For the first What a Girl Wants post I thought it would be good to see what titles we remembered from our teen years. (This is to serve as an introduction to the group - we'll tackle current issues for girls and books from now on.) Everyone who loves books has that memory of the books that made a big difference when they were growing up. For me, it was A Wrinkle in Time which I first read in the 6th grade at Creel Elementary School. I still remember exactly where it sat in the shelf and what my friend Lisa said to me when recommending it. I loved Wrinkle for three reasons: first, it started with a liverwurst sandwich. This was the only book I had ever written where liverwurst sandwiches were mentioned and as they were a big favorite to my family (especially my Bronx grown grandmother) the mention of them was quite exciting and familiar to me. (Like Madeleine L'Engle and I shared a secret.) Second, Meg was all elbows and knees, gawky and thin - just like me. All of my friends were shorter and curvier and I was not - my jeans were never long enough, my shirts never fit right, nothing was right. It wasn't right for Meg either and I loved her for that. And third - she won. At the end of the book, against a very serious and scary opponent, Meg stood firm and she won. She didn't do it with magic or superior strength but through the force of her convictions. She stood firm, she was fearless and she won. That was a lesson I took away from Meg and held onto for my life - stand firm and you can win.
I totally love that book.
Here's what everybody had to say when I asked them "What book affected you the most as a tween/teen?". I'm sure the one thing most readers will take from the responses is the same thing I have - that there is no way to standardize the books that will impact a young girl's life. We all value radically different books for radically different reasons and yet we all have ended up here, the same place, as book lovers and writers. This is what makes books so wonderful and why the question of what books should/would appeal to a teen girl such an interesting question.
Beth Kephart: To begin with, I needed movement. I needed dance; I needed song. I needed cloud drift, sea tides, the sudden burst of a hibiscus, the ooze of mud at my feet. I had about me, always, a ceaseless urgency. As a child the stories I knew best were the stories that I danced to in the family roomâ€”the "My Fair Lady" soundtrack. "Man of La Mancha." "Peter Pan." I don't know how I discovered The Secret Garden, as a young girl, but that bookâ€”that garden, that adventure, that secretâ€”was alive to me in the way that song and movement was. It was ripe with color.
But the question here is, What book affected you most as a tween/teen reader?, and my answer, my single, undiluted choice, is The Great Gatsby, which I read in high school. Here was language that moved across the page. Here was the delicious complexity of themes I did not entirely understand. I loved The Great Gatsbyâ€” took it as proof reading wasn't a stillness, but a wholly active search. I am, for better or worse, language soaked. The Great Gatsby gave me the freedom to be less ashamed of the crooked sentences that I was stowing inside my poetry journalsâ€”to explore more, to take the idea of movement right back down to the page.
Melissa Wyatt: Hands down, PROVE YOURSELF A HERO by K. M. Peyton. (Officially a YA book and officially purchased by me in 1979 in a section of the bookstore labeled "Young Adult," so nyah to people who think YA didn't exist way back then.) I still remember the evening I bought it on a rare trip to a huge mall with my mother, sitting underneath a garment rack while my mother shopped, more interested in Jonathan Meredith than new clothes.
Why: Sitting under that garment rack at Park City Mall is my strongest memory of that sense of complete transportation you get when you read a book that you know was written for you. It pushed all of my fifteen-year-old buttons in all the right ways. It didn't enlarge my understanding in any significant or noble way, but it did what I think we sometimes forget a YA book in particular can do so well: it gave me a private place to pull out and try on feelings that people don't really talk about or might even tell you you shouldn't feel. Again, nothing big or noble or earth-shattering, maybe even feelings you can't properly classify. PROVE YOURSELF A HERO is what my friend Cathy Atkins calls a "Man in Jeopardy" book, something I'm still a sucker for and still can't quite explain why. All I know is that book let me take those feelings out and let them run amok for awhile.
And then, more seriously, it led me to Mrs. Peyton's other YA novels. She became and remains my favorite YA author. My sons got their proper names from family but their nicknames are from her novels. (Ned from THE RIGHT HAND MAN and Will from the FLAMBARDS books.) That's how strong an influence she has had over me! And in a way, the connection I've had with her books has given me permission to follow my own work where it wants to go, to trust that what moves me isn't wrong, is important in its own way, and in the hopes that what I'm writing will find that reader who will feel that it was written for her.
That there was weight and resonance in seemingly random events, that I might be part of a larger, more meaningful story: Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, the way Will Stanton discovers his part in the struggle between the Dark and the Light.
That I was connected to friends: my whole circle, for reasons that now escape me, read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and delighted in quoting "Leper outcast unclean!" at each other.
Like I was getting away with something, learning things I wasn't supposed to know: Mary Renault's novels of ancient Greece and the fascinating gay couples that populated them; and in an entirely different mode, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Lorie Ann Grover: When I am asked this question, immediately Island of the Blue Dolphins comes to mind. In 1961, Scott O'Dell won the Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins. I was born in 1964, so the work probably came to my attention near 1976 when the Children's Literature Association named the novel one of the 10 best American children's books of the past 200 years.
O'Dell was inspired by a 12 year old girl left behind on an island off the coast of CA as the Ghalas were evacuated. She jumped from the ship to return to her brother who had been left behind. He soon died, and Karana lived there alone for 18 years.
Karana testified to me that a girl can survive by herself. She can face wild dogs, enemies, sea elephants, and the death of a loved one. She can clothe and shelter herself, and find some measure of joy. I believed it knowing O'Dell based the work on truth. This gave me independence and challenged me to be resilient. When my father left our family, I knew I could stand. I was motivated to be like Karana as School Library Journal summarized in their starred review: "A quiet acceptance of fate characterizes her ordeal." I would call it providence, but this is how I have hoped to live, quiet acceptance while wholly active.
Mayra Lazara Dole: At seventeen, although I'd written volumes, I read my first book: Siddhartha, a muy "gay" Buddhist burst of enlightenment (if you're wondering why I started reading so late in life, please scroll down). I plucked Siddhartha from a girlfriend's bookshelf--the rest of her books were too "white" and didn't speak to me. Best Indian friends, Siddhartha and Govinda, travel and suffer together on eventual separate paths towards suppression of feelings: Nirvana. This book about venturing to find yourself made an impact on me at a time when I was closeted, wanted to leave home, felt a great need for intellectual stimulation, and longed to find peace within. Although I'm no longer idealistic, or in search of anything, Siddhartha and Govinda--my two fave closeted boys--awoke a passion for literature within me that can never be extinguished, thus they'll forever remain close to my heart.
*When we came from Cuba, I grew up in a lower working-class barrio with a brilliant, storyteller mom who worked two factory jobs and a weekend job cleaning offices. She didn't speak English, didn't own a car, had never read a book in her life, and had no clue that libraries existed. Regardless how exhausted Mami was, she'd tuck me in every night and made up elaborate, adventurous stories. In ninth grade, when it's required to read classics for English class, I was kicked out of Catholic school due to a spicy love letter from my first lesbian love. I began to work as a hairstylist and didn't read until I found Siddhartha, the little gem that spoke to me.
Loree Burns: The book that affected me the most as a teen was Stephen Jay Gould's THE PANDA'S THUMB. I know, odd choice. And here's the thing: I didn't understand a word of it when I first read it. Still, this is the book that changed my teenaged life. How? Well, sometimes, at least for me, a book's meaning comes not just from the words between the covers, but also from where I am (literally and figuratively) when I read it orâ€”as was the case with THE PANDA'S THUMBâ€”who took the time to put the book into my hands.
One day in 1987, during my senior year of high school, my biology teacher pulled me aside and told me he'd just read a great book, and that he thought I might like it too. This was shocking. SHOCKING. As far as I was concerned, Mr. Micarelli was brilliant. He was a man of integrity and conviction, an incredibly dedicated teacher, and, to be perfectly honest, one of the few positive male role models in my little world. And he had read a bookâ€”an important and intelligent bookâ€”that he thought I might like. I am sure I don't have to explain to anyone who was ever a teenager what this sort of faith can mean to a person.
My copy of THE PANDA'S THUMB came with me to college, and then to graduate school. It has occupied space on a bookshelf in every place I have ever lived, actually, and I am pretty sure I will own it until I die. Not because the essays inside it are amazing (though they are), and not because it's author made me see life in new and inspiring ways (though he did, once I actually understood what he was saying), but because whenever I look at this book I remember that back in those days when I wasn't quite sure who I was or if, once I had figured it out, I would be much at all, there was a great man who believed in me.
Jacqueline Kelly: National Velvet. Forget the movie, forget Elizabeth Taylor, forget everything you think you know about this book. What you have in this amazing work, published 74 years ago, is a powerful feminist tract, cleverly disguised as a horse book for little girls.
Velvet Brown is an awkward ugly child, with a high domed forehead and cottony hair, a thin, buck-toothed rabbitty child wearing braces, surrounded by her three older sisters, who are "as beautiful as golden greyhounds." But Velvet has an understanding of horses and a drive deep within her to do something great. She enters her horse, The Piebald, won in a shilling raffle, in the Grand National, the hugely difficult and dangerous steeple-chase. Only men may ride. Velvet is backed by her mother, a woman who swam the English Channel twenty years earlier, swimming all through the night in a gale. Mrs. Brown has turned into a huge, fat, silent housewife, with eyes that miss nothing, and she sees the same fire in her little girl that once lived in her. There is much talk of pluck and guts and staying power, something you don't often see in girls' books.
Mrs. Brown uses her swimming prize money to buy Velvet her own chance at glory. The description of Mrs. Brown emerging from the channel onto the sands of Calais was the first time I'd ever read about a woman who was both physically and mentally powerful. This picture has stayed with me my whole life.
Kekla Magoon. I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor back in seventh grade, and still to this day there are scenes from that book that I can picture as vividly as I did the moment I first read them. I was captivated. I was confused. I cried. I was overwhelmed by how real the story felt, and by the truth it carried, and by the sense of history come to life in my hands. Those feelings never actually went away.
Roll of Thunder was probably among the first historical fiction books I ever read, but looking back, I believe that book started me along the path where I walk now, as a writer and lover of history. It showed me the richness and power of empathy, and how books (historical and otherwise) can enrich your real life experiences by letting you feel the world from within someone else's skin.
Laurel Snyder. Can I have two books? Because together, E.L. Konigsburg's Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, and The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder were THE books of my tween years. I don't know if they were my favorites. In fact I struggled with them, but they absolutely resonated, and both made me examine myself in a new way. See, they fell somewhere between the usual fare of middle-grade magic-books, and "realistic" teen reads. They were both books in which kids sought magic, and believed in other worlds, but didn't find them, and instead ran smack into the realities of the "real" world, and human nature.
I was a pretty weird kid. I really did search for unicorns. For many years, I believed that whatever I drew on paper with a gold paint pen became real in some fairyland universe I just hadn't found the door to. And in fact, around the sixth grade, I became the "apprentice" of a (pretty messed up) witchy-girl who'd read the Konigsburg way too many times. But I was hapy to be her gofer, because I was always looking for a way to avoid growing up, avoid sacrificing magic. I didn't want to "outgrow" it like Susan. I didn't want to leave Narnia. I hadn't even found Narnia yet! These books were a slap in the face after the giddy years of Edward Eager and CS Lewis, but they were also a bridge to me growing up... and that is something good books can do, isn't it? Open a door? Reveal a path?
Jenny Davidson. I find it almost impossible to answer the question of what book affected me the most as a child, or spoke most directly to me, because there were so very many! I was certainly haunted by non-fiction books about girls undergoing ordeals of one kind or another â€“ Laura Ingalls in The Long Winter, for instance, or Anne Frank, or the protagonist of a book I read over and over again called The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia. I was also obsessed with the children who survive catastrophes in books by Robert C. O'Brien (Z is for Zachariah, The Silver Crown) and Peter Dickinson (The Changes). I wishfully identified with the children who have adventures in the novels of Susan Cooper (both Will Stanton and Jane Drew are favorites of mine) and with Madeleine L'Engle's awkward teenage girls (Vicky Austin, Meg Murray) and with Robin McKinley's truly heroic Harry in The Blue Sword, which despite its Orientalist tinges remains an absolute favorite book of mine. I regretted the fact that I was not more like Dido Twite in Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and I read Aiken's adult fiction very avidly as well as her wonderful short stories.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was another compulsive reread, from age eight or so onwards â€“ I literally read my yard-sale copy to pieces. I liked stories about British children from an earlier age (E. Nesbit!), but particularly the books of Noel Streatfeild, whose books seemed to suggest that if one worked very hard and had a talent, it might actually be possible to make a living in the arts even as a child! I preferred books about magic (Edward Eager et al.) to books about ordinary life, but Summer of My German Soldier was another book I read again and again; more magical favorites were Elizabeth Pope's The Perilous Gard and all the novels of Alan Garner. The heroines of Diana Wynne Jones were also favorites of mine, since their lives seemed to capture the combination of (book-relieved) tedium with brief terrifying episodes that characterizes real-world childhood; Howl's Moving Castle and Fire and Hemlock remain two favorites, though I think I didn't read them until I was a bit older. The Narnia books remained permanent favorites, and I also devoured the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe and the novels of Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie, whose novels are well-suited to children.
(In contrast to books, ordinary life seemed to offer few opportunities for heroic or transformative behavior! And in this respect, perhaps I should name another favorite author of childhood, who seemed to write books about characters much closer to the ones in real ordinary life â€“ E. L. Konigsberg. Cynthia Voigt is another I think of in this regard â€“ the writing is magically good, but the subjects are painfully and movingly lifelike.)
Margo Rabb. Anne Frank's The Diary of A Young Girl changed my life. I first read it at fourteen, and its opening sentenceâ€”"I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support"â€”made me yearn to have a place where I could confide everything also. At fourteen I started keeping a diary, too.
Generally speaking, the inner lives of young girls are not taken seriously in our culture. Teen girls are not expected to have complex and profound thoughts, or ideas that are worthy of serious attentionâ€”but Anne breaks that stereotype. Her thoughts are complicated and profound; her interior life is rich with contradictions and confusion and dreams. She questions her role as a young woman: "If I don't have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that. I can't imagine living like Mother, Mrs. van Daan and all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten. I need to have something besides a husband and children to devote myself toâ€¦"
Many value Anne's diary most of all as a historic document, but it's so much more than that: it's a work of art. Her diary made me realize that I wasn't the only girl to think about things deeply, to have a need for a life beneath the surface. And most important of all, Anne taught me about the magic of writing: how the page is a secret place where the innermost workings of the heart can be explored and understood, and where the tragic can be turned into something beautiful.
Zetta Elliott. When I think about my teen years, the author that immediately comes to mind is Charles Dickens. I also read a lot of Jane Austen, the BrontÃ«s, George Eliotâ€”basically whatever books my mother was assigned to read in night school. I'm sure I read contemporary romance novels at some point, but even as a tween, I was mostly into British literatureâ€”Frances Hodgson Burnett was my absolute favorite, and I read A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Secret Garden late into the night. I loved the challenge of the formal prose, the intricate narratives (Dickens in particular). There were so many twists and turns, such peculiar charactersâ€”and the worlds I read about were nothing like my own, which was great since the point was to escape from my own reality. What particularly resonated with me was the idea that a child's moral worth would set her or him apart; despite poverty, persecution, misfortuneâ€¦deep down that worth would shine, and with just a bit of polish (and help from others) the pure of heart would triumph in the end. It sounds a bit ridiculous now, but I grew up feeling rather ashamed of all the things I didn't have: a two-parent family, a nice home, cool clothes, etc. I felt like I was surrounded by rich kids, and they got a car just for turning sixteen, yet I was a straight-A student and never had anything just handed to me. What kept me going was the belief that someday, someone would finally recognize my worth; what I know now, is that you have to celebrate yourself because being a woman of color in this world means that to most other people, you're invisible.
Just before I graduated from college, I read Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy in a course on politics and literature, and that was my first introduction to postcolonial theory. I was 19, I'd been immersing myself in Victorian narratives, and I finally found a theoretical framework that allowed me to SEE MYSELF in those books. I began to realize that as a young woman of color, I was NEVER going to be mistress of the estateâ€”in fact, it was the labor of my ancestors that funded those lavish parties and jewels and finely decorated salons! From that point onward I hunted down all the black-authored books I could find, yet it took longer for me to be able to write an "authentic" black female character; my imagination was permanently impacted by the absence of people of color in the books I had read as a child. Today, I'm still haunted by Dickens and Burnett, but I'm grateful because I now have the critical tools I need to be aware of their influence on me as a black woman writer (and that influence isn't entirely negative). It's a complicated legacy, and one I wouldn't necessarily wish on teen readers today. I want them to have options I never had as a girl, but the industry doesn't make it easyâ€¦