I was always an avid reader. As a child, I would get in trouble for staying up past my bedtime reading by the dim glow of the nightlight. My mother, as punishment for when she caught me, would take away what ever book I was caught reading. In hindsight, we laugh together at the absurdity of this practice! All the punishment did was ensure I became adept at reading several books at a time so I could squirrel them away for harder times when my Mother took a book away.
My taste in literature was, and still is, widely varied. There are books that feel like home to me; some books just stuck with me and are the equivalent of a big bowl of comfort food. I have collected a list of 9 books that I feel had a formative effect on me. Often now, when I read a new book, I find myself making comparisons to many of the texts on this list and finding some way to connect them.
This short book by Cindy Savage packs a lot of punch into just a little over a hundred pages. There are swamps, alligators, witches, voodoo, and adventure on every page and I must have read this book over a dozen times since it was published. I still own my original copy and it is always a reliable, quick escape from the day.
Ron Roy is a children’s author and this is one of his earliest published works. I have always been an animal lover and the theme of fighting for animal rights is strong in this novel. It appealed to me as a child to see other children standing up for animals that had no voice, even when everyone else thought they were weird. Roy’s writing is engaging and I was always able to read this book at a quick pace.
3. Big Red
One of the most popular books written by Jim Kjelgaard, Big Red brought the great outdoors to life in a way that was unique to Kjelgaard’s writing style. I grew up surrounded by animals and nature, so it wasn’t necessarily Big Red himself that drew me in, it was more the relationship between Danny and Big Red that appealed to me.
4. Black Beauty
Anna Sewell’s writing gives a gentle, soul-touching voice to the various animals featured in this book. My early love of this book and frequency with which I re-read it ensured that I was never able to stay silent if I saw someone treating an animal with anything short of utter adoration. This resulted in many awkward situations for my parents who, while animal lovers themselves, had a much more realistic view of the rural farmland in which we lived. What was, I’m told but still don’t completely agree with, actually normal, humane treatment of animals looked like nothing short of violent animal abuse to me and my close relationship with Black Beauty and his friends simply did not allow me to not speak up about it.
This book was the first in a series written by James Herriot about his life as a veterinarian in England. Herriot writes with a delightful humor that keeps me coming back to his world time and time again. He introduced me to British humor and opened a whole new category of literature to satisfy my voracious appetite for reading. My mother is a zookeeper, so this series of books always felt like familiar territory to me, but with an exotic, British twist on what I saw everyday.
I loved the mystery and the frequent interweaving of Native American culture that Lois Gladys Leppard writes in these stories. When I think of Mandie, I think of hidden staircases and candlelight and nighttime adventures that always felt so exciting to me as a child. These were some of my favorite books to read by the nightlight, and very conducive to having multiple stories being read at one time, just in case my Mother took one away!
I have read this book by Scott O’Dell probably the fewest times of all the books on this list, but it nonetheless carved out a place in my memory. Being slightly older when I read this book, between being a child and a teenager, the main character’s loneliness and self-sufficiency in survival resonated with me and I thought of her often as I struggled with what felt like the biggest issues in the world (as they are to every pre-teen).
Another great telling of a special relationship between an animal and a human written by Walter Farley. Perhaps it was books like this one that convinced me that animals have souls and animals can be friends and companions in a way that humans can not be. The Black Stallion showed me that when you treat animals with respect and kindness and as if they do in fact have souls like you and I, you find this special companionship available to you.
I first read Colleen McCullough’s story about Cleary’s and Father Ralph when I was 16 years old, and I have read it once a year since then. This is hands down my favorite book of all time. I can’t place my finger on what exactly ties me so firmly to this story, I simply fell into its pages and never get tired of being in this world. Paddy’s dislike and mistreatment of Meggie’s Italian friend and her family tore at my sense of justice and I think of it every time I see someone mistreated for their race. Anytime I come across someone in real life that seems bitter and mean I think of Fiona and all that happened in her life to make her end up so bitter and mean and I try to be kinder to that person. When people I just meet take me in as one of their own and treat me like family I think of Luddie and Anne Mueller and how kind they were to Meggie. There is just so much to this story about humans and how complex we can be and how varied the reasons are that we become that way. My copy of this book is barely held together by a few strings of bindings – it may be time for a new copy soon!
What books inspired you over the years and still play a role in how you write and why you choose the literature you do?