It’s been a bit since I’ve done a blog, but when I saw The Picky Bookworm’s blog, 10 Books That Changed My Life, I was inspired and thought it might be fun. It wound up being longer than I anticipated and apparently I'm even a rebel or indecisive (depending on how you look at it) when it comes to this, so there's also three-five honorable mentions. So, here we go…
1. My Mama Had A Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray
This has remained my all-time favorite children’s book. My Mama Had A Dancing Heart meant the world to me as someone who loved ballet and dancing from a very young age. When I was in dance class (about five years, I think), I loved that my mother took dance when she was that same age. My mother was in a wheelchair for about eight years, but that never stopped her dancing with me. This is something we wrote about in our upcoming children’s book (also co-written with my brother). I have many fond memories of sitting on her lap as she spun us in her wheelchair or dancing in the pool as we loudly and off-key belted out “Ten Minutes Ago” from the 1960’s Cinderella.
When she began walking again (a journey you can read about in her book, The Unchained Spirit), I have fond memories of blasting music with her and wiggling around the room. My brother and I still joke around about the earthquake she would make stomping her feet on the wooden floors in the house of our teenage years as she rocked out to the opening of “Rolling in the Deep.”
The connection doesn’t just end there, though. My mother always tends to make things magical and a celebration. The joy and wonder of the seasons and the various aspect of those seasons from the lemonade to the seashells to the falling leaves really matched all my mother offered me and continues to offer me in my day to day. Just like in the book, too, this influence is something I have taken with me in my adult life. The two of us often joke we are more Gilmore girls than the Gilmore Girls, but in a lot of ways this book is a reflection of what our relationship has always been.
I have such a thing for word play and the flow of words when reading and writing. Looking back, this is probably one of the origins. The lyrical prose of the book still excites me and I can see its influence in my own writing when I get really into it.
2. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
Perhaps not a great shock, my connection between books and people doesn’t just end with my mom and My Mama Had A Dancing Heart. Her love of reading and the freedom of exploration with books that she gave my brother and I was handed down by her own parents.
My grandmother’s all-time favorite book was Anne of Green Gables. I’m pretty sure she owned every book L.M. Montgomery ever wrote. I still have most of her Anne books that still have her name written in them. I also have her Anne doll and figurine, too. She had hats and visited Prince Edward Island so many times. So much of these books and the first two of the Megan Follows movies are a huge part of my lexicon and references that even my boyfriend will occasionally reference them. My best friend and I call each other kindred spirits and bosom buddies.
Of course, it’s not just this connection. Though as Emma Marsden in To Miss the Stars says, “Somehow the story of the book enhances the story within it.” Anne Shirley was my literary kindred spirit and mirror-friend. She is so beautifully human. From her passion and her stubbornness to her creativity, intelligence, and hope, she made me feel a little less alone in a world that is not always kind to little girls who don’t always fit in.
3. Treasure of Ravenwood by Barbara Lieberman
I have written multiple times before about The Treasure of Ravenwood and what it means to me, between my small business blog and on Vocal (free to read there, too). My mother says I learned to write so I could write down my stories. My Pop-Pop used to tell my mom that when I was alone in the car with him, I would start talking when the key went into the ignition until the car was in park. For me, though, I always felt like I became a writer at my mother’s keyboard.
It was part of my nightly routine. I even was permitted to stay up passed my bedtime to listen to whatever more she wrote so long as I brushed her hair. I often was disappointed when we reached the end and I had to wait until the next night to find out what happened next. She is a pantser, so often she herself did not know, either. I always looked forward to those evening, just the two of us, smiles illuminated by the glow of her computer screen, heart beating to the pulsing of the cursor.
To see the evolution of the story and the process was pure magic. I had a front row seat at watching inspiration turn to ideas and watch my mom weave words into a story. I think there’s a disconnect between books and storytelling. There’s an almost fantastical, other-worldly feel. An unobtainable dream that gets laughed off, the way an adult placatingly pats the head of a child who declares they want to be “a superhero” or “mermaid” when they grow up. My mom, who of course is a magical superhero in her own right, wrote this book from beginning to end because I asked. But, my mom was someone tangible. She wasn’t some black and white photo on a back cover or a name in a textbook. She was real in a way other authors never felt before. And, in seeing her do it, it made me feel like I could, too.
It was the same way when she published Treasure of Ravenwood in 2014 (my first publish book was a year later). It took the writing journey to the next level for me and I sat back and thought, “Maybe I can, too.”
4. Number the Star by Lois Lowry
Number the Stars was a book my class read in third or fourth grade. I believe I was the only Jewish kid in class. I am half Jewish. The holocaust was something that I just sort of always knew about. I, also, knew my family was affected by it but the story my brother and I were told was a sort of fuzzy jumble. It’s only been recently, the past year or two, that I learned the exact details. This book, however, was the first time pretty much all of my classmates heard about the Holocaust. (By the way, if anyone is looking for a book to introduce their kids to this part of history, I highly recommend this one!)
This book will always hold a special place in my heart. It plucked those ancestral strings for me. It was the first time that part of my identity was represented in a place like the classroom. It was the first time that part of me felt seen. It was also the first time this fuzzy jumble that cut so deep had words, had a reason for being, could air out. It was like realizing I was bleeding for the first time and finally getting some Neosporin.
I wish I had more words, better words to explain it.
5. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Fast forward to eighth grade. This was during the height of the Twilight phenomenon. I will not bash a book that others love, but I will say that it was not a book for me. Somewhere across space and time, at least ten people are randomly feeling the need to shout “THAT’S AN UNDERSTATEMENT!” I wanted something heavier, something deeper, something more meaningful, something more challenging.
About a year before, we had moved across country from a fairly progressive suburban community and schools to a rural middle-of-nowhere, minds were as small as the town itself kind of community and schools. There were thirteen kids in the graduating class of the entire school to give a little more perspective. Everyone was reading and lauding Twilight as though it was the finest literature had to offer.
I grew up with Les Miserables musical, the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast VHS to be exact. My brother and I would make our living room couches into the barricades and we were so young my brother pronounced it “ang-grah-gen” when doing a rendition of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” It would be about two-three years later that my mother would take my brother and I to see it live on a special trip to celebrate our high school graduation (a story for another time).
This book remains one of my all-time favorites. It took some perseverance to finish, as well. There are parts I struggled with (really Hugo, I can’t say I care about the history of a piece of furniture that has nothing to do with the rest of the story). I also struggled with the book because of school. Reading in terms of school was always horrible for me for a number of reasons. This time, though, there were moments where it often felt like the teachers also were punishing me for my reading choices. At one point, there was a Read Across America activity that involved making a reading chain based on the number of books everyone in class finished. There’s a huge difference between a 200-400 page book and Les Miserables. Fortunately, I had the support of my mother and the love of the story I already knew.
As for the book itself, it was amazing to see what the writers of the musical kept, left out, and changed and why. I was excited to learn that they even kept some of the direct quotes. It was also interesting to see how the newer version of the musical and even new movie added elements to stay even more true to the original work. I was also fascinated to learn the history behind the book and the author. It was exciting to get lost in the rabbit hole for a while and I still remember a great deal of that history itself.
One of the things that always struck with me about the story itself was that for a book called “The Miserables,” the amount of hope and beauty and love within the darkness. It’s something I’ve taken with me in my own life and, once more, see a huge influence in my own writing, as well. It’s a common theme I can’t help but explore.
6. I Am An Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler
One more a book from eighth grade and I’m beginning to see a pattern that I never realized before. Eighth grade sucked. There’s no other way to put it. It just royally sucked. I hated my teacher and I hated school (funny enough I wanted to be a teacher because of that). See above for some reference on this year of my life in particular.
On top of this, I have been a feminist since before I could properly pronounce the word “feminist.” I was the youngest member of the New Jersey NOW chapter when I was eight and even did a presentation on Title IV. I’ve done deep dives into women’s rights and women’s history since about that time, too. So it was yet another way I struggled with this backward town and the people in it and the isolation among my peers.
Probably not a shock by now, but my mother introduced me to Eve Ensler around this time. We watched The Vagina Monologues (Netflix was a life-saver even back then) and she handed me I Am An Emotional Creature. I swear my mother and this book of poetry was the only thing that got me through this year.
Her poem, My Short Skirt, became my saving grace as I battled outrageous dress codes at school, rape culture and the sexism of everyday society that I was keenly aware of. The entire book returned to me that feeling of power I used to get in NOW meetings and it is a book that I will never part with.
7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My bosom buddy and kindred spirit, sometime after eighth grade, recommended this book to me. She said it was a book about characters who had cancer and fall in love. I remember thinking, absolutely no way. To make matters worse, it was a contemporary YA, which after the Twilight phenomenon, felt over-saturated with superficial drama and love triangles. This was a genre I tended to steer clear of. She said it made readers cry, but it also was really funny and intelligent. It was my best friend, who recommended books I loved before like Alosha, and her recommendations have never steered me wrong before, so despite my initial misgivings, I thought I’d try it.
Boy, am I glad I did! Once more, my friend proved to be the best EVER. I fell in love with the works of John Green. It was real. It was moving. It was deep. It was raw. It was honest. I credit this book with making me fall in love with Young Adult books once more. I went on to read a number of his other books and still highly recommend them to any readers. There is nothing superficial about these stories.
It is through TFIOS that I learned about Esther Earl, who the book is dedicated to, and the This Star Won’t Go Out organization. This incredible organization supports children with cancer and their families in a number of really amazing and practical ways. It’s an organization that appreciates any support given but deserves so much more recognition and support than it receives. I work with them through my handmade business, Acorn Tops, and part of the proceeds of any of my TFIOS inspired creations goes to support them. I highly recommend checking them out and following them across social media and supporting them anyway you can (they’re also a charity on Amazon Smiles). I also highly recommend the book This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl.
8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
One of my favorite types of books is banned or challenged books. I have a mild obsession with these books and their history. Around 2014-2015, I got really into Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. I picked up On the Road and didn’t just love it, but I devoured it. I enjoyed the style of writing greatly and so many quotes felt like it spoke to my soul. Like I’ve said before, I have a thing for words, word play, and turns of phrase.
Just one of the ways it changed my life was in the area of writing. I came across the quote “One day I will find the words and they will be simple” and suddenly everything just sort of clicked. It’s sort of like what my mother always said, “Just write.” There’s so much noise, obnoxious noise, about how to write and the rules and other bull shit. That one quote, coupled with my mother’s advice, allowed me space to take all the unhelpful advice with a grain of salt.
To take what works and leave what doesn’t, a philosophy I’ve had for a while now in all aspects of my life. Writing simply or simply writing took off the pressure and helped me to tap into the flow and make me the writer that I am.
9. Society’s Foundlings
Around this same time, I wrote my first published book, Society’s Foundlings. I’ve discussed the beginning of Society’s Foudlings on podcasts with Over Coffee Podcast. I’ve written a couple different blogs about it here, too.
To sum up, I was eighteen when I wrote this and published it when I was nineteen. It was a dark year for me. I was, once more, struggling with a lot and it didn’t help to have the society around me discount the hardships I was facing with mental health and trying to figure out my future, not someone else’s definition of what that should look like. Life was hard enough without having someone else tell me this was the best it was ever going to be. Writing has always been a sort of therapy. It’s like breathing. But, this book was like taking a deep breath after drowning. Once more, a book and people in my life like my mother, got me through.
Perhaps most life changing for me, though, was that this was the book that started it all for my writing career. I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, but my mother published her first book a year previously, as did my fairy godmother, and both I had the immense honor of not only being there through the entire publishing process, but also was a beta-reader. It inspired me to do the same and I have been writing and publishing ever since.
10. The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow
I wrote a book review of The Once and Future Witches which you can find here. That review pretty sums up my absolute love of this book. Hands down it is one of my all-time top favorites!
By no means am I quick reader. Even just a 300 page book can take me months at a time. It doesn’t help that I tend to keep my plate very full and since leaving college reading has fallen to the wayside between writing, illustrating, and my handmade small business, Acorn Tops. This book, however, grabbed me the moment I first heard about it. Witchcraft and women’s suffrage… I felt like it was written for me just from the blurb alone.
Then, I read it. And, I devoured it faster than I ever devoured any other book. I’m talking a weekend and staying up until very late to finish just one more chapter. By the end, I was licking my fingers in satisfaction and shoved it into my mother’s hands demanding she read it right then and there so we could discuss it. Since, I’ve read Alix Harrow’s newest novella, A Spindle Splintered, and this same new, strange phenomenon occurred once more. It’s re-sparked that love of reading.
It also helped put into perspective other books I had been struggling to read. This was beyond a five star and I loved it. Other books were a bit of a frustrating drudge to get through and it reinforced the idea that it was okay to not finish a book I wasn’t madly in love with. That if books like this exist, you don’t have to dig through the rocks to find the ones that are diamonds for you.
The story itself, as discussed in my review, made my own righteous anger feel seen and justified in a way it rarely does in the world at large. It talked about what it meant to be a woman in a way that left me feeling powerful and my tongue and fingertips tingle as though I was reading a spell. It excited the reader in me, the writer in me, and the woman in me.
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
To fully explain this book, we have to go back in time a little bit. My mother blames my Pop-Pop for this and, somewhere beyond the pearly gates, he gladly takes the blame. When my mother was in fifth grade, my grandfather was on the school board and the school wanted to ban the book from the library. Around the dinning room table, he asked who in the house had read it. My aunt said she did. My uncle said he did. And my mother, the youngest of the bunch, said she did. He asked what they all thought and unanimously they agreed that it scared them and made them never want to touch drugs. He listened and went back to the school board and said “Absolutely not” to banning it.
Fast forward. I’m in fifth grade. My mom hands me the book and I go to town reading it. I read it at home. I read it on the bus. And, I read it in the classroom. Where the teacher stops by my desk, takes a look at the book, takes a look at me, and promptly says in a very disapproving tone, “Does your mother know you’re reading this?”
Now, I come from a household that firmly believes in reading anything and everything. No books were off limits, because my Pop-pop always said that. We’ve dealt with the school questioning this somewhat before. My mom often had to write letters to our teachers stating that she demanded we be allowed to go into sections of the scholastic book fair that were intended for older grades and reading levels. She believed in raising the bar, especially if we showed an interest and when it came to reading. Never had content been a question for me, though.
“My mother was the one who gave it to me,” I replied, confused but also annoyed at the implication that something like a book should be considered off limits, especially after the library had already questioned me checking it out.
Looking back, this was probably where my love of banned and challenged books come from.
Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and The Crucible by Arthur Miller…
That’s right a two in one and on opposite sides of the spectrum for me. That is to say, one I loathed and the other I adored. Once more, we have a bad reading experience with school and my mother who saved the day.
Picture it. Eighth grade. Height of Twilight. Les Miserables in my backpack. And, the teacher decides that the class is going to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Since this experience, I have heard nothing but amazing and wonderful things about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I will admit, the fact that I was being forced to read this book and that it was the eighth-grade teacher who was enforcing this probably colored a lot of my opinions about it. Needless to say, this was another one I hated.
You might be asking, why then bother to even include it? Well, school life and home life was a bit of night and day at this time for me. My mother once more makes an appearance. This was required reading and was necessary to pass a class. Instead of fighting me each night to do what felt like ridiculous tasks I couldn’t care less about for a book I despised with all the passions of Anne Shirley, she decided, instead], to teach me a few tricks to get through it. “Read the first and last sentences of each chapter” was one of them. These were very similar tricks that she taught her GED students for how to study and tricks that got me through a lot of my college courses.
She didn’t just stop there, though. I was interested in history and the Salem Witch trials intrigued me, but was something I hadn’t explored much of before. Seeing me bored out of my mind with Witch of Blackbird Pond and frustrated that classroom “discussions” were all right-or-wrong answers one would find on a test that was designed purely to prove someone read the book, she handed me The Crucible.
I devoured it. I adored it. I was hooked.
She went a step further. She began discussing allegory with me and the connection the play had to McCarthyism. She went on to show me a movie version (back when Netflix was borrowed DVDs in the mail), the making of the movie, at least one documentary for the Witch Trials and one for McCarthy era, a nonfiction book about the witch trials, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Waggles by Evangeline Duran Fuentes and Why Does The Moon Follow Me by Barbara Lieberman
These two books were the first ones I ever illustrated. These were the start of my illustrating career and since I’ve illustrated books for a few other authors, as well as my own. Both these authors were a pleasure to work with and I couldn't have asked for a more positive beginning in the world of illustrating.
Gathering dust in the depths of my mind, random thoughts dusted off and put out there for the world to see...