The books that inspired us

I’m taking a course this year on writing for children, where we cover everything from picture books to young adult, and on the first day of class we discussed those books that inspired us or made an impression when we were growing up. Because it is those books we take in as children, as young adults, that mould our tastes in literature and influence the kinds of stories we, as writers, write — even if we don’t immediately see it.

It was a great discussion — lots of books were mentioned that I’d never heard of, that a lot of people had never heard of. But there were many more than everyone had read, or nearly so. Someone would mention a book and everyone else would say, “Oh, yeah! I loved that book.”

And it’s interesting to see what ones we remember. I can’t remember half the books I read when I was a kid. (I can’t remember what I possibly did this past March, though, so that may not be saying much. Seriously, I couldn’t sleep last night because I was trying to remember what I did after the Olympics and before the end of school.) And some of the books I do remember reading, I want to go back and read again, now.

There were some real classics mentioned in the discussion. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie (one I’ve never actually read); the Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien; The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis; A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Some more contemporary stories were brought up as well. His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman, marked a high point in my influential books; Harry Potter, of course; books by Tamora Pierce, Jane Yolen, Kenneth Oppel, and dozens of others.

I read way more when I was young than I do now, thanks to my mom. She’d read to me every night at bedtime, from Dr. Suess as a child to the adventures in Narnia in early grade school. It’s a little harder to mark young adult books that really stuck with me in early high school — by then I was reading adult fiction, whole fantasy epics like Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies. But I read so much as a kid that I really can’t remember most of it. But I’ve no doubt that every one affected me in some way.

After class, I brought the discussion home to the dinner table with my mom and brother, and we reminisced even more about all the great books we all read a decade ago.

The story I brought into class to talk about was Redwall, by Brian Jacques. I remember reading it between grades 4 and 5, and becoming completely hooked on this animal world of medieval fantasy. I bought into the whole thing — the tv show, the Redwall mailing club that included trading cards and a pen, a 3D model of Redwall abbey.

Redwall may have been the first significant fantasy novel I read on my own. It’s the first that sticks with me. It was a whole series of books, and it told the stories of characters in that world across several generations, from myth and legend to “current” heroes and their descendents. I have little doubt that Redwall is what got me hooked on that kind of extended world, extended storyline — it’s not just about the characters of the one book, it’s about their history and their world and how everything affects everything else. It’s partly what got me hooked on fantasy, which I still love, on pseudo-medieval history, on myth and legend.

And all of those things have stuck with me to today, affect what I write and why.

What books inspired you?

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