books that changed my life: girlhood

I recently discovered Lizzie Skurmick's weekly reviews of the books she read in girlhood. She re-reads the books and posts her thoughts on Fine Lines. I've read some of the books she mentions but some I've never heard of, probably due to both an age difference and the local library's holdings. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to process my own recollections with Skurmick's experiences of re-reading. Her posts have inspired a book to published next year by Harper Collins. I love books about books.

Also this week,Kevin Kelly, technologist, author and Wired editor lists the books that have changed his life. These are not books you love or think you should have read but as Kelly puts it, "books that altered your behavior, changed your mind, redirected the course of your life. Books as levers." What a great way to think about writing: as a lever.

So, inspired by Kelly and Skurmick, I've been thinking about books that changed me throughout different periods in my life.

As a girl, I always had a book in my hand. I loved Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. I also couldn't get enough of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. But there are a few novels that change my perspective on the world and myself and the small corner of the world where I lived and played.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Along with the A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh Books, The Velveteen Rabbit was my favorite book as a child. I don't know if it was the illustrations, the story or the idea of toys being real that was so compelling to me. I thought that my toys were real, too and that when I left the room they moved and talked and had feelings. This book made me question reality and faith. If I didn't see something could I still believe in it, believe it was real. Was something real only based on my experience of it? Though I obviously couldn't have articulated those exact feelings as a girl, the story made me curious about how things worked and whether all living and non-living things had a purpose. I remember asking my father a lot of questions about why God made stuffed animals if they only talked to one another and other strange and curious questions about existence. I probably have the same questions today.

Aesop's Fables by Aesop and The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales
One of the first collections of stories I remember reading and having read to me was Aesops Fables. Stories like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Lion and the Mouse, The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing and The Fox and the Crow influenced my interests in storytelling and in folklore. The stories with morals always intrigued me. The Grimm stories were always full of creatures and locations I could only imagine and yet the people seemed both real and fantastical. My grandmother had The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales and my brother and I would gasp and laugh with the stories. We always found ourselves a bit scared but loving every second of it, which is probably why I love scary movies, stories and urban legends now. I remember my grandmothers telling stories in similar ways. Even ghost stories had some kind of moral in the South. What I learned from these, I suppose, was that the words on the page are only part of the story; the rest is how one reads it aloud. How the story is told, understood and interpreted. These collections began an interest in the oral tradition of storytelling that would carry me all the way to the digital age.

Sounder by William H. Armstrong
This book had a great impact on me. It was one of the first books I read where I realized that morality is a very gray area. When the boy's father stole food for his family because otherwise they would be unable to eat, I did not think that was wrong. Though if you would have asked me at 9 if stealing was wrong I would have said yes. This book complicated issues of right and wrong for me. It also coincided with a time in my life where I was realizing that people were/are treated differently because of what they look like or the beliefs they have or the clothes that they wear and that people had completely different and difficult lives from me. The story was about hardship and survival, a message I was only beginning to understand might apply to me, albeit in very middle-class ways.

Sounder was also the first book I read aloud (that wasn't a picture book or story I read to my brother). I was selected to read the text to a third grade class each week when I was in fourth grade. Reading the book aloud was significant. It changed how I understood the power of spoken language. With a change in my inflection, the tone of what I was reading could change. It was the first time I understood in a very real way the power of my voice. Also, I learned that depot is pronounced dee po and not deh put.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
I cannot even tell you of my adoration for this book. It was the first book I read about pirates, which seemed both thrilling and terrifying. It was, I knew, a "boy's book" because when my mother saw me gripping it in the library. She said, "Are you sure you want that one? It's a boy's book." I nodded vehemently and tightened my grip; I was 11 or 12. I liked the adventure of the story, sure. It's a quick read and the action moves easily from one chapter to the next but I also appreciated the message of courage in the face of danger. When I didn't understand something or if I needed to know how to pronounce certain words, I asked my father. He loved that I was interested in Literature. As I read, he asked me what I thought about the book, and its themes. It was the first book that connected me to my father in this way and the first book I worked to understand. In my discussions with my father we talked about morals and responsibility and entitlement and greed. I learned to read thoughtfully by reading and talking about reading with my father. I'd never really talked about a book before, not in the way my father encouraged me to. It was a pre-cursor to me as an English major.

Though these books are not the only ones that influenced my girlhood, they are ones which enriched my thinking about myself, the world and people in it. They are the beginnings of my academic and personal interests in reading, in studying culture and stories. Each text mentioned above contributed to who I am and how I see relationships, reading and writing. The next books will be ones from adolescence which will be very different from those listed above because I was experiencing growing up too quickly. I always tried reading books above my understanding and it is interesting when I re-read them now and think about the teenager I was reading Tender is the Night at 14.
These and other stories to come in the second installment of books that changed my life.