not only does Matilda
persevere despite her parents’ best attempts to ruin her, she also conquers (because
it really is that serious) the evil headmistress of her school, the Trunchbull. Though
thoroughly evil, the Trunchbull is an awesome character. She is the worst parts of school,
adulthood, and power come to life as one terrible horrible school administrator.

There are so many brilliant parts to this book. Here are a few noteworthy Matilda events:

*Matilda tricks her family into believing there is a ghost in their home (it’s really a parrot
hidden in a chimney) as retaliation for her father’s aforementioned nasty episode with her
library book.

*The Trunchbull forces a young student, Bruce Bogtrotter, to eat an entire cake as
punishment. Though a tremendous barf scene does not follow, the Trunchbull hits the
young lad over the head with a cake platter.

*Matilda exacts revenge on the Trunchbull using psychokinesis:

Why do I love this book? Mostly I love Matilda’s bravery. She transforms the anger from
the injustices of her home and school life into productive and just schemes. She uses
supernatural powers to conquer the tyrants in her life — her parents and the Trunchbull
being most deserving targets.

Matilda is a powerful little book. I’m sure that it makes small and anxious children
feel like they can do giant and amazing things. It certainly does this for adults. It shows
brilliant parental failures, terrifying adult cruelty, and many ways in which the world is
an unfair place to live. At the same time, it contrasts these difficulties with examples of
determination, overcoming said cruelty with ingenuity and wit, the usefulness of extreme
intelligence, the power of correctly channeled anger, and, above all else, the perseverance
of kindness. In this way it is a somewhat fairy tale. It is exquisite and funny, sad and
frustrating, spooky and yet somehow comforting. I think this is because in the end it
is wholly redemptive, with the “bad guys” running out of town and the main character
triumphant in her struggles.

This is, of course, how I want the world to work– to have some bit of magic reveal itself
and help overturn what sometimes feel like enormously difficult obstacles. And it is a
reminder of something sweet, some weird feeling about 5th grade, and stealing, and being
a strange little person in a big big classroom.


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