It sounds weird - but I've been thinking a lot about life-changing books lately. Mostly because the book I'm writing for NaNoWriMo is one of those books that I'm writing because of a need to explore a topic that is therapeutic and honest in written form. As I've been drafting - my mind keeps slipping back to the thought: this could change someone's life. And that thought had me thinking about the number of books I've read in my lifetime (*Spoiler Alert* It's a lot!) and which ones have changed my life in some shape or form. I thought I would explain what a few of those are and why. Fair warning - this is a whopper of a post ;)
WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS BY WILSON RAWLS &
OLD YELLER BY FRED GIPSON
I know a lot of people had to read one or both of these books while in school, however, I did not. But my Dad loved these books, and so when I moved on to chapter books, these were the first two I read. I can remember crying through both of them -- and learning for possibly the first time what it meant to love and bond with an animal. I learned about the pain of losing another part of your family. One of my favorite memories is of my dad and I watching these two movies after I finished reading the books and reliving the experience of reading them. I believe these are two books that every child/young adult should read.
THE BOXCAR CHILDREN BY GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER
Ah, the books of my early youth. I was a voracious reader - even when I was a young girl. I whipped through The Boxcar Children books as fast as I could. I envied the siblings' adventures and remember wishing so badly that I had a sister (and then finally, I did). The Boxcar Children taught me what it mean to be loyal to your family and really, the moral implications of the stories taught me about the world, even if I didn't know it then. I recently got the boxed set as a gift for Christmas and I treasure it because they are such a classic part of my childhood.
GOOSEBUMPS & FEAR STREET BY R.L. STINE
I know I've talked about my fascination with horror (like here) and most of the people who know me well - know that I love all things scary, horror or macabre. But I would take a guess that my true love of horror stories began with Goosebumps and Fear Street. I have fond memories of curling up in my bed under the covers and reading these with a flashlight. I also remember having nightmares afterward, but also kind of loving that. I quickly moved on from the often silly themes in Goosebumps (this guy made a ranking of the Goosebump books and it's awesome) to Fear Street pretty quickly. I was reading books I shouldn't have been reading pretty early on. I think this is why I probably am not that scared in my adulthood - I was LITERALLY scared out of my mind when I was young and read/watched the scary things I wasn't supposed to.
In all honesty though, these were such great books to learn the horror tropes and to ease into the genre. Without them, I'm not sure I would have developed such a love for horror. And that would be a shame, because it's so much of who I am today.
GONE WITH THE WIND BY MARGARET MITCHELL
When I tell this story, my husband rolls his eyes (because he feels like I'm tooting my own horn) and my mother beams (because she's proud of me) and I just love telling it because this book, more than so many others, really did change my life. I was in Seventh or Eighth Grade when we had "reading groups" and we'd all had to take a test to determine what group we'd be in (it was based on comprehension and a bunch of other stuff) - my test landed me 2 things: in a reading group by myself and a trip to the "gifted" classroom.
I chose Gone with the Wind as my reading group book because 1. I was by myself and 2. my grandmother really enjoyed the book and 3. I wanted to impress my teacher. I know, I know. But here's what happened: I fell in love with Southern history. I fell in love with love stories (not romance), I found I had an affection for rogue bad boys, and I found myself for the first time in my life, both loving and hating a character. Gone with the Wind was the first book I'd read up to this point that forced me to think about life outside of myself, and what I had experienced. It made me think about life during the civil war and how women and people of color were depicted. Also for the first time, I actually FELT a character's desire for something (Scarlett wanting Ashley) and her immense regret (There's always tomorrow...). A piece of me identified with Scarlett but I was also so angry with her for being so stubborn and stupid. My heart fell for Rhett Butler and there hasn't been another book boyfriend that holds a place in my heart quite like him.
This was also the first time in my life that I got that: I want to do this. I want to write like this. I want to tell a story like this. It changed my world and to this day is one of my favorite books.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD BY HARPER LEE
This book is probably on a lot of people's lists as it should be. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the mandatory reading selections at school, and I'm so glad that it is. Obviously it's right in line with my love of Southern novels, but Scout immediately grabbed my heart and I went through the journey of her story WITH her. What I love about this book (and what I've heard from others) is that if you read it young, it's almost as if you're experiencing the same realizations that Scout has throughout the book. I wasn't knowledgable about rape trials at that time and I barely knew anything about criminal trials and was just starting to learn about the discrimination African Americans faced in the south during that time. I felt like as Scout's eyes were opened to the tragedy and hope and admiration of her father, so were mine.
THE HARRY POTTER SERIES BY J.K. ROWLING
Again, I know I'm not the only one who has this series on the list of life-changing books. These books... I can't even begin to describe what an impact they've had on my life. I was the same age as Harry when the books came out. I literally grew up WITH Harry, Ron & Hermione. I think many people can relate to one or more of the characters, but in school, I always felt like someone who didn't belong. I had some friends, but I was not popular, I was a geek, but not a smart geek. I didn't fall into a category. I felt invisible most of the time. I took solace in the world of Hogwarts and magic. I reveled in the world-building and finding all the connections. And I knew early on that more than anything - I wanted to be J.K. Rowling. Not that I wanted to write fantasy -- but I wanted to write stories that touched people and saved them the way Harry Potter saved my life during my darkest of days. While I don't want children, I yearn to be around a child that I can read these books to so I can experience the joy and magic of the stories once again, with someone new. I'll just have to beg my siblings to let me do this with their kids ;)
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS BY ANN BRASHARES
This series holds a dear place in my heart -- even though I will admit that my tastes have changed dramatically. What I loved about these stories was that each girl was different and representative of someone you would know in real life. They weren't barbie doll types or the girls from Sweet Valley High... they were realistic depictions of girls I could relate to and their situations were also relatable. I remember reading the first book and understanding for the first time what sexual tension was. That butterfly inducing, anticipation that came from wanting the characters to kiss, touch and more. I loved that Ann Brashares didn't shy away from depicting some non-healthy relationships and framing it in a sensitive way.
MISERY BY STEPHEN KING
Ah, my first Stephen King book. All it took was one book and I was hooked on one of my favorite authors to date. Just like my relationship with Goosebumps and Fear Street -- this book took my love of horror and suspense to a new level. I remember first, being in awe of how truly terrifying writing could be and then second, how talented a writer could be. When I read this book, I was in the backseat of my mother's car, on the way to see my dad for the weekend, and I came to a particular part in the book where I gasped. I remember that it was so well written, and so evocative and no other book had ever done that to me before. I'd never been pulled into a terrifying world like Stephen King had done. It was love at first book and now I can't imagine my life without King's books in it.
A TIME TO KILL BY JOHN GRISHAM
My mom really likes John Grisham. And she'd leave his books around the house when she was done but she'd take them to my grandma's before I could get a chance to swipe one. So I remember checking this book out at the library and the librarian calling my mom saying that she thought it was too "adult" for me. My mom said that if I could understand it - I could read it. That was my first dance with Grisham - and after reading this book - I felt much like I did with To Kill a Mockingbird (coincidence about the name and content being similar? I don't think so...). Grisham goes into so much more detail in terms of the case and the crime and I was as fascinated with the story as I was when I read Stephen King. I learned more about court cases and criminal proceedings from John Grisham than most people know today. He instilled in me a theme that I find in my own writing very often: that of justice and whether or not it's served appropriately. This book asks you to think about hard subjects and I remember having a long conversation about the realities of the world with my mom after I was finished.
You could say that this book single-handedly influenced much of what and why I write the type of books I do, today.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER BY STEPHEN CHBOSKY
I reluctantly believe in fate and destiny. I'll admit it. I don't think it happens often, but I think once in a while - it does. One of those instances is when I stumbled upon The Perks of Being a Wallflower right at the exact moment that I was going through turbulent times as a teenager. I was going through hard times with my parents. I was invisible at school. I didn't have any good friends then and I was scared to be myself. Everyday was angsty and my journal was full of sad, depressing things. And when I read this book - it was like the salve to my aching wounds. I related with the Charlie so much it ached. He was into reading and writing - me too! He was a wallflower - me too! He had a gay friend - me too! His PTSD about being molested - me too! But what this book did was tell me that it was okay. It was okay to be invisible, because sometimes you grow up and you're not anymore. That it's okay to be angsty and confused. That it's okay to admit something traumatic happened to you and you still feel the effects years and years later.
Mostly, this book taught me that it was okay to be me.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE BY NICHOLAS SPARKS
I checked out this book from the school library mostly because I recognized the title as a movie my mom loved. I figured if my mom liked it - I probably would too. But that's not what happened -- I didn't just like this book, I loved it. It was the first "adult" love story I read and not only that - it was the first love story that touched on tragedy. The emotions contained in this book - especially for a hormonal teenager were explosive. I remember being cradled up and crying when it was over. My mom consoled me with ice cream, like I'd just broken up with a boyfriend. I was devastated by what happened in this book and also deeply deeply moved by their love story. I became a Nicholas Sparks fan from that moment on. I don't care what anyone says about him or his books -- I have a fondness for them that I'll never deny.
Later in life, when I looked back on why I loved this book so much - another thing struck me. It taught me how good a story can be when you connect with a character. When their emotions become yours and you understand the depth of love and grief and all that comes with it. I try to apply these principles to my own writing and often think back to this book and the way it made me feel.
THE PACT BY JODI PICOULT
Going along the lines of love stories - I specifically picked up this book after reading Message in a Bottle because it said "A Love Story" - I had no idea what I was in for - or that I would fall in love with author Jodi Picoult either. This book broke me in half, simply put. It was also more relatable because it was a love story about teenagers grappling with teenage things. Especially surrounding something that I struggled with myself: depression. This book touches on suicide and had I known that from the beginning, I may not have read it as I'd just had a friend commit suicide shortly before reading this book. But once I was hooked on the book - it didn't matter, because it touched on so many things my friend (and I) had felt in terms of our depression. This book made me feel like I was again, not alone. That my depression was something more serious than just feeling sad all the time. It also confirmed what I'd felt months earlier when my friend committed suicide - that terrifying, utterly devastating feeling of knowing someone you love has taken their own life. I loved the way Picoult wrote both sides of the coin - the teenager POV and the parent POV - and I learned very early on that Picoult has an innate ability to present moral issues in a new light and make you question everything. That's why she remains a go-to author for me.
LOOKING FOR ALASKA BY JOHN GREEN
I don't remember which girl on my dorm floor recommended this book to me, but she should get a prize. Because the moment I read the first sentence of this book was the moment I fell head over heels in love with John Green. The way John Green writes is so unique and distinctive (my first year of college was extremely formative for me in terms of my writing identity and life) and I devoured every word and beautiful sentence he wrote. I fell in love with his language and his characters. But this book - it touched me to the core because of what I was going through. I've always struggled with depression - but my first year in college was my first year of dealing with it away from my family. Friends. My best friend and I fought and we started to drift. I didn't have a best friend then. I had no one. And I felt it. That's why Alaska spoke to me. I also yearned for someone to admire me the way Miles adored Alaska. The intriguing, melancholy girl who was too smart and wore darkness on her sleeve. This was my first John Green book - and is one of my favorites to this day. My husband has learned that my "one pass" would go to John Green if ever there were a chance ;)
ROOTS BY ALEX HALEY
I'm embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to read ROOTS. It was mandatory reading for my African American Literature class in college and I remember being both excited and terrified of the 900 page saga. But I blew through it and I remember crying for days and days afterward. I felt ashamed that I didn't know more about African American history. I felt ashamed that my ancestors and kin were taught to hate and treat others the way they did in the books. Of course, I learned about slaves during middle and high school - but nothing I learned then came close to reading the words Alex Haley wrote. Nothing. I learned after reading this book, the impact that words can have on a person. The way they can shape and deconstruct history for someone. The way they can preserve a piece of history - no matter how good or bad it is. I was sickened by the events in this book and it had such an impact on me that it's why it belongs on this list. But I will admit that it brought out so many emotions in me that I never want to read it again. The heartbreak of it was enough once, I don't think I could deal with that pain again.
EAT PRAY LOVE BY ELIZABETH GILBERT
I read this book after a move to a new city, with a new school and a new job and I barely knew anyone. I had been in a bit of a rut, I was feeling down about my prospects in life. I was very much one of those people just "going through the motions." I thought I would hate this book - #truestory. I am not really into the whole new-agey thing. And at the time I read this - I didn't think I could relate to someone who was such an adult and going through adult things. But it turns out - this book was exactly what I needed at that time. It's not so much about the struggles that Gilbert was going through, but HOW she refocused her intentions and her life to find the answers to the questions she'd been asking. And really -- that's where I was at. My life was a giant question mark waiting to be answered. What I discovered through reading this book was not that I needed to go to Italy or travel to Bali to find myself, but that I needed a fresh perspective, a new way to approach my life.
And shortly after I decided to approach my life with this renewed sense of "discovery," I met my now-husband. Funny how that worked...
THE NIGHT CIRCUS BY ERIN MORGENSTERN
I'm honestly not sure I've EVER read a more beautiful book than The Night Circus. I picked this one up mostly because it sounded good, but also because the author was a huge supporter of NaNoWriMo (which I talk about here). So I decided to give it a try. And I think it was the first time since I took writing seriously that I sat down in awe of how truly beautiful a book could be. I mean, the words! The dialogue! The description! Every single thing about this book sang. The prose is to die for. And the minute I closed the book - I knew that my goal for the rest of my life would be to put out a book as beautiful as The Night Circus. It hasn't happened yet - but every time I open a document and start writing, I remind myself of this goal and what I want to achieve one day.
WYNN IN DOUBT BY EMILY HEMMER
Full disclosure: Emily is my friend. But that makes no difference in how I view this book. There comes a book every once in a while where you connect SO deeply to the character, he/she might as well be you. Wynn Jefferies is me. I bet she's a bit of you, too. The thing about Wynn is that the issues she face, I think EVERYONE has faced sometime in their life. Wynn is doubtful of herself. Unable to move forward because of fear of not being good enough. Not thinking she can have what she truly wants. Its a universal feeling. But what Hemmer does with Wynn is weave a relatable story in with an epic and controversial side-story that touches your soul. Maybe I related to this book so heavily because I felt exactly like Wynn at the time that I read it. Maybe it's because she wants an adventure for her life and so do I. Whatever the reason, I knew after I finished the last word that I was changed. That like Wynn, I couldn't be content just "waiting" for my life to happen. I had to take it into my own hands.
LANDLINE BY RAINBOW ROWELL
Marriage. It's not a topic I usually find interesting in novels. Especially because they usually revolve around situations I have no experience with or desire to know about. But Landline... it was different. I knew I would like it because I like the author. But Landline put the topic of marriage and twisted it into a unique perspective and for the first time, I found a book about marriage that I related to. That I found more than interesting. That spoke to me. I love the way Rowell can take the subject and break your heart with it without even having a major controversy. She explores things like: having a dream and working on that dream when your partner has other dreams and aspiration and those two start to diverge. How do you chase WHAT you love when you feel like WHO you love is holding you back? Growing old together and taking advantage of the things you think you know about them only to find out, there's still SO much to learn and love about your partner. Whenever I see a new couple getting married - I write in their guestbooks that they should buy this book.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS BY JOHN GREEN
This is the book that I'm sure is on a lot of lists. It's a book that touched in me in ways I will never be able to adequately describe. It's a love story. A tragedy. A coming-of-age. It's everything all at once, and done so seamlessly that you don't even know what's happening. Earlier, I described how much I fell in love with John Green and his writing - and it absolutely shines through in this novel more than any other. The truth is - I have very little experience with having a young family member with cancer. A good family friend died when he was twenty-two from cancer, but other than that - I thankfully have not had to deal with young family members with cancer. As you can imagine - it's one of the hardest things to go through... and this book shows you so many different angles of that. It rips your heart in two when you fall in love with the characters and realize that they FEEL just like your friends. And when something happens to one of them, you FEEL the pain they do. There is no purer love than that of someone who knows death is imminent. Who knows they don't have long to enjoy the luxuries of life and love. So they fall completely and honestly and purely. And it's beautiful. It's beautiful and heartbreaking and TRUE. That's what I love about this book... is that it feels so honest, to the very core. I re-read this book days after reading it the first time and have re-read it several times since then, discovering new things about the story and the love between Hazel and Augustus. This book changed my life and I thank John Green for such a poignant story that I call one of my favorites.
There you have it folks. The list of the most life-changing books for me. I'm sure there are some missing from this list that had an impact on me, but to be honest, the list is already pretty damn long. I'm sure you don't want to sit through anymore ;P If you take away ANYTHING from this post - it's that words have the power to change people's lives. You never know WHY or HOW the things you write/say will impact someone, but rest assured - they have the power to do so. And maybe try one of the books on the list if you haven't -- see if it changes YOUR life, too.
Thanks for reading.