December 2, 2017

The Last Three of the Eleven Books That Influenced Me Most, Which I Therefore Often Recommend

Last month, I wrote about eight of the books that influenced me the most when I was a kid. They ranged from what was essentially Star Wars fanfiction to a catalogue, and they all played a major part in making me the reader I am today.

The following three books, however, are the big ones. The major leagues of making Meg. While I may go back to those other eight on occasion for nostalgia, laughs, and tears, these three are the ones I read every year. And the great thing about that? My reading and understanding of them as matured as I have. Each time I pick up something new, something that makes me stop and say, “Huh” or “Oh!” It’s an awesome feeling.

Do you have any books like that? If so, let me know! I’m always looking for new things to read.

The summer before fifth grade I was bored. Wander-around-the-house, flop-on-pieces-of-furniture, whine-and-complain bored. It was a really hot summer that year, and muggy, too, so I couldn’t go outside much. My brother and I had to share the video game system, and more often than not my mom had Donkey Kong up on the SNES because she couldn’t save her game, so neither he nor I could play anyway. My friends all lived in other neighborhoods, so I needed a ride to go visit them. There weren’t any day camps or anything like that in my town, either, and I was too young to get dropped off at the pool for the day without an adult to watch out for me. I couldn’t even go to the library by myself–I’d need a ride, and even then, there wasn’t any place for me hang out and just read. It was absolutely miserable.

So one particularly bad day my dad finally got fed up with my complaining and dragged me downstairs to his office. This was sacred territory. No one, not even my mom, was allowed in without his permission. But that day, he brought me in, went over his his personal bookshelf (if his office was off-limits, his bookshelf was triply so), and pulled down a paperback book. He handed it to me and told me to go read.

That book was Ender’s Game.

On the surface, it’s a pretty basic tale: a young boy is taken from his family and sent into space and learns how to play this zero-G game and to be a leader. Honestly, that’s probably about as much as I got from it when I was ten. When I was eleven, though, I picked up on some foreshadowing. At twelve, the metaphor of the Giant’s Drink. Every year I kept going back to it and finding something new. It wasn’t until college that I finally understood the importance of the philosophy, and right now, the way the father is swayed by the terrible, terrifyingly radical views on the newsfeed seems especially relevant.

So yes, this book is suitable for younger readers, even if they aren’t yet reading past the surface. Even so, it will stick with them for a long time.

The summer before sixth grade, as I talked about last time, I found Star Wars and became absolutely obsessed with the extended universe novels. Honestly, they’re the only things I remember reading that year except for The Hobbit, which took six months because it kept putting me to sleep.

Anyway, by the summer before seventh grade my parents (my mom in particular) were determined to get me to read pretty much anything else. She convinced my dad that it should be a thing, too, so whenever we went to the library, no matter how much I begged or pleaded, neither of them would let me take out another Star Wars book.

One Sunday, fed up with my complaining about the lack of “good books” at our library in town, we finally ended up taking a family trip to the big, main library (ours was just a branch). They turned me loose with the stipulation that the book I picked could not be a Star Wars novel. I wandered over to the science fiction/fantasy section anyway and began combing the shelves. The Positronic Man was the one that caught my eye.

This book is actually based on Isaac Asimov’s short story, “The Bicentennial Man” (we’ll just pretend the movie never happened). NDR-113 is brought home by the Martin family as an experiment to see how effective robots can be in the home. However, “Andrew,” as he is dubbed by the youngest Martin child, turns out to be a unique and extraordinary robot. The story itself is great, but the questions it raises about what it means to be human is where the heart of the story lies. This book helped me deal with some of my own stuff growing up and really shaped my view of the world. It, more than any book with similar themes we read in school, illustrated that we’re all humans who should work together to make the world a wonderful place for everyone, not just a few people here or there.

Just in case you haven’t sensed a theme yet, the books that shaped me most are all science fiction. Honestly, this can be attributed to the way science fiction tends to approach complex issues by putting them in situations non-scientists and younger readers can understand. In Ender’s Game, there were themes of war and sacrifice; in The Positronic Man, it questioned the meaning of humanity. The Giver, combines them both: what should humanity be willing to sacrifice in the name of uniformity?

I never really liked Newbery winners when I was a kid. They were usually stuffy and formulaic. I actually avoided this one until the beginning of eighth grade. My parents had lifted the kibosh on Star Wars novels after I’d read through all of the Asimov and moved on to Piers Anthony, so that was nice, but my teacher had told me that we needed to bring a book to class or else we’d start getting detentions. Normally, I always had one, but on this particular day, I’d just finished the book I’d been reading and didn’t have a new one. Terrified of getting in trouble (I was that kind of kid), I went to the library before class started and frantically pawed through the shelves.

I’d read Lowry’s Number the Stars and hadn’t really liked it, but there was something about The Giver that gave me pause. Maybe it was the stark, monochrome cover of the original book. Maybe it was the size–if I didn’t like it, at least it was short. Whatever the reason, I read the first page and was hooked. Like, I almost missed the bell for class, which would’ve meant a detention anyway.

The Giver is about Jonas, a boy who lives in the Community with his parents and younger sister. The community is committed to the idea of Sameness, where everyone looks and dresses the same. There is ostensibly no class or caste system. Everyone lives in the same sort of house. Partners are matched based on compatibility of personality, and children are given to them once they apply. There is a lengthy set of rules to which all must comply, and breaking the strictest of these rules results in Release from the Community, which most people associate with exile. At twelve, Jonas, like all other members of his age group, is given his job-for-life. Unlike the others, he’s to become The Receiver of Memory, the keeper of all knowledge from before the Community went to Sameness. What follows is a thrilling, heartbreaking examination of freedom vs. rigidity and what makes life truly worth living.

Before this book, I’d never really read any dystopian fiction, and this was probably the best start into the genre I could’ve asked for. Even now that dystopias are so popular in YA fiction, I’d still recommend starting off with The Giver to any kid even remotely interested in it. It examines the big questions, just like the “grown-up” science fiction books I read as a kid, but it does so in such a way that it’s accessible to younger readers. It doesn’t have the violence of The Hunger Games or the sexuality of Matched. It’s just a good, solidly-built world that isn’t as perfect as it might seem with a premise that just won’t let you go.

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