The Books That Made My Life

I was always inclined to be a bookworm. To a degree that surprises me now, when I look back on it, my mother was a full out, cloth diaper-washing, PBS-contributing, sprouts in ham sandwiches hippy mom. But not a dirty, 1960’s vegan commune hippy. A late 1980’s, tribal print, multicultural entertainment, awkward rap in children’s entertainment hippy.

Reading Rainbow, with Geordi La Forge
Reading Rainbow, with Geordi La Forge

As such, and because she decided to take time off to raise me and spent an absurd amount of time on me, we were always likely to hang out in the local public library. The books she checked out from the bookmobile that would visit the migrant worker housing project where she grew up were a lifeline, and she passed on that salvation-through-the-written-word attitude toward me.
Going to the Young Writers Contest,* as well as reading the short story compilation 13 edited by James Howe (extremely short review possibly forthcoming) reawakened my love for children’s literature as a form (not a genre) and caused me to look back that a few books that were extremely influential to me. I’ll arrange them by age range, because it’s simple. Because I believe that any good children’s book can be enjoyed as an adult, I’ll arrange by the earliest age I think a person would best be able to dive into the books and the themes.


The 21 Balloons William Pène du Bois
It doesn’t take much to dismember The 21 Balloons into its component parts. A San Francisco mathematics teacher retires and decides to go on a balloon (The Wizard Of Oz) trip around the world (Around the World in 80 Days), but he crash lands (The Little Prince) on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean (The Mysterious Island) which is populated by  mechanically advanced people taking advantage of their natural habitat (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Oh, and it’s written by a French (Jules Verne, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) journalist (L. Frank Baum) turned author/illustrator (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).
But this does a disservice to the wonderful story and execution. It borrows heavily from the authors mentioned above, but takes the best from each. It is at the same time more plausible than Baum, has aged better than much of Verne and preserves the simple spirit of Saint-Exupéry. I recently brought a copy of the book along on a camping trip with people from the ages of 16-20, and everybody fell in love with the book.
The fanciful mechanical devices contained in the book hearken back to another time before computers when we thought that all of the world’s problems would be solved with good, solid mechanical engineering. The appeal remains, however. I could not possibly count the times I have thought back to the balloon merry-go-round, or the M’s fantastic Moroccan house, or the balloon-house as I fall asleep or daydream.
I think that children a little younger could probably follow the story, but I would give it as an 8th birthday present (concerns about the lameness of giving books as presents aside).


Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go To Birmingham: 1963 Christopher Paul Curtis
There’s a lot of meta-analysis that I could go into here. I could talk about how Bud, Not Buddy (BNB) and The Watsons Go To Birmingham: 1963 (TWGB) skillfully weave personal narratives with believable historical fiction. I could talk about how TWGB centers around a northern, middle-class black family, a traditionally ignored part of society in mainstream entertainment. Or the important of minority voices in children’s literature in a properly diverse society. All of these things are true. All of these things miss the point.
BNB follows a young boy’s escape from foster care, and journey through Michigan during the Great Depression to try and find his father. Curtis gives Bud a distinct and authentic voice that spoke to me when I was closer to that age. I still sometimes find myself using the “Rules & Things” format in my own internal monologue. Curtis also does a great job slipping in historical details without the awkward self-conciousness that most historical fiction slips into. Also, there’s a fair bit about the healing power of music (in this case the big band/swing music that came before nightclub jazz) which is enough to sell me on a book any day.
TWGB follows one family’s summer vacation trip from the urban north to the deep south. At heart, though, it is about a brother relationship, and the responsibility and maturity that comes with a dangerous world.
These books are not the same, but once I had one, I could not imagine leaving out the other. TWGB reads a little older than BNB, but they both have a lot to offer readers of any age.


Carry On, Mr. Bowditch Jean Lee Latham
On paper, it’s hard to see why I like this book at all, much less consider it essential reading for (just) pre-teen (especially) boys. I’m an overweight queer Latino musician with discipline problems, no mathematical inclination, and who is terrible with his hands. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is about a boy who rises from indentured servant to Captain of a merchant ship, teaching himself foreign languages and calculus along the way.
I once got extremely sad when I read a Slate article calling Pixar fascist because of The Incredibles and Ratatouille‘s emphasis on personal excellence and hard work. I was sad because I feel like even though the idea that anybody can be anything might be fiction, it’s the right lie to tell.
Educational experts, sociologists, economists all have substantial amounts of data explaining exactly why populations, be they black rural boys, poor urban white girls, and everybody in between, cannot succeed in the current educational system. And they’re right. To some degree, with the amount of inequality of opportunity built into the system, it is hard to blame people for their lack of success.
But these data points give us an indication of how we can better ourselves for the future. They don’t indicate what to do now. This is what you do: lie. You have to lie to the kid, lie to him and tell him that he can be whatever he wants, lie to him and tell him he can be the best. Because if you don’t preserve that polite fiction, you kill any possibility that the kid can beat the odds.
That’s what this book is about. That’s why every 12 year old boy** should read it.
The Giver Lois Lowry
This book has become such a staple of children’s literature and has become essential reading in middle schools to such a degree that I almost didn’t mention it. But this list is about me, and this book definitely helped shape my philosophy on human potential and human life.
Really, any time we come close to making cost-benefit analyzes of human life, I get a little anxious. The recent murder of Dr. George Tiller has caused me to revisit my beliefs about abortion, and I realize now how some of the gut revulsion that I feel about abortion comes from the callous, utilitarian, and above all logical attitude toward human life contained in the utopian/dystopian society of The Giver. I believe in the legalization of abortion because I believe it will lead to fewer abortions. It is certainly a post for another day.
This book caused me to begin exploring my own beliefs, beliefs that have changed greatly since I first read this book. It also ignited my love for dystopian novels that lead to Aldous Huxley and William Gibson.
It is also contains thought provoking ideas on the function of memory in a society. I don’t really have a point here, just a musing, but it reminded me of the line in Munich when Avner asks the Palestinian freedom fighter, “Do you really want the land? Do you really miss your grandfather’s olive trees?” and the Palestinian replies, with tears in his eyes, “Yes.” He likely has never seen the family homestead that he is willing to give his life for. The memory sustains him. It also connectred with this piece from James Fallows which talks about how, becuase of tight media control, the 20-year anniversary of Tiananman Square will be ignored by most mainland Chinese, and in the case of younger Chinese, might be completely unaware of its existence.
It’s Like This, Cat Emily Neville
It’s funny, this was the first book to pop in my head when I was planning this post, but it’s the book I’m having the hardest time finding something to say about it.
I guess you could think about it as The Catcher in the Rye-lite (the duck hunting hat replaced with a ducktail greaser hairstyle), but that wouldn’t be fair. I guess a better characterization of it would be an alternate Rebel Without a Cause. I have always imagined the protagonist of ILT,C as James Dean.
Luckily, I don’t really have to summarize it, because the full text is available free here via Project Gutenberg. You should check it out.
A random note: I do clearly remember this as being the first time my prepubescent self encountered the concept of the MILF. My crush was on Nina, the mother of the protagonist’s girlfriend:
Mary goes in and shouts, “Hi, Nina! I brought a friend home.
We’re going to make some cocoa. We’re freezing.”

I wonder who Nina is. I don’t hear her mother come into the
kitchen. Then I turn around and there she is. Holy crow! We got
some pretty beat-looking types at school, but this is the first time
I’ve ever seen a beatnik mother.

She’s got on a black T-shirt and blue jeans and old sneakers,
and her hair is in a long braid, with uneven bangs in front.
Mary waves a saucepan vaguely at us both and says, “Ni-
na—Davey—this is my mother.”

No, wait! It gets even better:
I remember Mary saying something about her mother and
poetry, so I say, “Well, uh—last week we read ‘The Highway-
man’ and ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus.’ They’re about—I mean,
we were studying metaphors and similes. Looking at the ocean
today, I sure can see what Longfellow meant about the icy….”
I thought I was doing pretty well, but she cut me off again.
“Don’t you read any real poetry? Donne? Auden? Baude-
Three more torpedoes. “We didn’t get to them yet.”
Nina blows out a great angry cloud of smoke and explodes,
“Schools!” Then she sails out of the kitchen.
I guess I look a little shook up. Mary laughs and shoves a mug
of cocoa and a plate of cinnamon toast in front of me. “Don’t
mind Mother. She just can’t get used to New York schools. Or
Coney Island. Or hardly anything around here.
“She grew up on the Left Bank in Paris. Her father was an
artist and her mother was a writer, and they taught her to read at
home, starting with Chaucer, probably. She never read a kids’
book in her life.

The View From Saturday E.L. Konigsburg

Really, any book by Konigsburg could be on the list. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of the few, but important books that my mother and I both read as children and both use as a common point of reference.
But TVFS holds a special place in my heart. It is one story told from the perspectives of four 6th graders and their teacher. At various times, I have felt like all of them. It is a commentary on education and schools. It is a stubborn hold out against the fast paced lives that we all live. It bridges experience with knowledge. Most satisfying, it is an extended meditation on the most satisfying “Fuck you!” God ever invented: being right when your opponent is so sure of himself and has no expectations of you whatsoever.
I’ve been planning a post about this for a while, but I think it is this book, along with the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout that have shaped my aesthetic sense more than anything else. Technology must be subservient to the mind, not direct it.
I’m rambling here, so I’ll just say that the book is good.


Tangerine Edward Bloor
If the rest of these books show the bright, potential-filled side of youth, Edward Bloor is the master of writing the dark side.
Tangerine follows Paul, a 7th grade legally blind soccer player with a psychopathic brother and largely absent parents adjusting to a new school and home in Tangerine, Florida. Equal parts critique of the suburban/gated community lifestyle and of the segregation between the largely white suburbs and the browner urban communities, it also is a celebration of team sports (that’s not a huge selling point with me, my younger self would skim over those pages). I read it recently, and it mostly holds up. Some of the set pieces about race get a little preachy, and some of the language used to describe the Latino nursery workers comes dangerously close to noble savage territory. But it’s a good book, with more drama than melodrama.
Crusader, also by Bloor, is also great (although aimed at a little older of an audience). It looks at an independent but lonely teenager stuck working in a decaying mall in Florida. That’s not a really informative description, though, as the book also touches on white nationalism, anti-youth bias in the criminal justice system, insurance fraud, televangelism and other heady topics. Like everything on this list, it’s worth giving a read.

Honorable Mentions

A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way From Chicago Richard Peck
I wholeheartedly recommend these books for anyone from 9 to 92. Unlike the others, these are pure pleasure. Set during the Depression and pre-WWII era, they have some nice historical detail, but more than anything else, they are pure fun. I wouldn’t want to say anything else for fear of spoiling your own experience, but it’s worth seeking out a copy.
The Westing Game Ellen Raskin
Ellen Raskin writes some of the trippiest books I have ever read. The Westing Game is her masterpiece. The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is also good. Think Magical Mystery Tour novelization and then we’re in the right ballpark of weird.
*One thing that I hate is inappropriate apostrophes that indicate posession where there is none (usually on signs), e.g. “All plumber’s meet in auditorium.” Therefore, I was extremely disappointed in myself when I noted a superfluous apostraphe in my post on the Young Writer(‘)s contest. Then I realized that there actually was some wiggle room here. It could either indicate that it was a contest for the young writer, or a contest for young writers (taken as a group). I lean towards the former, but I don’t think it’s clear.
**I don’t use boy because I believe that girls are inferior or don’t have the potential of boys. I simply use it because I have been a boy and have not been a girl. Also, I suspect that there are better books out there for the fairer sex.

3 responses to “The Books That Made My Life”

  1. Books really became a part of my life in 6th grade, although there were others beforehand.
    Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut
    The Giver
    Fahrenheit 451
    A Separate Peace
    Ender’s Game
    The Little Prince
    The Grasshopper crossing the road, or something like that
    The Berenstein Bears
    There are others, but all my books from when I was kid where given away when I moved from Cleveland so I couldn’t tell you which they were, but I guess that just means that they weren’t that important.

  2. […] I’m a couple of weeks late with this one, but I wanted to mark the passing of E. L. Konigsburg, the author of a couple of children’s books that made a great impression on me. I wanted to expand upon some thoughts I included in a post about the children’s books that were important to me I wrote a few years ago: […]

  3. […] delightful discovery I made while starting to write this re-review was a blog post I wrote 10 years ago about the books that made a deep impression on me. Tangerine was one of those books. I’m tempted to rattle off things that my home town had in […]

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