This is one of those questions where you either know the answer or you really have to ponder, which, of course, probably means that you don’t have an answer. I grew up surrounded by books. My parents were bibliophiles. They worked in education, specializing in, get this, multicultural children’s literature. I lived in a library. I remember reading John Steptoe and Lucille Clifton’s books over and over again as a child. I remember staying up all night, as a tween, reading my first “real” book, The Greatest: The Autobiography of Muhammad Ali. When I was a teenager, I came across a Langston Hughes book called The Best of Simple, featuring a witty, smart (alecky), socially conscious, and downright hilarious Harlemite named Jesse B. Semple. I had never laughed so much reading a book. His voice was intoxicating and familial, and he dealt with some pretty heady topics. Little did I know, I was being educated and informed, on a variety of subjects—education, jazz, racism—in a very fun way. When I think of how I’ve tried to move through life, interacting with young people, writing about heavy things, trying to make the world a better place through literature, there is no doubt that I carry Semple with me, and use humor to teach.
When I was 12, I read Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, his autobiographical novel/memoir about growing up as a heroin-addicted high school basketball star in New York City. Carroll’s book wasn’t necessarily written for a young adult audience. And my father purchased the book for me because he thought it was only about basketball. In any case, this book made me realize for the first time that I, a reservation Indian boy, could have so much in common with a white urban Catholic kid. I recognized his personal and artistic desperation. Looking back, I can also see that reading The Basketball Diaries was when I first began to write my novel/memoir, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One could argue that my book is an homage to Carroll’s book. There are many structural and thematic parallels.
Most of all, Carroll’s book taught me that a book can be about anything, the best and worst of this world. There are no limits. I reread it at least once a year and I marvel every time.
Lewis Carroll never for a moment simplified his writing and didn’t need to. I loved his storytelling from the beginning—my copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass was a birthday present from my mother when I turned 10 years old, and the language is wonderful: funny, wise, elegant, and always ready for young ears and eyes! My mother read it aloud to me, and I began reading it on my own from the second go-around. I also learned a tremendous amount from John Tenniel’s perfect illustrations, which sent me happily into picture making.
I go back to my copy very often and have biographies of the two men who created the books. They used the best of the language and the pen and ink—no simplifying, no presentations made easy for the reader. I came away from the story for the first time proud that I could appreciate all of it from beginning to end.
I think those of us who work with kids can become so fixated on connecting readers to books that we forget the way books connect readers to each other. When two readers love the same book, or hate the same book, or have diametrically opposed opinions about the same book, a filament, invisible and strong, forms between them. Sure, books can mold the individual brain and conscience. But books also bind people together.
As a kid I read the Frog and Toad books over and over. And while I’m sure Lobel’s emotionally nuanced, formally daring stories shaped the way I write and think, that’s not why I picked them. The Frog and Toad books changed my life in a very practical way, on a summer night in 2009, at a bookstore in Venice Beach, Calif. My agent was throwing a party, and he’d invited clients, friends, and an artist he was interested in representing but whom nobody had met: Jon Klassen. Jon and I were both starting our careers—my first picture book had just come out; Jon was wrapping up his first set of illustrations. That night we spent hours talking about children’s books generally, but especially Frog and Toad: how those stories worked, why they were so great, what it was like reading them as kids. The conversation got loud and animated. I think we probably gestured a lot. Six years later, Jon is a trusted collaborator. We’ve made two books together, and I’m very proud of them both. But more importantly, Jon is a dear friend. My life would be much poorer without him. We still talk about Frog and Toad a lot.
A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard’s Winnie-the-Pooh was the first book I bought with my own money. It was a battered 1950 edition in my mother’s antique shop and after school I would curl up under an old oak dining table and read it over and over. I used to try to hide it in the shop so nobody would buy it. Eventually my mother sold it to me for a dollar. A lot of money for a seven-year-old in 1977!
I had never read a book like it. A book with interjections and digressions and ponderings. One which meandered and backtracked, which bounced and hummed, which drew you in so close that you felt you were in the very forest itself, and simultaneously allowed you to step back and see the actual form of a book. With characters so endearing they became your lifelong friends. Somehow, reading these stories about almost nothing, the disarming writing and brilliantly expressive drawings manage to tackle deep, universal themes of love and loss, of fitting in, growing up, and being left behind. Happy sigh.
The book from childhood that had the greatest impact on my life was Charlotte’s Web. I must’ve been about eight. I was home sick from school, sprawled on the couch under a blanket in full whine mode, and as my mother was a big believer in the philosophy of “Learn to entertain yourself,” as well as “If you can whine, you’re not that sick,” I turned to my stack of library books for comfort.
I was absolutely caught up in the life-and-death struggles of Wilbur, Charlotte, and friends. Their story kindled within me a great deal of empathy: I felt for Fern who was at the mercy of her parents’ wishes where her baby pig was concerned. I felt for Wilbur, who only wanted to live and who, I feared, was like me—mopey and powerless and chubby. I felt for Templeton, who got a bad rap even when he did the right thing. I wanted very much to be as strong and smart as Charlotte was, even if my jury was out on the whole fly-eating thing. I loved that the characters weren’t perfect; they had very human flaws. The story was enthralling, terrifying, funny, beautiful, and heartbreaking.
Mostly, I remember marveling that there was this whole world happening inside the barn that went unnoticed by the humans, which summed up what it was to be a child: adults never seemed to “get” how much, how deeply we children felt—how much “world” was going on inside us. Charlotte’s Web was validating. It was like having someone say, “Yeah, I get it. I see you. I hear you.” And then, there was that ending. That Charlotte does all of this work for her friend only to die in the end was deeply unfair to me, the loss nearly unbearable. It was the first time I understood that death had no “do over” button. It just... was. And then, as Charlotte’s children flew away from Wilbur, an echo of my deep separation fears, my heart ached. It was the first time I openly wept while reading a book.
Charlotte’s Web taught me a lot about life and death, friendship and loss, coming together to accomplish common goals, and about spinning a web of words and just how powerful that can be.
There’s a wonderful quote from Hilary Mantel in a recent interview in the Paris Review. She talks about reading Jane Eyre as a child. She says, “For a young reader that’s an important moment, when you recognize that your self exists in the world and that your self exists in literature.” That is what Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy did for me as a child. I recognized myself for the first time. I felt empowered.
Perhaps I had outgrown the book by S.E. Hinton—but in age only. Emotionally I think it caught me by surprise when I read The Outsiders. I only found it by accident. I was walking home from school and it was another crappy day for me when I saw a paperback book in the gutter. It had been kicked around. The cover was missing. The pages were curled up, filthy, and tattered. But I picked it up anyway. This was a time in my life when returning home from school was the most soul-busting thing I could do. There were some scrubby acres not far from my house and I used to hide out there, lingering among the saw grass and pine trees, until I could stomach walking into my house. I sat on a rotting log and read the first page, and the words poured into me, and I finished the whole of it in one sitting between the end of that aimless school day and the beginning of yet another mute family dinner. Today, I can’t fully recall the story, but I can recall the emotions that still simmer within me.
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein changed my perception of what words could do in a way no other book has. Silverstein showed me a world beyond the simplistic split I saw between prose—using words to tell a story, and poetry—using words to be pretty... and boring. Silverstein melds irreverence and heart on every page, and as in life itself, there is deep truth among the absurdity. His poems are funny, real, impossible, wondrous, and sometimes written on the neck of a running giraffe. And they’re quick, so if one doesn’t grab you, there’s another calling from the next page. Just one more poem before bed, Mom.
The Blue Aspic by Edward Gorey describes a sequence of terrible occurrences in a more or less Gothic setting. The careful scholar might note that Mr. Snicket has made some hay with such trappings. I encountered this book when I was young, and thought long and hard about the alluring opera singer and the obsessive misanthrope when I was supposed to be learning the state capitals. I began writing stories in a similar vein.
But The Blue Aspic influenced me in a more important way. It was the first book I bought with my own money. After a rehearsal with the San Francisco Boys Chorus, I walked to A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books and bought the book with my allowance after careful consideration. I was 10 years old, I think. A lifelong habitué of libraries, I was well acquainted with the luxurious phenomenon of having books to take home, but to realize there were books I could choose for myself and keep was incredibly powerful. Just yesterday evening I was alone in Los Angeles, and after a solitary dinner I walked by Book Soup and treated myself to a novel and a book of poetry, just because there are books in the world and I get to choose them and I had enough money in my pocket, eager to open them and dive in, almost queasy with my delicious literary luck.
Is This You? by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson, was my favorite book when I was a boy and it made a huge impression on me. In the book, Ruth Krauss poses questions such as “Is this where you live?” and “Is this your friend?” Crockett Johnson’s illustrations show very silly, incongruous answers to the questions. The reader or listener is then urged to draw his or her own picture answers in order to make a little autobiographical book. I made many little books because of this book. It was perfect practice for my job—a job I love with all my heart.
When I was a kid, all of my reading material came from one of two places: my sister’s room and my parents’ room. This is due to their proximity to the upstairs bathroom. The only requirement for my literature was that it could be plucked off of a shelf without slowing me down. My father had a huge stash of comic books, and that was always my first option. But when I was in the mood for more serious fare (i.e. chapter books), my path to the privy cut through my sister’s room.
My sister’s literary focus was fairly narrow: it was coming-of-age novels, and not much else. And so, I tore through the Judy Blume canon, including Freckle Juice, Blubber, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. (Mercifully, my sister didn’t stock Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.) But the book that really grabbed me was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. In Peter Hatcher I found a character who seemed like me, and that was a powerful thing indeed. I read the book again and again, and I’m sure I was still doing Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing book reports in grade seven. That’s the magic of Blume’s writing. Her characters might be named Andrew or Peter or yes, Margaret, but she’s really writing about you.
My favorite book from childhood is probably Anne of Green Gables. I read the entire series voraciously and still read it now, especially during trying times. Anne was someone I admired, but was not in awe of. I wanted to be more like her. She was an orphan, she wore ugly clothes, and she herself thought she was homely. But, with all that, she never considered herself less than her friends or her peers. They were always her equals. Josie Pye scoffed at her, and Diana’s fur hat made her bare tam seem even plainer, but even while she felt those slights, it never crossed her mind that those girls were better than her. I, as a young Asian-American girl lost in a sea of white faces, wanted that same sense of self. I longed for that same unself-conscious confidence in my own self-worth, regardless of the small barbs I felt from others and the daggers I stabbed into myself. Anne was also always full of optimism and hope. No matter what embarrassment she caused herself, what catastrophe happened, Anne continued trying, believing that tomorrow would be a better day.
So how did Anne of Green Gables impact my life? It gave me a beautiful philosophy of cheerful perseverance that I attempt to incorporate daily in my life. It gave me a heroine who didn’t let others or her circumstances decide her worthiness. And, most of all, it gave me a friend whom I can always return to when I’m in need of comfort.
My mother read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to me when I was eight or nine. Our volume contained the N.C. Wyeth illustrations, and the protagonist, Jody, looked exactly like me in those paintings. It was the first book that profoundly moved me, filled as it was with all the passion and anguish and humor of actual life. But the most important part of the experience was not so much the story itself, though I was mesmerized by it, but rather watching the effect it had on my mother and perceiving that she and I were equally affected by entering that world which was so different from our own. It was my first awareness of the power that literature can have.
Growing up in Mexico, the readings that influenced me were those from the encyclopedia my mother bought from a door-to-door salesman, and the comic magazines that my father bought every weekend. A children’s book world did not exist at the time in my country of birth, so instead I went from reading comic magazines to, at the age of 12, being assigned at school the short stories of Gabriel García Márquez. La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y su abuela desalmada [The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother] became the most influential book I ever read.
My favorite book as a child was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I loved how the pictures told the story so eloquently, and with so few words. With each page turn, I could feel the little boy’s room transition into a lush jungle filled with friendly and scary monsters. It was like a silent film. A benchmark of storytelling with words and pictures.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was the first book I remember checking out from my school library over and over again when I was in the second grade. I was drawn not only to the art, which had a strangeness to it that I still—all these years later—find incredibly appealing, but to the language of the stories, and to the way the D’Aulaires framed the mythic narrative. They started, if I remember correctly, with the dawn of time, the love between Uranus the Sky and Gaia the Earth, from which came the Titans and all the first creatures of the earth. Then came the Olympian Gods, and the heroes and creatures and sagas that followed. That book began my lifelong passion for ancient works and my career as an artist and writer. I was inspired by those illustrations to draw my own winged horses. I was inspired by those stories to write my own fables. And, you know, I still am.
The Man with the Purple Eyes is a novella by Charlotte Zolotow, alas out of print. The main character’s name is Anna. The story is magical realism written long before magical realism became a thing. The illustrations by Joe Lasker depict Anna with black hair. (Quibblers: But how can you tell, it’s in black and white! Me: Her hair isn’t just black, it’s jet black.) There were almost no books featuring Asian characters when I was growing up, and while Anna is clearly not Asian, she still has that jet-black hair. I read the book dozens, hundreds of times.
Impact on my writing? Too many books to name. Impact on my life? I named my (black-haired) daughter Anna.
I grew up in a household of limited means, but my parents did keep a small library. The children’s books consisted mostly of collections of stories, such as Aesop’s Fables and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. I was also exposed to folktales shared through the powerful tradition of oral storytelling, including the Uncle Remus tales and the legend of John Henry. All of these stories shared one overarching theme: they championed the underdog who could overcome adversity and end up on top. It is hard to overstate the impact of these classic tales on me; I was so drawn to their provocative themes of triumph that I went on to adapt many of them in my own work.
I have always managed to have several favorite things simultaneously, but if I were forced to nominate only one favorite childhood book, it would probably be Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding. This Australian classic children’s book was first published in 1918 and is still in print, and rightly so: I think it’s the funniest children’s book ever written.
One of the great strengths of the book is its illustration, by Lindsay himself. He was best known as a visual artist, producing thousands of paintings, etchings, drawings, and sculptures, but his pictures for The Magic Pudding are his best work, in my view. They are so vigorous and absurd, so strongly characterized and brilliantly detailed, that my eye delights in them still. Apparently Lindsay wrote the book to prove his point that children don’t like fairies nearly so much as they like food and fighting. He may well have been right. There’s plenty of both in this wonderful and inexhaustible book, which (like the pudding itself) never runs out.
Every year, since I was five years old, I have consulted The Carrot Seed as my personal Zen koan. The little boy finds a carrot seed. Everyone tells him it won’t grow up. He plants the seed, waters it, cares for it. Everyone still tells him it won’t grow up. It does grow up—into an insanely huge carrot.
What I love most about The Carrot Seed is that the boy doesn’t gloat, or even smirk. He just wheels the gargantuan carrot, which he knew would grow up, off in a wheelbarrow. There is profound, playful, universal truth there.
The Random House Book of Fairy Tales probably had the greatest impact on me as a small child. I discovered the book in my school library in first grade. I must have checked it out a dozen times in that first year alone. At that age, I lived in an isolated desert town where I didn’t feel like I fit in. I wanted, more than anything, to escape into a different world. The fairy tales in the book provided that escape. Stories like “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and “The Snow Queen” often had heroes who struggled with a world that didn’t want them—just like me. Yet these heroes still triumphed. That gave me a great sense of hope. I found that I love retelling the stories to my parents, my brothers, my friends—and that, in turn, started me on my journey as a storyteller and eventually an author.
For me it would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which my mother “accidentally” read to my brother and me, thinking that it was a bona fide children’s book. We were about seven and eight at the time. Of course we all found it pretty disturbing soon enough, and Mum seriously considered quitting when the violence and treachery set in—worrying that it might “warp our little minds” as she later recalled—but we passed a unanimous family vote to continue because the story was just so compelling. And universal too. While I only understood years later as a teenager that Orwell’s book is an allegory of Soviet politics, as a child I saw it as an allegory of the schoolyard: all the deep friendships, dubious allegiances, bullying, arbitrary rule making, and power games that adults, preoccupied with their own lofty social politics, rarely witness in the world of lunchtime recess, much less understand.
As one of those same adults now, I’ve read Animal Farm a number of times and see it as a perfect example of a satire that transcends its subject, and describes human nature beyond any particular circumstance, enough that a seven-year-old kid in suburban Western Australia can read it and think, I know just what this Orwell guy is on about! Would I read it to my own daughter? That’s for her to decide and put to a family vote. Too often I’ve read parental reviews of my own books for young people, discounting them as scary and inappropriate. As a parent, I don’t necessarily disagree. As a former kid, I only regret that younger peers may be denied the chance to decide for themselves, and I appreciate that real reading is an act of interpretation, not just the reception of existing ideas. A book meets each of us at our own level, and on our own terms—such is the brilliance of books—and reading is a matter for each of us to decide.
Fortunately for me, I can think of no single book that had the greatest impact on my life. If books are your friends I have been lucky enough to hang with a big, rowdy gang of pals. I can, however, immediately place the two-page spread that has impacted my life like no other. It comes from the Sneetches on the beaches story in Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches and Other Stories, where all of the Sneetches dash around in a giant figure eight in an increasingly joyful, then desperate, attempt to either have stars placed or removed from their bellies.
I am looking at that very spread right now (my original copy of the book is one of the few objects I still have from my childhood), and it is still very wonderful. The composition, the myriad of emotions that each Sneetch has, their willful disdain for their own money, their speed: everything about this drawing is kinetic. It feels not just like it’s moving, but as you continue to pore over it, the drawing seems to get faster. It is awful and dizzying and entrancing and magic.
And for me it was inspiring. Two pages that I could live in for hours as it gently, quietly whispered to me, “One day, you can do that—you can make a drawing that will mesmerize a child into inhabiting a living moment like this.” One day, I hope to.
My elementary-school librarian noticed I kept checking out the same book over and over. I didn’t love Mary Ellis, Student Nurse, a story set in the segregated South, but I worried that if I didn’t check out that book, the library wouldn’t get any more books about black girls. I was probably on my third renewal when the librarian put a new book in my hands. That book was Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters by Reba Paef Mirsky.
I believe she ordered Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters specifically for me. I was always a reader. A lover of adventure. But when I read this book I became Nomusa, the Zulu protagonist and daughter of the chief. She was dark skinned, had short hair and could do anything a boy could do, having proved herself valiant and clever on a hunt. That meant a lot to me during a time when my father forbade me from fulfilling my dreams of being a defensive tackle on his Pop Warner football team.