The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: Let’s just get this out of the way. Harry Potter is the reason I fell in love with books. It’s how, at eleven years old, I started using words like “incredulous” and “dumbfounded” in my first stories. It’s why my backpack was always so heavy in elementary school because I insisted on carrying the six hundred page hardcover around for silent reading time. It’s what my third grade teacher used to try and pressure me into joining a Reading Olympics contest (“You read those huge Harry Potter books…you can read these other ones, too!”) because she wanted her class to win. Deathly Hallows is the only book that has brought me to tears, to the point where I had to put the book down for a few minutes. [And say what you will about the movies, but I sobbed for a solid 15-20 minutes during the final Deathly Hallows movie.] It’s my literary outlier—I’m otherwise not a fantasy person—and the only series I own two copies of, one hardcover, one paperback. It’s the series I can always count on for joy, no matter which of the seven books I pick up. The books have always been a constant in my life, especially when my family moved around a lot towards the end of elementary school (though I don’t think I realized that I needed something stable at that time in my life). I still take the entire series to college with me, and they’ll be a fixture in my grad school apartment. I love these books.
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen: I’ve mentioned it a few times on here, but this is the book that inspired me to really become a writer. This book made me stop and realize, “Wait, I can do this. I want to do this.” I connect with the narrator, Macy, a lot, especially with her desire to be perfect (Just ask anyone who tries to coerce me into letting them read my writing: 90 percent of the time my response is, “Sure, but it’s not ready yet. You can read it once it’s perfect.”). This book taught me a lot about juggling a lot of balls in one story, like external and internal conflicts and subplots with secondary characters. It showed me that resolutions can be subtle, more about emotional growth than a high-action battle scene that ends with a winner and a loser. It showed me that I like writing about real people with everyday problems. Also, it taught me how to create the perfect love interest. :) One of the most important things I took from this book, though, are its out-of-the-ordinary everyday situations. Macy joins a catering company, something normal for some but something I’d never thought about before. [Many of Dessen’s other books do this as well.] I’ve adopted that for my own writing, creating stories about beauty pageant consultants, hot air balloon crews, and bible school camps. I need my worlds to interest me so they’ll interest my readers, too, and TTAF taught me that.
Looking for Alaska by John Green: The ultimate case study on flawed characters. Alaska Young is one of my favorite YA characters of all time. Which is funny, because I would NEVER be friends with her in real life, not in a million years. But on the page, I can appreciate her. I understand why she’s so self-destructive. This book has driven me to add more complexities to my characters, to make them a little bit bad, more real. On a personal reading level, I sat on the couch and read most of this book in one day, and I was emotionally exhausted by the end. It covers an entire school year, and you feel like you lived it right along with Pudge, the narrator. The book still haunts me, and I find myself thinking about it a lot. It’s also the first male-narrated book since Harry Potter that I read and loved.
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins: This book of short stories was one of my assigned books last fall at Susquehanna. Claire teaches at Bucknell University nearby and was one of our visiting writers that semester. She did a reading and Q&A on the day of her visit, and I had been chosen by my professor to write and deliver an introduction before her reading. I think he picked me because I OBSESSED over her collection all semester leading up to her visit. I wrote about her stories for our reading write-ups, and I always had something to say when we discussed one in class. All the stories are set in the West, primarily Nevada, Claire’s home state, which gives the collection a cohesiveness that I aspire to have in my short stories. Her settings are alive, almost a character of their own, and her actual characters are raw and flawed and honest. Many short stories I've been assigned in college are hard to wrap my brain around, but reading BATTLEBORN felt like a second home, one where things made sense. This is the first short story collection I’ve read cover to cover, scribbled notes in the margins and loved. Plus she autographed it for me, which makes it even more special. She told me it was the kindest, most thoughtful introduction she'd received at that point in her career. (I proceeded to melt into a giddy puddle on the floor.) I’m taking the book to grad school with me, and maybe one day I’ll publish a collection like this.
What about you? What books have changed your life?