The Books That Made Me, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about where my basic assumptions about what makes a good novel comes from, and how both my reading preferences and the themes, structures and concerns of my own creative writing can be traced back to a handful of crucial titles. These are not my favourite books of all time, or the books that I think are the best, but they are books that I once loved or still love. Post inspired partly by Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm!

Early Childhood Favourites (Under 8)

I was a precocious reader (nobody who reads this blog will be at all surprised to hear) and my mum struggled to find me books that I wouldn’t eat up in two seconds and yet would still be appropriate for my age. It’s not surprising that she turned to fantasy. What’s wonderful about all these titles is that they’re books that have lived with me for more than twenty years, enriching my life differently as I get older; they’re books that I didn’t necessarily understand completely the first time I read them, but which have shaped my understanding of story-form on an unconscious level.

enchanted-forest

Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, especially the first two titles in the series, Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons, have given me endless pleasure throughout the years. Most importantly, I think their use of twisted fairytale elements made me understand that stories look different from different points of view. Princess Cimorene volunteers to live with a dragon, but has to constantly turn away disgruntled princes who want to rescue her so they can get half her father’s kingdom and her hand in marriage. Rumpelstiltskin is forced, through family tradition, to take the babies of women who can’t guess his name after spinning straw into gold, but he can’t provide for all the children, and he can’t spin gold for himself; he solves the problem by setting up a boarding school and hiring a good lawyer to make it into a charitable trust, so he can spin for charity. Wizards, like the Wicked Witch of the West, can be vanquished by a bucket of soapy water, but don’t forget to add lemon juice, or it doesn’t work. Unlike many favourite children’s books, I honestly feel that these could be read and appreciated at any age, even if you first come to them as an adult.

Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper, about a group of powerful women, called dorans, who strive to live in harmony with the earth, put forward a beautiful and subtly feminist vision of female power, based on Cornish folklore. In that, they share some elements with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet*, especially The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. I didn’t fully understand any of these books as a child, but their descriptions of light and dark magic made a deep impression. Similarly, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, about a female dragon killer, was almost incomprehensible to me at first due to the way it nested stories within stories, but it became my first introduction to this storytelling style. Her Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was more accessible for a seven-year-old. Finally, my mum’s childhood copy of Alan Garner’s A Weirdstone of Brisingamen scared me and delighted me at the same time, and the scene when Colin and Susan are chased through an underground cave system is still an exemplar of how to build up tension.

*There were only four books when I was little…

Late Childhood Favourites (8-12)

Fantasy and speculative fiction continued to dominate my reading during this period (I read plenty of more realistic books as well, I just didn’t like them as much) with the beginnings of some science fiction as well. Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams is still one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and also a great lesson in how to mix fantasy and reality; it focuses on Marianne, who is confined to bed with a long illness, and who starts to discover that the things she draws come to life in her dreams. Lionel Davidson’s almost unknown Under Plum Lake is a deeply haunting narrative of a boy who discovers a secret world deep under the sea; impossible to summarise, impossible to forget. The last of these three books – they always go together in my mind – is Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl at boarding school in the 1960s who unknowingly swaps places with a girl at the same school in 1918. All these novels have the supernatural, otherworldly quality that I strive for in my own fiction.

All these books were published decades before I was born. On the other hand, there were modern series: so many series! Growing up in the 1990s, very few new books for children or teenagers seemed to be stand-alones. Many of these titles were rubbish, but there were some exceptions. I bought the first Harry Potter book in 1997, and so was a little ahead of the curve; I was enraptured by how incredibly well-plotted it was, and the complex moral universe that seemed to be suggested by its two sequels. Alas, the Harry Potter series jumped the shark for me after book five (see monster rant coming soon), but I still admire the first three books. More satisfying was K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, which I’ve written about before but will never stop talking about, probably because they had the single biggest impact on my childhood self. This SF series stars a group of teenagers who can change into any animal they can touch and have to use these powers to fight a guerrilla war against an undercover alien invasion that’s infiltrating Earth by taking over human bodies. By the age of ten, I was desperate for books that moved beyond heroes and villains and explored more difficult questions about morality; Animorphs, which ends with our all-American boy hero committing genocide against the main alien antagonists of the series, delivered this in spades. Given that the series is fifty-four books long, plus some sequels, super editions and spin-offs, it obviously varies in quality, but nothing else I read made me think so hard.

This post got too long, so Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon! Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Have you read any of these books? What were your childhood favourites, and how have they affected the way that you read and/or write fiction?

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23 thoughts on “The Books That Made Me, Part 1

  1. I was eighteen when I first read The Moonstone of Brisingamen and in my first year at College. My bed was on one side of the room and the light switch on the other. I don’t think I have ever been as terrified in my life as I was while making that journey back to bed in the dark while I was reading Garner’s novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for reminding me of Wise Child and Juniper – I loved them too and I think they’re now out of print. When I was five or six, I read Little House on the Prairie and Harriet the Spy so many times they fell apart and had to be put together by my ever-patient dad and some packing tape. Under Plum Lake reminds me slightly of Glinda of Oz, which I found in a library and became bafflingly obsessed with. My Harry Potter education started especially early for an American–English auntie and uncle bought the first one for me when I was six, presumably just because it was on a table in a bookshop (this was 1998, I guess), and the first three BLEW.MY.MIND. (although the Quirrell turban-unwrapping scene in book one gave me actual nightmares.) And HOORAY for the Animorphs. I was always vaguely embarrassed by how much I liked them (unclear why as loads of kids at my school liked them too), but I remember bits even now–Cassie, with her beautiful artistic way of morphing, and poor trapped Tobias.

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  3. Ah, I’m so glad you mentioned Patricia Wrede’s series; I’d lost track of what it was called but I remember devouring those as a child and then at age nine writing a very similar dragon story (probably lost to time, and no great loss!).

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  4. A wonderful post! You hit two particuar touchstones with me Laura! I adored Alan Garner’s children’s novels, but it wasn’t until I re-read him as an adult that I realised what a stylist he is and how carefully he chooses his words. Obviously, I was already in my 30s when the first HP was published – and the first 3 books are taut and superb – then the page count increased and things weren’t quite as exciting – but I still devoured them. As for Marianne Dreams (I had the same edition you pictured) – it is possibly MY FAVOURITE BOOK EVER!

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  5. This is such a lovely idea for a post, Laura! I really need to read Bookworm ASAP, and it sounds like Charlotte Sometimes would’ve been perfect for me as a kid. I might still have to read it one day. Looking forward to part two!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: The Books That Made Me, Part 2 | Laura Tisdall

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