Formative Books

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the formative books of my childhood, those books I read that had such an impact on me that I still think about them (and in some cases, still own them). People often dismiss children’s books as a genre when they can really be an important part of person’s life, and what you read can change the way you end up interacting with the world. So I thought I’d assemble a little list of some of the books I’ve been thinking of lately; maybe some of them are familiar to you too!

Black Beauty. I read this because, of course, I was obsessed with horses, but Black Beauty is about much more than horses. Anna Sewell wrote it with the intent of getting young readers to think about cruelty to animals, and compassion, and the need to treat living creatures with respect, and that’s something I really took away from it. The book made me care about animals as living beings with feelings and emotions, made me think about animals compassionately. My interest in things like natural horsemanship very much stemmed from this book and the idea that I could work with animals, rather than just subjugating them and bending them to my will. I don’t know if people would think it’s too hokey to enjoy these days, but my edition had lovely illustrations of Black Beauty and his friends and it really came alive for me, as a story.

Danny, the Champion of the World. When you grow up poor and your house is different from the ones your classmates live in, when you can’t always have the nice things that you want, when sometimes people make fun of you for how you dress and how you smell, because sometimes in the summer there’s not enough water to shower every day, being reminded about the human connections around you can suddenly start to feel really important. I had a lot in common with Danny, and this was a book where Danny and his father were poor, but it wasn’t an all-consuming theme of the book. It was just a fact, and a small fact within a larger story.

The adventures they had felt like the adventures I had with my father, as did their willingness to cooperate and work together. It was the first book I can think of where a life like mine was modeled neutrally, or even in a fun way. We weren’t supposed to pity Danny or think he was despicable for being poor, it was just part of his life, and not even the most important part. It was the book I could turn to when I was tired of being poor and wanted to think about the good things in my life. And who can forget the poaching!

The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster’s classic blends delicious notes of whimsy with bookishness and a little hint of snark, too. The characters were so vivid, and I still think of Milo and the ‘but.’ And after I read it, I always looked at mysterious packages with new hope for their contents.

Watership Down. There seems to be a bit of a split on whether this is, officially speaking, a children’s book. It definitely contains some adult themes and I remember being terrified by the movie version as a small child. Like Black Beauty, it made me think about animals in a more complex way (although Adams actually hated rabbits, oddly, according to Cleveland Amory). It was also dark enough to satisfy my already swelling literary tastes for stories where things do not always go well. And it probably created an idealised version of the English countryside in my head, but these things happen.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. This is a book I haven’t read in a while, but I remember being simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the idea of puberty. I didn’t always connect with Margaret’s desire for a more mature body (which, come to think of it, was probably a tell-tale sign) but I did connect with her sense of trying to fit in with friends and sometimes feeling uneasy, even around the people she knew best. The scenes like Margaret buying her first bra rang surprisingly true to life for me when I in turn did the same, long after the book was written. Some things never change.

The Chronicles of Narnia. Blissfully unaware of the Christian overtones in these books, I read them for the magic and the adventure. I loved the idea of infinite worlds just next to ours that we could connect to if we had the tools, and I loved the adventures. I loved The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and all the strange places the characters went, and what they did there. It made me think about worlds within worlds. Later, I read the books more critically, and found much more discomfort in the characters and what happens to them, so I have kind of mixed feelings about recommending them to young readers, but I do remember them with a certain sense of fondness.

A Wrinkle In Time and the rest of L’Engle’s books about the Murry O’Keefes. Yes to science fiction. Yes to complex relationships between characters. These books introduced topics like love and sexuality and connections with people and cooperating to solve things, as well as delving into things like teen angst and the miseries of growing up and finding out that the world isn’t really what you thought it would be like. A Swiftly Tilting Planet was one of my all-time favourites and I wore three copies to complete shreds, reading it over and over again. (I believe I even made fanart about the poem that runs through the book as a central theme, although I believe it has been lost to the shades of time. Which is probably just as well, because I am a terrible artist.)