Books that Shaped Me

The other day I read an article about the top 10 world events that I found enlightening. I know what events I remember most clearly. The Challenger explosion, the Berlin Wall coming down, the transfer of Hong Kong back to China, the dismantling of the U.S.S.R., and the Iraq War and 9/11 to name a few. The article also broke it down by demographic and generation. Not surprisingly, the Kennedy Assassination was high on the list for Baby Boomers, and Obama’s election and the Civil Rights movement were key for African American responders. Millenials, Hispanics and the Silent Generation (the parents of Boomers) listed different events. The full article can be found here. This got me thinking about how that list would translate to books, and which books I would say influenced me most growing up.

One of the first books I clearly remember is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It taught me that bad days happen to everybody no matter where you live (even in Australia) and that the world won’t come crashing down. I still think about that book whenever I’m having a rotten day.

The character of Sara Crewe from A Little Princess had a profound impact on me. No matter what life threw at her, she always behaved with grace. It’s true that she eventually did have a few kindnesses thrown her way (like from the Indian Gentleman next door) that made things easier, but even when she would have been justified in acting selfishly (such as keeping the buns from the bakery), she still chose to be kind and generous to others. I can’t say that I’ve always behaved well in every situation, but the book reminds me that there is no excuse for treating people badly no matter their circumstances or appearance.

The Phantom Tollbooth is the book that taught me about the importance of never believing that anything is impossible. When Milo wondered why nobody told him that his quest was impossible until after he had succeeded, he was told that it was because if they had, then he wouldn’t have succeeded. If you start out thinking something is impossible, you’ll never take a risk, and you’ll miss out. It also taught me about the importance of language and the weight of words, and how without rhyme and reason, the world is chaos. There are many lessons to be found in this wonderful book if you look.

Charlotte’s Web taught me about growing up, compassion, and fighting for what you believe in. Saving Wilbur’s life seemed like an impossible feat, but Charlotte taught Fern and all of the animals in the barnyard that with perseverance, creativity, and patience a lot of things are possible. I have always had a soft spot for perceived underdogs and little guys, and I think a lot of that is because of this book.

The Velveteen Rabbit is another book that had a profound impact on me, and especially the speech from the rocking horse about when you love something enough it becomes real. Although he sits on a shelf in my closet these days, my ratty old teddy bear has been with me since I was a kid. He’s been munched on by a dog, gone through the wash a few times, been sewn back together, moved with me countless times, been a pillow, a stress ball, and a comfort when I’ve needed him. He’s as real to me as the rabbit was to the boy, and we will remain with me until there is nothing left of him. The book also taught me about what it meant to love something that fiercely, loyalty, and saying goodbye. It’s definitely one that will always live on my shelf.

And then there’s Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I read this at least a few times as a kid and am old enough to remember the PBS after School Special that was made from the book which I also watched several times. It was one of the first books that ever made me cry. It taught me about imagination, friendship, and loss. Leslie and Jess were kids we could all identify with and was perhaps one of the first books I ever read that didn’t have a happy ending. To that extent, I also learned that life could be really unfair. Leslie died because of a freak accident. It wasn’t fair, and there wasn’t any way to make it fair, but it was a valuable life lesson.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery also has a special place in my heart. I can’t remember how old I was when my father gave me his slip-cased colour edition of the book, but I still have it. It taught me to look beyond the surface of things, and see what’s inside. It taught me about the importance of making the people you love feel needed and appreciated. A huge aspect of childhood is learning to be independent and self-sufficient, but through the story of the rose we learn that if we hide what we feel, we can drive people away. It also taught me about acting unselfishly and that what I want isn’t always the most important thing.

White Boots aka Skating Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (author of Ballet Shoes) doesn’t pop up on a lot of lists, but I loved this book when I first discovered it in my local library. Not only did I develop an interest in figure skating from reading this book, but it also taught me important lessons about the unsustainability of friendships based on an imbalance of power. Harriet is recovering from illness that has made her legs feel like cotton wool, and her doctor arranges for her to take up skating to build up strength. Lalla is on her way to being a professional skater. Her parents were champions, and she’s been on skates since she was three. She’s rich and Harriet is poor, but Lalla takes Harriet under her wing as a kind of charity case. When Harriet shows a natural talent and starts to exceed Lalla, their friendship is tested. Lalla liked Harriet because Harriet seemed lesser in her eyes. She wasn’t supposed to be better at Lalla’s sport than Lalla was. Harriet for her part allows herself to be bullied and blackmailed by Lalla because she knows that Lalla has the power to rip everything away from her. From Harriet and Lalla I learned about jealousy, and that anyone who asks you to choose between them and something you love isn’t a good friend.

There are many other books that I could list here that had an impact on me growing up, but instead, I ask all of you what books have most impacted you growing up and why?

2 Responses to Books that Shaped Me

  1. Cyn Vannoy Jan 9 2017 at 8:30 am #

    Hello, God. It’s me, Margaret.
    I didn’t know this was a Judy Blume book until recently, (mainly because I don’t own a copy and have not looked at one in decades), but it DID have a profound effect on my thinking as a child after discovering it in my school library.
    It was my first experience with death and loss, yet also imagination and insatiable curiosity.
    After that I fell into Fantasy with Doris Piserchia’s Star Rider, and Tolkien’s masterpiece, and it’s been a sci-fi/fantasy love affair ever since. As a young girl, I really identified with Jade and the quest for Doubleluck.

  2. Raili Taylor Jan 9 2017 at 9:36 am #

    Having grown up in post-war Finland most of my early reading is obscure to non-Finnish speakers. In translation, The Secret Garden enchanted me and taught me the transformative power of working towards a goal. Pippi Longstocking books fostered lateral thinking and accepting alternative ways of being. The Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs were more exciting than his Tarzan and together with The Count of Monte Cristo they paved way for my later love of thrillers, while Louisa M Alcot’s Little Women conditioned me in more womanly traits.

    In early teenage I found PG Wodehouse. That didn’t serve me altogether well as it made me believe that people in England behave impeccably well and are unfailingly polite. Maybe the country had changed in the decades between the Age of Jeeves and 1970s when I moved to the UK, but my expectations regarding good manners were pretty soon rudely corrected.

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