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The Scarlet & Black

Mental Musings: Library Fantasies

Graphic by Tess Kerkhof.

Mental Musings explores mental health from the perspective of a low-income urban Latina woman throughout her 20-year journey with issues such as anxiety and depression. Each week, the column will dive into various topics related to mental health through personal narratives as well as one-on-one interviews.


Before I had Zoloft, I had books. 

I came across a TikTok a few days ago of person rapping to an alternate version of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” with the caption “mentally ill formally [sic] gifted kids re-entering their harry potter phase as [a] method of escapism.” I felt incredibly called out by this statement (in the best way possible). Now, without digging our teeth too deeply into the terms “mentally ill” and “gifted, I want to direct attention to the term escapism. The dictionary definition is as follows:  

Escapismhabitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.  

Based on this definition, I don’t know a single person who has not utilized escapism during the pandemic. Many reverted to their favorite childhood books, while others flocked to streaming services such as Netflix. Regardless of the medium, the last year’s cultural fascinations with shows such as Tiger King and Bridgerton, as well as the return of various fandoms such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, reflects the various means of escapism that those within the United States have used.  Even prior to the pandemic, I often resorted to escapism to cope with the inevitable chaos in my head. My main source: books. Tons and tons of books.  

My fascination with books, like my anxiety, has been with me since I can remember. Despite my family’s tight budget, our trips to the thrift store often led to a new stack of 50 cent books in my arms. All my summers were comprised of reading inside, at the park, on the porch, with occasional interruptions due to playdates with my childhood buddies. My family and I also made routine trips to the library, both to read and as a fun (and free) activity for all of us to partake in. We’d browse books and movies, and when mom went back for her undergrad, the library became one of her favorite study spots. Libraries represent refuge and warmth in my family, and even at Grinnell, one of the first buildings I found comfort in when I first arrived was Burling.

Even prior to the pandemic, I often resorted to escapism to cope with the inevitable chaos in my head. My main source: books.

Although I read all genres, my favorite by far has always been fantasy and dystopia, an opinion shared by many in the early Zennial generation. Although the Zennial generation starts in 1997 and ends somewhere in the early 2010s, those in the beginning of that time range tend to share my nostalgia for various book series. My favorites included Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments, along with more obscure series such as the Fallen series and Ellen Hopkins’ various verse novels. My younger self wanted nothing more than to realize that she was a demigod, or that perhaps she possessed the gift of magic. If such things didn’t exist in the real world, then I would escape into the worlds of either Harry or Clary. Especially in moments where I found myself worked up over inexplicable stressors, or when my family went through a particularly turbulent time due to financial concerns, I turned to what we now call “comfort characters.”  

I had one curious habit: except for The Hunger Games, I never finished any of the book series listed. I got stuck in Harry Potter right at Goblet of Fire, couldn’t stomach the rest of City of Glass and halted right in the middle of The Titan’s Curse. I never understood why I struggled to reach the end of each series. Upon reflection, I attributed this pattern to my interest in YA, particularly novels that explored “more mature” and “more serious” subjects. Especially as I reached middle school, like many pre-teens, I wanted to grow up and assumed that to do that, I would have to leave fantasy behind. Subconsciously, however, I now think that I stopped each series just as the story of the main character reached a certain level of darkness, one that ruined my feeling of escape and wonder and instead replaced it with nervousness and dread over the fate of my favorite characters.  

Once I started high school, my capacity to read decreased, especially as I took on more responsibilities and more AP level classes. Occasionally, during my breaks, I’d find time for one or two books, but nothing consistent. That is, until my second semester of senior year.  

Picture this: seventeen-year-old Alanis, bored during her winter break of January 2018, when she spontaneously decided to take two buses in 20-degree weather to buy the entire fivebook Percy Jackson seriesI’d recently rediscovered Percy Jackson, along with Greek mythology, due to my discovery that Grinnell had a classics major, a field I didn’t even know existed until I had been accepted into Grinnell. For the sake of childhood nostalgia, I decided I’d dedicate the last few months of my senior year to finally finishing the Percy Jackson series 

My friends couldn’t believe I’d never finished the last two books, and so I routinely updated them on my reactions to the various plot twists that Rick Riordan placed so tastefully in The Battle of the Labyrinth and The Last Olympian. At first, I felt self-conscious – here I was, 17 years old and devouring Rick Riordan’s books like candy. I couldn’t resist the nostalgia I felt holding The Lightening Thief. Reading, once more, had become my escape, from the all the feelings of worry I had as I prepared to leave home for the first time, and of course, the battle between my undiagnosed anxiety and depressive states, which at that time had flared up in a particularly terrible combination. While buried under blankets or lounging on a park bench, I could always count on Percy to silence the chaos in my mind.  

I could always count on Percy to silence the chaos in my mind.

This idea of escapism, the silencing of the mind through the consumption of other worlds, fascinates me. It’s perhaps one of the only effective antianxiety methods that I have come up with outside of therapy and medication, aside from writing (if you couldn’t tell). With escapism in mind, I was curious as to what other media people had used to cope, especially those who did not belong to the early Zennial generation. Dr. Makeba Lavan, an English professor whose Studies in Genre class I’m currently taking, gave me some insight on the media she had used throughout the pandemic.  

Similar to my own reading habits throughout the last year, Dr. Lavan emphasized the need for books that didn’t require “mental acuity” and allowed for immersion and escape.  

“For most of the pandemic, I was just reading romance novels,” Dr. Lavan told me.  Dr. Lavan has read the Blessings Series by Beverly Jenkins, a series centered on a small town in rural Kansas by the name of Henry Adams. Aside from books, Dr. Lavan has also found refuge in various shows reminiscent of her childhood, including Frasier, Living Single and Teen Titans Go! She also expressed enthusiasm for 80s and 90s music to which I excitedly admitted I was named after Alanis Morissette, whose hit album Jagged Little Pill has also guided me through my best and worst.  

As we discussed literature and media in class, a question arose that I realized I hadn’t asked myself as I reflected on my childhood literature. When one of her students asked what she read as a child, Lavan stated that even as a 10-year-old she’d already begun to read Octavia Butler.  

For me science fiction writers were Black women until I was like a bit older and realized that she was kind of like the exception to the rule,” said Dr. Lavan.  

Dr. Lavan had grown up with reflections of herself in the books she read, something that never occurred to me could potentially impact the way I viewed myself or my community in the scope of society. Was this the reason why I could never get through any of the book series mentioned previously as a child? Is this why my peers looked at me in shock as I told them that no, I’d never gotten around to finishing The Titan’s Curse, and I really wasn’t interested in ever reading any Infernal Devices book, and no, I really, really don’t want to read another romance novel of the mysterious white woman with the nerdy white man trailing behind herDon’t Latinas fall in love? Can’t we also be demigods and witches, or whatever other fantastical concoction you can think of?  

And so, I asked Dr. Lavan for book recommendations both for my readers and for myself. I’ve clearly only glimpsed the realms of fantasy, and I’d like to escape into worlds written, created and centered on women of color, just as Dr. Lavan had described to me. Dr. Lavan recommended various writers and books, including Nine Bar Blues by Sheree ThomasThe Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha PhilyawThe Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.Just Us by Claudia Rankine, along with writers N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Tananarive Due.  

Although I plan to continue binge reading the Harry Potters series (I am on Order of the Phoenix, and yes, I am a Hufflepuff), I hope to expand my view of literature and fantasy and the power it can hold to allow people like myself into the narrative. Perhaps, if we continue the work, another 10-year-old anxious Latina can escape into a world of magic written and centered on people that look and feel just like her.  


Any opinions expressed through columns and other S&B opinions publications belong to the writer and do not reflect the views of any or all members of The S&B staff, nor by any Grinnell associated organization.

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