For us book-lovers, books are more than just a pastime; they’re part of us. The books we read in our early years in particular had an impact on our ways of thinking and viewing the world. They taught us what we know, gave us an escape from whatever was happening in our young lives, and helped us connect and empathize with others. The books we read over and over, the books we kept on our nightstand, the books that stuck with us are a part of us. So what books made you you?
I’ve always read widely and voraciously. Here are a few books that influenced me as a young reader:
The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter
The first book I remember truly loving is the blue cloth-bound edition of The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, handed down through generations. I’d carry it around with me, hold it close, trace my small hands over the detailed illustrations of the animals that populated its pages. There’s a home video of me sitting in a laundry basket in my underwear, flipping the pages of this treasured copy, randomly and sometimes backwards, while making up my own elaborate stories of Peter Cottontail’s adventures. Potter’s characters, though from the animal kingdom, felt human to me. They were playful and compassionate and loving. They introduced me to the wonderful world of animals and nature.
Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, Stuart Little by E.B. White
These classics were frequent bedtime re-reads for my dad and me. I was particularly enthralled by Stuart Little’s adventures. He was intrepid and a little mischievous, though good-hearted, and his antics always made me laugh.
The BFG by Roald Dahl
I loved Matilda, I loved The Witches, I loved Boy and The Twits and Charlie and the Factory. But my all-time favorite Roald Dahl book has to be The BFG. I got it for Christmas when I was nine and spent most of the day reading it and eating chocolate. I recall reading the part where Sophie is dumbfounded that the Big Friendly Giant’s brothers take kids from their beds and eat them. The BFG says, “Don’t you do the same thing to little piggies?” I do! I thought. That’s exactly what I do! I got called to dinner and, when the prime rib was placed in front of me, announced that I was a vegetarian now. Twenty-three years later, I still am, and my love for everything written by Roald Dahl has not lessened over time.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis’ seven-book series brought me to a whole new world and had me checking closets for secret passageways to magical kingdoms ruled by lions (a girl can dream). This series was my first introduction to fantasy and lit a fire in my imagination.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I first read an abridged version of this classic for young readers and instantly identified with Jo, a writer herself. I liked Beth for her kindness, Meg for her wisdom, Amy for her wild streak. Though I didn’t have sisters, I liked to dream that I did, and I hoped they’d be like the March sisters.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
My godfather gave me a beautiful leather edition of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries I’d seen on Masterpiece Theater and Wishbone. At eight, some of the stories went over my head, but I still loved the twists and turns and surprises. It’s a close study of human nature and behavior and I found it fascinating. I cherish that book still.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
In fourth grade, we started doing book reports and I got really into them. Like, really into them. I’d enlist my parents and spend hours making elaborate costumes, in one case, a live-sized penguin marionette (for Mr. Popper’s Penguins), and a diorama of Bridge to Terabithia, complete with “running” water, as I poured it into the funnel and it became the raging river that sweeps Leslie away (Leslie was made of clay and hanging from the rope swing, like in the book, and she did fall, but didn’t really go anywhere). My teacher somehow put me in touch with the author, Katherine Patterson (now a CLiF presenter), and she graciously did a phone interview with me for my report. I can’t remember a thing she said but, at the time, as an aspiring young writer, just getting to talk to a real writer I loved was unreal.
The Stand by Stephen King
By fifth grade, I was a full-blown Stephen King fan. I got out of having to read to my younger brother, a reluctant reader, anymore by reading him The Shining and giving him nightmares for a month. I loved the complexity of King’s characters, how he delved into the darkest parts of them, the strange and macabre twists. I liked his off-kilter and creepy stories, like the novella “The Langoliers” from Four Past Midnight, but I especially loved The Stand. In my opinion, it’s King’s magnum opus, an epic about good vs. evil. I reread my unabridged edition, which weighs in around 1,100 pages, this past summer and am now regretting it during this COVID crisis, as it’s about a pandemic that’s even more violent and quick-spreading than the one we’re dealing with now, and how it destroys society and pits two groups – the bad guys vs. the good guys – against each other. It’s an excellent character study, the many rich and funny characters King develops. I’d recommend waiting until this crisis is over, though.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
We read this one in high school and I fell in love with Alvarez’s storytelling and the captivating story of the Tres Mariposas. I learned about the Dominican dictatorship and revolution, of which I had known nothing. It introduced me to another culture that was as dangerous and violent as it was vibrant and beautiful.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
I was around fourteen when I read Speak, and I remember that it was a rainy day and I spent the entire day in bed, reading the book from start to finish. I hadn’t read anything that addressed serious issues like sexual violence before. It opened my mind and made me feel deeply for this character. That book shook me.
These are just a few of the books that helped define me, make me who I am. They taught me empathy for characters that lived different lives than my own and exposed me to other worlds, both real and imaginary. They introduced me to good storytelling and inspired my lifelong love of reading and writing.
What books have shaped you?