November 2, 2017

Eight of the Eleven Books That Influenced Me Most, for Which I’m Incredibly Grateful

Over the years I’ve read thousands of books. I’m not actually joking. I started keeping track back in 2006, and since then I’ve read over 3000. Up to that point, I was about 2/3s the age I am now, and…okay, it’s too late to do math. But at any rate, I’ve read a lot. But just like certain events leave an impression on someone, certain books have left an impression on me. This isn’t exactly a comprehensive list of the books that impacted me the most (the top three will have to wait for another post), but it’s still a fairly accurate glimpse of what books “got to” me throughout my childhood to my twenties. Oh, and they’re in as close to chronological order as I can get, so really, no particular order.

Also, they’re all perfect for your shelf. Just sayin’.

Going through some boxes a few years ago, I actually squealed out loud when I found my copy of this book. I thought it was gone forever! It’s the story of Kirsten Larsen, a Swedish girl who immigrates with her family and her best friend’s family to America in the 1850s. It was part of the American Girl series, and while can’t remember which doll I got first (it may have been Samantha), Kirsten was always my favorite. She was Swedish, just like my ancestors! Reading this book showed me the hardships immigrants and pioneers faced, and it was my gateway drug to that era of history, which remains one of my favorites today.


While it’s unlikely that Calvin and Hobbes was my first comic (my dad has always been a massive DC fan), it was my favorite newspaper comic for a long time. I think he got this as a birthday present when it was first released, and I, um, borrowed it to read on my own when he finished. Over the years it migrated from the basement “library” to the backseat of the car, where in between stompings with wet shoes, being covered by heavy backpacks, and generally knocked around, it was read page by rumpled page on long car trips. Y’know, the kind to the grocery store ten minutes away. I was always a car reader.


Yes, I recognize what a bizarre entry this is. Bear with me a moment. Every summer from the time I was nine we’d drive half a day back east to visit the grandparents on my mother’s side. One day I was kinda bored—it was raining, I’d read all the good kid’s books, everyone was busy—so I went for a rummage around the upstairs office. On one of the shelves I found this book. Since I was already interested in historical things, I took it out, plopped down, and paged through it. About twenty minutes later I was at the table downstairs with a piece of paper, a pencil, and a calculator, “furnishing” a house I’d designed. It became one of my favorite childhood pastimes, and I swear it’s the reason why I can do geometry and arithmetic. I never had a graphing calculator, so I had to do multiples in my head if I was buying sets of things (twelve pairs of curtains at $1.28 apiece, for example). I got graph paper and drew houses from real house plans to scale. I actually have about a dozen catalogs from the past 120 years altogether, but the 1902 will always be my first.


The summer before sixth grade I discovered Star Wars. Given my dad’s massive geek factor, I’m not entirely sure how I’d missed it before then, but I became obsessed. And because this was more than ten years after the last movie was released, imagine my excitement to discover that there was a wealth of (then-canon) Star Wars literature! I devoured all the things, but the first book I ever picked up and the one that has remained my favorite (to the point I replaced my dog-eared copy a few years back) was always The Courtship of Princess Leia. Han and Leia, OTP. It was due to my love of the extended universe that I began writing my own fanfiction—self-insert, of course, because I was eleven, and rated G, because I was eleven. I spent practically that entire summer hitting tennis balls against the big, blank side wall of our brick house, making up this massive Final Fantasy VI/Star Wars crossover story…good times, good times.


Another grandparents’ house discovery, this book was apparently in use fifty years ago in several Delaware school districts because it talks about the history of Wilmington, one of biggest cities in the state. Basically, some kids finds a pair of magic spectacles that can teleport them through time to major events. It’s a pretty good book that isn’t marked quite so heavily by the sexism of the day (the little girl has just as many lines and astute observations as the little boy). It’s a little dated, but I’ve never minded that. Where the book gets interesting though, is that my great-grandmother was one of the writers (the “Meg,” even!). She wrote the story with her best friend and neighbor, who edited it. I like to think that she is where I get my love of writing and books from, even if I never got to meet her. I like to think she’d be proud.


To be honest, I was probably a little old for this when I first read it. It’s the classic rags-to-riches tale of Sara, a student at Miss Minchin’s School for Girls. Her father left her there at a young age, and she befriended many of the students through her kindness and compassion. Even after her father’s death and she lost everything, she never gave up hope and never stopped helping others. The edition I read was from my school’s library, and it had gorgeous watercolor illustrations scattered throughout, the kind on heavy, glossy paper. I would finish reading the book, flip to the beginning, and read it all over again. It was an escape into a world where magical neighbors were listening, ready to solve everyone’s problems. I needed that comfort in seventh and eighth grade.


My friends and I were already into anime by the time companies like Viz began translating manga and bringing it to the US, and we were already addicted to the show Fushigi Yuugi when the first volume was published (in fact, we marathoned the entire thing at my sixteenth birthday party). That doesn’t change the fact that this was the first time I remember seeing an LGBT character in a book. I mean, any book. I know now there were books written years before this featuring LGBT characters, but back then, it was so strange to me. Nuriko was such an awesome character, though, and it started to change my thinking about LGBT people. My opinions had been dominated by my mother since forever, but seeing positive portrayals of LGBT characters in literature got me thinking that she might be wrong. After all, how many people did she know who were gay? And despite disliking them, she still listened to Elton John and Freddie Mercury, like, all the time. Maybe they’re just people, same as straights are. Radical thought, I know, but for a mousy kid who was only starting to grow her backbone, it was a huge step.


True story. To be in honors English everyone needed to read four books assigned by the school each summer. Well, the summer before sophomore year, both sophomores and freshmen were assigned this book…but they didn’t say whether we were supposed to read the abridged copy or the full version. I figured, being an incoming sophomore, of course they meant for us to read the unabridged. I was wrong…but I’m still so, so glad I was. It’s an awesome adventure story, complete with prison escapes, revenge, lost love, murder, attempted murder, daring rescues—even now, more than half a lifetime later, it’s still my favorite piece of classic literature. I recommend it to kids all the time. Sure, it’s 1200 pages with another hundred or so pages of footnotes in the back, but it’s still just brilliant.

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