This will be a series, starting from childhood and spanning to just this year. I may revisit one or more of these time periods, but talk about books that influenced me in different ways.
This first entry consists of books I read in elementary school (these three fall specifically from age 8 to 10) and focuses on three books that influenced the way I write fiction and how I write it and, perhaps most importantly, why I write. I was blessed in the fifth grade with a teacher who encouraged us to read voraciously. We were paired with another student and the guidelines were simple: pick a book for the two of you to read at the same time and then read as many as you can in the school year.
I don’t even remember how many books I devoured in that year, but I do remember that was the year I decided that I wanted to write.
THE WESTING GAME, by Ellen Raskin: My copy of The Westing Game is so beaten and battered that you know it was well-loved. I read it for the first time in fifth grade and I remember being so utterly blown away by the intricacies of the plot, the witty dialogue, the omniscient unreliable narrator. I used to reread it at least once a year.
The premise is that 16 seemingly unrelated people are invited to live in exclusive Sunset Towers, only to find out that they are all potential heirs of paper mogul, Sam Westing—though only a few out of the 16 admit to meeting the man. What further complicates the situation is that Sam Westing has accused one of these 16 of murdering him.
What really sets The Westing Game aside from so many other children’s novels is its narration. There is the omniscient unreliable narrator that I mentioned before, but you also seamlessly and effectively get the thoughts and motivations of all 16 of the main characters (and some minor ones), while not revealing too much so that the you know everything. It’s a children’s Mrs. Dalloway in terms of narration. When I was younger, I tried to emulate the style, only to realize—that’s damn hard to do well. It’s also confusing to keep track of.
And yet, Ellen Raskin pulls it off effectively while writing for children.
This book is brilliant. For a children’s book, only one of the characters even qualifies as a child (three others are in their teens), while most are middle-aged. Kids don’t necessarily like to read books about failed restaurant owners, podiatrists, and secretaries—but while reading this book, you don’t even question it.
The big thing that this book contributed to my writing was a love for characters. For making characters that were believable and fun (and a surprising variety of diversity from a 1978 novel) and creating unexpected, yet complex relationships between them.
ELLA ENCHANTED, by Gail Carson Levine: At its heart, Ella Enchanted is a timeless fairy-tale. Though the not-so-great movie starring Anne Hathaway may taint it and equate it to cheap jokes and a half-fleshed fantasy world where everyone has a British accent for no reason, this book boasted a world that was fully developed, not cliché (though it still carried classic motifs as an homage to the fairy tale it was based on), and beautifully written.
This book was probably one of my first experiences with true high fantasy—set in a world completely removed from our own. Not like Harry Potter, where a fantastical world lives alongside ours, or The Chronicles of Narnia, where another world is entered through ours, or even like His Dark Materials, which has a world quite parallel to our own, before crossing into ours. No, this was set in a far away land, with creatures and species different from our own—think Lord of the Rings, but written for eight-year-old girls.
Now I know that’s not really a strange concept, especially nowadays, but it was the first of those types of books I had read.
I often thought it was Narnia that really influenced my childhood stories of fantasy lands and all the world-building I did with those. When I look back, I realize it was more Ella Enchanted.
Levine’s books sparkle with daring heroines, witty banter, and at their heart, the timeless fairy tale message of love conquering all. Another gem of hers is The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which tells one of the most beautiful stories about sisters I have read.
I’ve since stopped writing fantasy stories, but every so often I get a reminder of my old worlds–maps I drew, governments I wrote up, pages and pages of details about different beings and species and magic–and for that, I have to thank Ella Enchanted.
A SWIFTLY TILTING PLANET, by Madeline L’Engle: You have probably heard of A Wrinkle in Time. This is the fourth book in the Time Quartet—which is not limited to just those four books, mind you, as Madeline L’Engle seamlessly intertwines most, if not all, her novels together, which character, histories, and creatures crossing over from one to another (she maintains that there are two separate universes that coexist—the more “realistic” Chronos and the more fantastical Kairos, though multiple characters are involved in both).
That whole crossover, existing in almost the same universe but not quite, theme was a huge source of my writing inspiration in elementary school (and carrying over to middle school). I aimed to write stories about worlds that coexisted, separate series that would cross into each other (of course, I was 10 at the time and my ambitions have since been toned down, though the stories live on in my head).
I picked A Swiftly Tilting Planet simply because it is my favorite, though what I am going to say about it reflects across the whole anthology of L’Engle’s works.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet follows Charles Wallace as he basically mind-melds with certain figures across history and tries to rewrite the course of events that may have led up to a nuclear war. He inhabits the thoughts and minds of these people and tries his best to rectify mistakes made by the characters, so that the malevolent dictator threatening nuclear war has a different bloodline.
All of the books have heavy themes that one would be surprised to find in a children’s novel—the issues of life and death, parallel universes, nuclear war, abuse, the very nature of not being. Kinda makes my head spin a bit.
L’Engle says that the characters in her books “ask some big questions.” The kind, she says that “many of us ask…as we’re growing up, but we tend to let them go.”
Sometime in late high school, early college, I decided to put away my thoughts of writing fantasy, writing for children, in pursuit of more “serious” work. But as I flip through my old copy of this book, smooth out the introduction penned by the author, and reread the above phrase, I feel a shiver of nostalgia—because these books, written for children, ask bigger questions than a lot of books written for adults ever could.
These books are considered staples of children’s literature. They’ve been awarded Newberry Medals and Honors. They’re used as class reading in grade school. I am sure that there are plenty of blog posts written about each of them. To me, though, they inspired a love of reading and more importantly a love of writing.
I insisted to myself that I was only ever going to write realistic stories for adults sometime in early college, because no one took a children’s book seriously. But as I look back at my beaten, worn, weathered copies of these books and reflect on just how much they meant to me, I wonder, perhaps if I’m just a little wrong about what I want to write.