I loved books before I even know how to read them. My mother tirelessly read to me when I was little and instilled in me such a love of made-up stories that I was already excited to learn when I reached first grade. Naturally, writing followed. My teachers told me I had a gift and I enjoyed it so much, I just assumed they were right. I was eight when I wrote my first poem … nine when I attempted a short story … and ten when I decided that I wanted to see my name on a Barnes & Noble shelf someday. I had every intention of majoring in English when I got to college to pursue my dream of writing and publishing a novel. A high school intro to journalism class totally threw my life plans off-track, but in a good way. I hope my ten-year-old self wouldn’t be too mad at me. I’m still sharing stories, just differently, and I love it more than I could have hoped to when it came time to decide “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Then again, I ain’t dead yet and publishing a book, either for kids, teens, or adults is still a dream. Here are five books (out of countless others) that inspired my love of the written word from childhood to adulthood.
1. The Secret of the Attic (1995) by Sheri Cooper Sinykin
While I can’t (and may never be able to) remember the very first book I read that made me say, yes, I want to be a writer when I grow up, I do remember the plethora of books from my childhood that slowly, one by one, made me think, “Hey, maybe I could do this. I really like this story. I think maybe I could write one.” One of those books was the debut of the Magic Attic Club series. The premise was simple enough for a book aimed at young girls: Four best friends find a golden key out in the snow and return it to their elderly neighbor who invites the girls to explore her attic (looking back on it now, doesn’t seem so legit). The girls find a trunk full of glorious outfits. When they try them on and look in the mirror, they’re transported back in time on a magical adventure where they assume the personalities of the costumes. The Secret of the Attic was the type of book you wanted to jump into and live yourself.
2. The Great Mom Swap (1986) by Betsy Haynes
This was my favorite book in late elementary school. The paperback binding is almost completely falling apart from being delighfully devoured so many times. I still have it tucked away in my parent’s basement somewhere. I remember relating almost instantly to Scotti as a kid and I would fantasize about what it would be like if my own best friend and I swapped mothers. In the story, Scotti was a 13-year-old working on her first novel. At the time I first read it, I was a 10-year-old working on my first novel. The Great Mom Swap inspired me to keep plugging away at it, which I did for the next three years. While it was never completed, the fairly hefty manuscript is still one of my most treasured possessions.
3. In the Forests of the Night (1999) by Amelia At-water Rhodes
In eighth grade, I turned to the girl sitting in the desk behind me and asked what she was reading (I did this a lot when I was younger). It was a book about a teenage vampire and shapeshifter—before it became “cool” to write about such things, might I add. It looked a little strange, but I thought I would try something new. She let me borrow it and that night was the first (but certainly not the last) time that I stayed up way beyond my bedtime because I was so hooked. I finished it in one night, under the covers with a flashlight, until almost 1 a.m. I was 13. The author was 13. I was amazed that she was able to craft such a compelling story at that age, when I myself had only mastered poems, short stories and half of a very unorganized book that I wouldn’t let anyone else read. In the Forests of the Night re-inspired my lifelong dream to get a novel published someday.
4. Harry Potter (1999-2007) by J.K. Rowling
What can I say? Or rather, what can’t I say? Harry Potter is the single best thing to ever happen to YA literature. Someday I’ll be telling my kids about how I waited in line at midnight for my copy of the final book and how I sobbed my heart out when the credits rolled during the final film. It’s not just a book series that inspired a string of blockbuster films; it’s a juggernaut that enchanted a generation and made us believe in magic.
5. Firefly Lane (2009) by Kristin Hannah
I’ve read countless books in my life, that much is obvious by now. This is the only one that has ever actually made me cry. Emotional books don’t typically affect me in the same way that film does; that’s probably understandable to most people. While I cried like an 11-year-old who never got a Hogwarts letter during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the books never actually got a tear out of me (goosebumps, chills, and chest-clenching anxiety maybe, but no tears). So imagine my sad surprise when this novel hit me late one night and made me reach for the tissues. I entered a chick lit phase during college and Firefly Lane was one of the first that sucked me into the genre. It tells the story of two best friends, Kate and Tully. Their story begins when they meet in eighth grade and follows the next thirty or so years of their life, both together and apart. I immediately passed it to my best friend (with whom I’ve maintained a long-distance friendship since I moved from my house across the street from hers after eighth grade) and she also cried when she reached the end. We both found that we each identified with one of the girls. Reading a novel that had an impact like no other had ever had on me made me want to try my hand at writing my own adult novel. Why not? So now writing a novel is back on my bucket list. Someday …
Sometimes a young writer will ask me what to do to improve their skills, which not only boosts my already lofty ego, but allows me to recount a favorite Stephen King quote: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time, or the tools, to write. Simple as that.” It’s true, what King said; reading is absolutely fundamental to becoming a good writer (and interesting person, in my snobby opinion). These are some of the books that influenced me to take my sometimes arduous career path.
1. Goosebumps (1992-1997) by R.L. Stine
My first literary obsession. The series appealed to my pre-teen fascination with the macabre, which culminated with my later love of Stephen King’s self-described “junk food novels.” Sure, they may not be great literature, but they are entertaining as hell. My friends and I fanatically collected these books starting with “Welcome to Dead House” in 1992. I’ve never been able to bring myself to part with my colorful collection featuring brightly illustrated covers of maniacal ventriloquist dummies and plant monsters creeping through basement doors.
2. Pet Sematary (1983) by Stephen King
This novel scared the ever-loving crap out of me when I was kid. I remember finding it on a shelf in my school library, surely placed there by some clueless librarian with no idea about the horrifying imagery it contained. I’ve been a huge King fan ever since. His novels were my first introduction to real character development and dialogue. An added bonus is how well Pet Sematary has held up—it’s nearly as scary now as it was back then.
3. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) by Hunter S. Thompson
Thompson’s semi-fictional novel, a self-described “savage journey to the heart of the American dream,” is an experiment in “gonzo” journalism (Thompson coined the phrase, meaning that the journalist is featured in the piece, rather than acting as an objective observer). How much of Fear and Loathing is true is debatable, but the novel’s propulsive prose and exhilarating debauchery is without peer. The author’s vision is the journalist as a rock star and what writer doesn’t love that? Unfortunately, Thompson’s excesses eventually caught up to him. He committed suicide in 2004. But from his first widely known work, 1966’s Hell’s Angels through ‘04’s Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness, he wrote some of the most insightful and biting social and political commentary of the past half-century.
4. All the President’s Men (1974) by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
If Hunter S. Thompson presented the journalist as a rock star, Bernstein and Woodward showed that reporters could literally change the world. These two lowly beat reporters for The Washington Post stumbled upon a crime that eventually unseated the President of the United States while reporting on what at first appeared to be a routine break-in at an office building. The book, a tale of clandestine meetings in parking garages with high level government officials, secret code names and other feats of intrigue is the kind of story we would all love to write.
5. Kitchen Confidential (2000) by Anthony Bourdain
One of my favorite nonfiction books combines my love of cooking (and eating) with lurid prose and interesting behind-the-scenes stories about New York City’s best restaurants. Bourdain is a talented chef and an even better author and explorer. Bourdain combines vivid storytelling with real-life tales of life lived over the grill and on the grungy streets of 1980s NYC. His use of language and writing style are one of my go-to examples of effective authorial voice.