It’s a truism by now to say that books change lives. But it’s also an everyday miracle, the knowledge that at any point—but particularly, perhaps, when you’re young—you might pick up the book that will help rewrite you, redirect your path, or just plug into a port in your brain that you didn’t know existed, and can no longer live without.
Authors understand better than most the life-changing power of reading, so we asked eleven of them to share the story of a book that changed them. Here’s what they said.
Early in my teaching career, a colleague walked up to me, handed me a book and said, “this was written for you.” She was right. That book was Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. A slim volume of nine stories, I read each one hungrily, in love with Lahiri’s lyrical, eloquent writing. But what really drew me in was that I could see more of myself in the pages of these books than in any other book I’d read before. Like me, Lahiri’s characters were navigating interstitial spaces of identity and belonging. Always half-outsiders, they too felt that tug and pain of what W.E.B. Du Bois called double consciousness. But Lahiri’s characters are not merely defined by borders and the mantle of “otherness” that society casts upon them. They were fully realized, rich characters whose lives and loves and heartbreaks and longing and joy are varied and singularly their own. I think I’ve reread the first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter,” a dozen or more times, and every time it still feels raw and beautiful to me. Published in 1999, Lahiri was writing at a time when bookshelves were even less diverse than they are now, and it was so meaningful to me to have a piece of my diaspora experience reflected in her stories. In my debut novel, Love, Hate & Other Filters, I quote a brief passage from Lahiri’s book, The Namesake: “You are still young…Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can.”
This was my small homage to her writing, a thank you for challenging me, for helping me realize that there was a place on the shelves and in the world for my stories.
–Samira Ahmed, Internment
In second grade, my dad took me to Costco (when it was called Price Club) for one of our many expeditions in search of large tubs of mayonnaise and crates of pears. I wandered off to the book aisle and came across a boxed set of pastel-spined books. The Baby-Sitters Club. My dad, a big reader, put them in the cart. (He was probably more excited that I made my first Costco purchase than first book purchase, let’s be real.) Up until I cracked open Kristy’s Great Idea, I wasn’t a big reader. I liked books fine, but I also liked Barbies and ice cream. It was my gateway into becoming a reader. From the second I started reading about Kristy Thomas to this very second as I type this out—I have never stopped loving books. It’s why I’m a writer today. And I am so incredibly grateful.
–Maurene Goo, Somewhere Only We Know
From the first moment I spotted them on the cover of Music for Mechanics, I fell hard for Margarita Luisa “Maggie” Chascarillo and Esperanza Leticia “Hopey” Glass, the linchpin Locas of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’ sprawling comic universe, Love and Rockets. Smart, punk, queer, and unapologetic, these girls made me a writer. I struggled with depression, self-harm, self-medication. Who cared about my rage-filled poems and stories about how hard it was growing up girl?
Then they appeared, loud, Latina, hurting, and trying to figure it out. They were cute, had great punk clothes, played music, fought, kissed lots of people (and each other, and oh, wow, the Maggie and Hopey romance rivals anything in Austen). They taught me stories could be wild and sad and weird (rocket ships happen). The best thing is, the characters have been aging and evolving along with me. Their story is still being written.
Like mine. Like yours.
–Kathleen Glasgow, How to Make Friends with the Dark
Picture this: a recent college graduate, lost and scared, walks helplessly into the middle grade section of her local library. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for, exactly, but she knows it has something to do with the way her mind can’t seem to still lately; the things she’s holding in and struggling to handle before they rip her up from the inside out.
She picks up a book with an irresistible cover, one by an author who she’s liked before. She starts it on the subway home. And the main character is her, somehow, her at eleven in a way she’s never seen before, struggling with unchecked mental illness but also bursting with heart and will and imagination.
She cries in public. She cries in her bedroom. She finishes the book that same day, then flips back to the first page and starts again.
That book was Some Kind of Happiness, by Claire Legrand. And it saved me in two ways: it showed me, all those years later, that I hadn’t been alone. And it taught me I could write about it.
–Christine Lynn Herman, The Devouring Gray
The book that changed my life was: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. I know, I know, way to play it safe, Reynolds; everyone loves Zadie Smith! And you’re right, but it’s true! I can distinctly remember opening the book for the first time and reading those first few lines. I remember my lips just barely trembling; my brain buzzing. I felt…well, changed. Here was a voice that was at once inventive and inviting. And the more I read the more I was convinced that this is what great storytelling is: voice-y, ridiculously entertaining, wicked smart, hilarious, heartbreaking, gloriously messy—and urgent! I could feel Ms. Smith’s love for her diverse cast steeped into every gorgeous line. So, yeah, I guess you could say White Teeth really sank into me—oh my, did I really just decide to end this literary love-fest with that awful pun? Yep, I believe I did, hahaha.
–Justin A. Reynolds, Opposite of Always
I don’t know how old I was when I was doing my usual scouring of books in the library for covers that looked particularly interesting, but I pulled out a thin, lightly battered book with a delightfully intricate cover titled A Rumor of Dragons. (This was actually Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, but split into two volumes with illustrations for younger readers). I had never played Dungeons and Dragons (yet), but I loved sprawling fantasy books with group casts of lovable characters, and this book gave me something different: it gave me a villain who spent his time with the heroes. I didn’t realize that was allowed. I didn’t realize you could write books about villains, let alone have them hanging around the cast of heroes, messing things up constantly with their wild ambitions and lack of morals. It changed everything for me, this realization that I didn’t have to write books about good people doing good things, that I could write books that were wild and weird and over the top and had characters that were selfish and conniving and just as vital to the story as the characters considered the heroes.
It led me to another Dragonlance series (also for young readers) unimaginatively titled “The New Adventures.” Again, there was the sprawling fantasy world with elves and dwarves and wizards that I loved, and again there was a lovable band of utter misfit characters. But this series followed a girl possessed by an evil goddess who wasn’t always too good herself, and again, I realized books didn’t always have to be about the good guys. Also sometimes you just get possessed by an evil goddess and you have to deal with it. Little life lessons.
Every year I read a handful of Dragonlance books and reread some old favorites, and this year in particular it has been good to dip back into an old fantasy world during the swirl of debut life. But anytime I go back I always remember that much younger Emily realizing fantasy doesn’t always have to be so black and white.
–Emily Duncan, Wicked Saints
I couldn’t read in third grade, not even the simplest words. When I looked at a printed page it buzzed with such overwhelming mystery that singling out phonemes, much less breaking that swarm of letters down into intelligible strands, ached with impossibility. My teachers put me in a group for slow learners, but my progress wasn’t slow. It was blockaded by a sense of the impenetrable magic of language.
Then I saw The Hobbit on TV. It was wondrous beyond anything I’d ever supposed might exist.
I begged for the book. At first my parents were reluctant—why buy me the book, when I couldn’t read it?—but eventually they gave in. As soon as I opened it, the story took my hand and led me through the pulsing veil of senseless ink and into the meaning beyond. I read The Hobbit again and again, and forgot that I didn’t know how.
–Sarah Porter, Never-Contented Things
My mother read The Hobbit to me when I was seven and it changed the way I thought about books. Here was a world with breadth, depth, and texture, where magic was less a Saturday morning laser beam and more a tidal force impossible to pin down in any one place, as ineffable and unstoppable as the will and work of adult seemed. The Necromancer felt like a manifestation of the dread of listening to snippets of parental arguments, inarticulate and inexplicable but instinctively awful beyond the kinds of evil a Tipper Gore–dominated media landscape allowed in children’s media. Smaug himself was an avatar of every unreasonable, brute cruelty I could imagine, and as a little queer kid in the south I could imagine a lot. But for all the dread, for all the spiders and goblins, for all the personal failings of everyone involved (yes, even Gandalf), Middle-Earth became a place I desperately wanted to go. If Tolkien’s work taught me anything as a writer it’s this: your story’s conflict is only as good as the peace it threatens.
–Meredith Russo, Birthday
Let’s talk about Martin the Warrior, a prequel to the Redwall Series by Brian Jacques. It’s the only book I’ve ever stolen from a classroom library (mea culpa, Mr. Keegan!) and the first book I ever tucked behind my math textbooks to read in class, which is probably why I can’t do long division to this day. It had sword fights and feasts, pirates and slaves and tyrants, friends and enemies and revolution. That the pages were populated by squirrels and hedgehogs and weasels instead of people made no difference to me; when good mice died, my salty tears mingled with sweet Capri Sun.
I am a little shocked that when I sat down to write this, the book that sprang to mind wasn’t my first childhood encounter with Jewish rep (my synagogue library was decent, so there was plenty) or queer rep (less of this) or Jewish queer rep (zero). But nah. Martin the Warrior changed my life because it taught me to love reading.
Recently, I reread much of the Redwall series, and it’s still THRILLING AS SHIT, the feasts epic, the deaths harrowing. So go out and discover them, because it’s never too late to fall in love.
–Rebecca Podos, The Wise and the Wicked
It’s been many years since this book was released, but I can still confidently say that Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, is probably that one book I can still point to and honestly say “this book changed everything.” I was badly bullied in sixth grade, and as a withdrawn and silent child just trying to turn invisible, that made me the perfect victim for my abuser. When I discovered Speak years later, as a teen, I remember feeling like this was the first book that truly made me feel seen. The main character in Speak was sexually assaulted, and the social rejection and bullying she faces in the aftermath only compound her trauma and isolation. She turns to art, and eventually she finds the inner strength to speak up. Watching Melinda tell the truth about what happened to her inspired me to start telling people what had happened to me, too. I read and reread that book dozens of times over the following years—first when my parents didn’t believe me, and then later when my abuser’s other victims came forward and we went to trial. The impact never wore off. It’s been a long time now since I first picked up Speak, and even now, if you ask me which book had the most impact on making me who I am today, that’s the one I’d choose. Today, when I write books, I’m trying to create stories that will help another young kid feel understood and safe, the way Speak helped me.
–Victoria Lee, The Fever King
The book that changed my life was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! I read it in junior high and I was blown away by the fact that a woman created arguably the most famous monster story of all time. And the more I have learned about Mary’s life and the hurdles that came with publishing her work, the more impressed I am. But when I first read it, I was struck by the idea that a girl wrote this and at such a young age, and as a young writer wannabe that was and is so inspiring!
–Danielle Paige, Mera: Tidebreaker