The Influentials, Part 1: Childhood Edition–On the Occasion that You Need a Read Early On

Dear Lily June,

It was in graduate school, when assigned to write six-word autobiographies, that one of my peers came up with the best one I’d ever heard. We were all English majors in the room, and by that point in our lives, we’d read our weight in books, what felt like a thousand times over. So we all gave A. a knowing nod when the sentence she came up with was

“I used to read for fun.”

At that point in my life, and for many years following, I felt as if, if I never saw another book, it would be too soon. And yet, when I came across this fellow blogger’s post with a list of the books that most influenced her growing up, I found myself waxing nostalgic for the times when I had a warm cup of tea, a rainy window to sit in front of, and an engrossing book sprawled open in front of me.

Now I tell your father that when I retire, if I retire, I don’t want to travel any farther than our local library. I sincerely hope, as you get a little older, that I return to the habit much sooner. In the meantime, with the goal of inspiring you to become a voracious reader like I used to be, I offer you below the list of books that, over the course of my educational lifetime, at least, most influenced me.

Narrowing it down to the Top Twenty (sorry, Allie; I had to make it double!) was like trying to decide which organs I needed most to function, knowing that choosing my heart, brain and lungs meant ignoring my kidneys, liver and spleen. May all the books and their authors left unmentioned forgive me.

For verbosity’s sake, I’ll begin with the books from my childhood in this post, and go to the ones from my adulthood in the next.


The Top Twenty Books that Most Influenced Me


1. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff (author) & Felicia Bond (illustrator)…


…was one of the first books I ever took home from the library and one of the few I remember my mother reading to me. The lesson of this one was hard, but fair, for a kid to read: If someone else is taking care of you, providing all your needs, be careful how much you ask for, lest they should decide they want to kill you. (I’m kidding! Mostly.)

No quotation from this one would be appropriate to excerpt, but you’ll know it because I already have a copy I read to you. Some say the book defined and influenced your mother’s entire generation…

2. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle…

…broke a lot of barriers for its time. It was a “children’s book” that had a female protagonist/heroine in a sci fi world (unheard of at the time of its writing in the late 1950’s), and dealt with quantum physics boldly and evil overtly. It was dark, yet witty, with characters like the genius little brother, Charles Wallace, and the mysterious angel / witch / aliens, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and  Mrs. Which.

I think I was drawn to it because it was another book my mother read to me, and in it, the little girl saves her whole family…

Notable Quotable (as said by the character named Aunt Beast):

“We do not know what things look like. We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing,this seeing.”

3. Tied: Where the Sidewalk Ends/A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein


On the eight hour car rides between Pittsburgh and Virginia Beach my family used to take every summer, my sister and I would read the poems contained in these two hardback tomes together. I could single-handedly credit my love of language to the rhythmic stylings of Silverstein, who, amidst the jokes and riddles, often wasn’t so silly:

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,

Elementary School

4. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Sometimes, the circumstances by which you come upon a book are as important as the book’s story. This book was given to me at my one birthday party ever by the prettiest girl in my whole elementary school, Navah Ross, a girl with all the beauty, wealth and entitlement (she owned her own pony, Lily) of the 1970’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Veruca Salt. I hated her, and yet, this book, with a moral about treating all living creatures with kindness and dignity, begrudgingly softened me to her.

Over two decades later, I still have my original, very beat-up, much beloved copy.

“We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.”

5. The Rough-Faced Girl, by Rafe Martin (author) and David Shannon (illustrator)…


…is a Cinderella story as told through Algonquin lore. In it, a girl whose face is disfigured from tending to the fires for her spoiled sisters chases love with a character called The Invisible Being. His sister, though, protects him from false suitors and will only allow him to be courted by a member of the tribe who can prove she really sees him.

The art is beyond stunning, and the lesson–that what meets the heart is more than what may meet the eye–is priceless.

6. The Giver, by Lois Lowry…

…has messages so potent and powerful, it’s impossible to simply summarize them. Amongst them is my favorite–that our feelings, even our most painful ones, have purpose. To give more away would be to do the book, which I intend to read to you (or give to you to read) when you get older, an extreme disservice.

“Even trained for years as they all had been in precision of language, what words could you use which would give another the experience of sunshine?”

***Honorable Mentions: Number the Stars, Lois Lowry; On My Honor, Marion Dane Bauer***

Junior High

7. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry…


…was one of the first books I read and cried and cried and cried. It is one of those children’s stories not really for children that has deep, philosophical messages about what it means to love–and lose–someone. Every single line of the text is equally priceless, and if you ever want to understand your mother’s heart, you must read it.

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Speaking of laughter, I think I was surprised to learn that sci fi could be funny until this gem came into my life. In fact, to get a little too serious about it (ironically), this book series originally based on a radio comedy taught me how NOT to take life too seriously. Amongst its greater lessons? “Don’t panic” and “Always carry a towel.”

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

9. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn


The Wikipedia synopsis of this book reads that it’s “a 1992 philosophical novel…[that] examines the mythological thinking at the heart of modern civilization, its effect on ethics, and how this relates to sustainability and societal collapse on the global scale.” You know, just a little light reading for the average middle schooler, suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks, and wondering what it might be like if her teacher, too, was a gorilla… I remember reading this book and then feeling pretty guilty for being human.

“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live… I think there are many among you who would be glad to release the world from captivity… This is what prevents them: They’re unable to find the bars of the cage.”

***Honorable Mention: Rats Saw God, Rob Thomas***


Of course, given the shows and even commercials on TV during my formative years, I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t have become a reader.

Hello, amazing Reading Rainbow theme:

Hello, rapping California Raisins:

One hopes the iPad they implant directly into your cornea will have an app for literacy.


Picture Credits:

4 thoughts on “The Influentials, Part 1: Childhood Edition–On the Occasion that You Need a Read Early On

  1. Allie P. says:

    Loved this list. A Wrinkle in Time should be on everyone’s must-read before you die list and I can’t get enough Shel Silverstein. I have a copy of To Where the Sidewalk Ends which I read to my eldest on a regular basis.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Shameful Narcissist says:

    What an absolutely wonderful list. I’d forgotten about Black Beauty for years even as I’ve probably read it at least ten times.

    I never even considered his revolutionary Wrinkle was to have a female protagonist in sci-fi, because it was just fitting, normal even. It didn’t announce the fact that it did. It just did.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Blathering says:

    Of these 5, the only one I’ve read is The Little Prince (of course!) – which I discovered in my grandmother’s book shelves when I was about 14, and found utterly astounding. And gave a copy of, to my own daughter when she was about that age. Your final comments resonate with me – I just wrote a post earlier today about how the advent of Netflix provides yet another lazy way to fill time not doing anything remotely creative and is just another thing causing reading to become a dying activity.

    On a tangent, (the link is reading!) I am currently reading a book of Creative Non-fiction essays, “In Fact – The Best of Creative Non-Fiction” edited by Lee Gutkind, and within it is an essay by John Edgar Wideman, called “Looking at Emmett Till.” I thought I’d mention this to you, because I didn’t recognise the name Emmett Till, but as soon as I started reading, and read how horrifying it was for him when, at the age of about 14, he came across a picture of the murdered young man’s face in a magazine, I realised that he must be referring to the same murder – and face – that you discussed in a post some time ago. I can’t see any way to navigate your site to find the older post though, so I’m commenting here instead! I think you’d find the essay worth reading if you can locate it.

    Liked by 1 person

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