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The Books That Change Lives: Why the Books We Read When We’re Young Stick With Us Forever

What book changed your life? As tempting as it is to give a lofty, literary answer, the truth (for me, at least) is probably A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I read over and over and over, or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which upset me so much (the shaving of the lion’s mane) that I cried all afternoon and threw the book out the window because it distressed me too much to even have it in the house (a lesson in the power of story). Last week I interviewed writer Anne Lamott for a magazine piece. She’s a voracious reader and prolific writer (seven novels and even more works of non-fiction, including her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird). What book changed her life? Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which she read for the first time at age eight.

What is it about the books we read when we’re young that makes them stick with us forever? PBS has a new initiative underway called “The Great American Read” which brought out a list of America’s 100 Most Loved books [1] this spring. PBS worked with a public opinion polling service to “conduct a demographically and statistically representative survey asking Americans to name their most-loved novel.” Approximately 7,200 people participated. And what’s interesting about the list is that Americans don’t seem to love the books that are supposed to constitute great literature (Phillip Roth, William Faulkner, Jonathan Franzen). But we sure do love the books we read as children or teenagers—fully a quarter of the list are books aimed at kids and teens, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Charlotte’s Web to Harry Potter to The Hunger Games.

Here’s what many children’s/YA books have that make them resonate with readers:

They’re good stories; stuff happens. It sounds basic but it’s not: The primary reason people pick up a book and keep reading is because they want to know what happens next. And in a great story something is always happening next. It’s surprisingly easy to forget this when you’re writing, because you (meaning me and all of us who write) get so caught up in wanting to explain things to the reader, or in that beautiful metaphor you just crafted, or in providing every detail of this incredible alternate world you’ve created, that you lose your story. What happens next? Why? What happens after that? Will Frodo make it to Mount Doom to destroy that damn ring once and for all? Will sweet Wilbur the pig be turned into bacon? Will Jo March marry Laurie? When we read, Adam Kirsch wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, “we mostly read for story, not for style. We want to know what happens next, and not to be slowed down by writing that calls attention to itself.”

They’re stories that help us understand ourselves and our place in the world. Anne Lamott loved A Wrinkle in Time because “it so captured the sense of isolation I felt as a child.” Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an exquisitely sensitive girl who often felt different and found an escape in books and longed to be a writer—something that resonated with 11-year-old me. We see these characters grow and change. We come to understand that “victory” doesn’t always mean winning but sometimes just surviving, that it can be worth it to fight for something bigger than yourself, that loss is an inevitable part of life, and that everyone needs connection.

We know and love the characters; and we never lose them. The books that change people’s lives generally feature a protagonist who is someone the reader can get behind and root for. That kind of investment—in a person who feels as real as the people in the next room—isn’t something you get over quickly. That character becomes a figure in your life, someone you’re happy to encounter again, which is why so many of us reread kids’ books endlessly as kids and, truth be told, once in a while as adults, too. And, unlike real life, where we know the pain of losing someone we love, we never have to lose Stuart Little or Pippi Longstocking. They’re there, waiting for us, forever and ever.

What books did you read as a child or teenager that have stuck with you? How have they shaped who you are as a writer?

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.