When I think of the books and authors that have influenced me, I think back. Way back. Back further than that. All the way to the beginning, really, because there’s nothing like the high you get from reading when you’re young. I think that’s one of the highs we chase as adult readers—the feeling we got way back when while staying up late, hiding under the sheets with a flashlight, wild with imagination and sure—so sure!—that we could see dragons. It’s wonderful.
I believe books have an outsize importance in childhood development, and since I’m putting together my infant daughter’s first library, I’m thinking a lot about some of the books I read as a child.
Books allow children to try on identities, to encounter new ideas, to think about other people and to learn about their own hearts, their own goals, and their own dreams. Sure, many of the books I’ve read as an adult have had an influence on me as a person and as a writer, but compared to the asteroid-sized impact of, say, The Little Engine That Could. Seriously!
These are the books I was given when I was a bullied child and an insecure teenager. These are the first books that taught me what language could do.
So—these are just a couple of the books that I read before seventh grade. As silly and as lowly as they may be, I would not be the writer I am without them.
THE GIVER by Lois Lowry
I consider this the original YA dystopia. Published when I was thirteen, this was my Hunger Games. I was captivated by Jonas’ struggle to reconcile the emotionless, grayscale world of “Sameness” he grew up in with the memories of beauty and kindness and feeling he encounters while training to be the dystopian community’s new Receiver of Memory. The first time I realized that the greyscale feeling wasn’t a metaphor—that Jonas was seeing the color red for the very first time—I remember gasping aloud, and for the following week I couldn’t see a red shoe or a red sweater without thinking of The Giver. Lowry managed a stunning magic trick, something no other dystopian writer has ever quite accomplished, and something that I’m not sure will ever be done again.
THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD by Platt & Munk
When I was a toddler, my mother says that I made her read this to me three times before bed, every single night, for over a year. The little engine’s signature phrase—I think I can, I think I can—echoes in my head to this day, whenever I encounter difficult situations.
The train engine in question—while not the biggest, strongest, or most powerful engine—nevertheless achieves his goal of carrying his cargo of children over a high mountain, and he does this not by being better or bigger or stronger, but by sheer grit. While the little engine has nothing else, he has persistence, and that’s the thing that changes the entire situation.
It’s a wonderful lesson for children to learn, and I honestly believe there are entire generations of writers that refuse to quit because their parents had the foresight to read them this book. Every night. Three times. For years. It’s a lovely prescription for dealing with the rejection game.
THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS by Robert Munsch
This was the very first book I made sure to buy for my daughter, and another one I made my mom read way too many times. When a dragon burns down Princess Elizabeth’s castle and carries off her crush Prince Ronald, Elizabeth dons a charred paper bag—the only thing left to wear—and sets off to rescue him. When she finds him, all he can do is make derogatory comments about the paper bag she’s wearing, and Elizabeth realizes she can do much better on her own.
While the message is explicitly about boys, it’s also implicitly about being true to yourself and your own dreams, which is something I believe every woman writer will grapple with at some point in their career. There are so many things out there that want to be Ronalds—that want to make us feel smaller than we are, to keep us from working and writing and winning—and women need to know that it’s okay to reject any boy, job or situation that brings us down.
REDWALL by Brian Jacques
I read a lot of books during middle school—hiding out in a library from the bullies will do that to you—but one of the ones I remember the most was this delightful animal tale. While the racial metaphors don’t age well—all rats are bad, all mice are good—this is a remarkably adult fantasy that manages to keep its edge squarely in the middle grade mind, as a bunch of peaceful, secular mice monks fight against a rat army determined to take over their abbey.
There’s a lot here about keeping your chin up in the face of adversity, as well as doing the right thing, helping your friends and neighbors, and understanding that everyone is in the fight together. (There’s also a fantastic sword fight in a belfry, and don’t read this book hungry—Jacques has a singular talent for describing the massive feasts enjoyed by the abbeydwellers.)
This book is a fabulous read for adults, too, if only for the pacing and the level of detail the author put in—I remember closing my eyes and really feeling that I could see and smell and taste Redwall, and there were many times in those tumultuous years that I wished I lived there. To give someone that kind of experience is an unvarnished gift.
DRAGONSDAWN by Anne McCaffrey
This is another book that didn’t age well—don’t read it unless you want what Jo Walton calls “The Suck Fairy” to come down and suck all off the childhood delight out of it. I didn’t quite like the misogynistic edge to the rest of the series, but Dragonsdawn starts on a spaceship and tells a story about how telepathic fantasy dragons ended up on Pern—through science! (Of course! How else?) By the end of the novel, I was looking up into the sky wishing I could have a dragon of my very own, and come on, writers, isn’t that the kind of experience you got into the game to impart?
This book is delightfully unconcerned with the limits of genre, which is wonderfully freeing for a young writer who just wants to Do It All Right. Nowadays you get a lot more of that—gothic horror in space, mysteries in fantasy worlds—but back then, it was wild to see that you could actually write whatever you wanted! Fabulous.
What were the most influential books of your childhood? How did their lessons affect you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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