On Books that Change Us

Just the other day on Facebook, my friend Teri asked people to tell her which novels were the most important to them growing up. Without a second thought, my fingers dashed across the keyboard with this response:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler by E.L. Konigsburg and My Antonia by Willa Cather.

And ever since those titles spewed from my subconscious, I have been pondering the question, “WHY?” Why are these the books that I loved the most? Why are these the books whose names still fly off my fingertips over 20 years later? In reflecting on the impact these stories had on me, I have come to the conclusion that I love and remember them because they each changed something in me…the way that I saw myself, and the way that I saw the world.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read From the Mixed-Up Files. But I was old enough to know that people viewed me a lot like they viewed the main character, Claudia. Responsible. Practical. Serious. I related to Claudia in a way that I hadn’t found in a book before. She was “straight-As Claudia Kincaid,” someone you would never expect to skip a homework assignment, much less run off to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And yet she had something inside her that wanted adventure (a perfectly planned and comfortable one, of course), something that longed to get away from “the sameness of each and every week.” I watched Claudia…who she was on the inside, who people saw her to be, the choices she made along the way…and I realized this one amazing thing…

that I got to decide who I wanted to be.

It was a revelation! Claudia did this totally crazy and unexpected thing because she was trying to break out of the wretched “sameness,” and weren’t we all living vicariously through her? Sleeping in antique beds, bathing in the fountain, choosing to eat macaroni and baked beans for breakfast, solving the mystery of Angel? Does that mean then, that I ran away, rebelled, got dreaded Bs instead of As? No. But I felt free in a way that I hadn’t before. Free to want something different, free to be smart even if it wasn’t cool, free to surprise people with what I had inside of me.

I was a sophomore in high school when I read My Antonia. I wasn’t expecting to like it.  It is set in the late 19th century. On the plains of Nebraska. And the jacketflap promises insight to the “rural immigrant experience.” Doesn’t exactly scream page-turner, especially to a 14-year old. But for me, homework that consisted of getting lost in a story was much preferred over the angles and quadrants of geometry, and so I read it gladly.

The central relationship in this book is between Jim, the narrator, and an immigrant neighbor named Antonia. When the book begins, they are only 10 and 12 years old, and the story follows them and their families, settlers in the frontier lands of Nebraska. And being teen-minded when I read it, I was just sure that it was going to be a love story, where Jim and Antonia fall in love, get married, have babies, and so on. But it wasn’t. It was a story about their relationship, yes. And it was a story filled with love. But it presented a different kind of relationship than I had ever experienced before. It was one whose foundation was kindness. It was one that was built on mutual respect in a time when both immigrants and women weren’t generally respected. My favorite chapter is near the end, when Jim comes back home after being at University and finds Antonia, and says this to her:

Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.

I am showing great restraint in only sharing this much of the chapter. It is so beautiful. And it did something enormously influential in the life of a teenage girl. It redefined for me the idea of romantic love. Seeing this relationship between Jim and Antonia made me long for things of more permanence in my relationships. Crushes for me became less about cuteness and more about substance. Kindness. Respect. I met my husband in the dorms at Cal Poly. We both loved to read, and were friends for two years before we ever started dating. In one of our conversations about books (while still “just friends”), I mentioned My Antonia. Rob had never read it. The next time we hung out, I saw it in his room. He had read it. And not only had he read it, but he picked it up, turned to this very passage and said, “I think I know which chapter you love the most.” Yes, I swooned. And so My Antonia became a part of my own love story, one that 15 years later, still overflows with the kindness and respect that Willa Cather poured into her characters. (okay, and he was the cutest and funniest guy in all of Fremont Hall, too.)

I am so grateful for these books and the significant ways that they formed me. Do you have a book that you read when you were young that changed you? I would love to hear about it.

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  • Jaiya

    “Serendipity” is an illustraded children’s story of a pink sea dragon whose adventures lead her to help clean up the polluted sea…. It helped me understand how all life and nature is interdependent, and the responsibility we have for taking care of our environment.

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

       I haven’t heard of that one, Jaiya! And if it was out when we were young, it was a book way before it’s time. I see lots on the shelves about the environment now, but I would imagine they were few and far between when we were kids! I’ll have to see if I can request it from the library.

  • Tina

     I remember getting so engrossed in the Boxcar Children. I think those books (along with others like it) instilled a sense of adventure and imagination in me. 

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

       We have a bunch of Boxcar Children books here at our house, but I haven’t been able to get the kids into them yet. Josh says the covers look too, “old-timey.” haha!

  • Jennifer

    Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. I think I identified with all of the characters in Little Women at one time or another. Also, growing up with sisters helped me relate. I still read Little Women once a year and every time I read it, I relate differently to the characters.  I love the wholesomeness of it and how each of the girls never stops working to improve herself. I love Anne of Green Gables for the same reasons. Anne has many “flaws,” but she works to improve herself. I also admired her optimism in the face of the horrible early childhood she had. I know these are all fictional characters, but they were (and are) inspirational to me.

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

       These are some of my favorites too, Jenni. My sisters and I watched the Anne of Green Gables movies (mini-series? don’t remember what it was exactly, but we had taped it on VHS off of the TV) over and over again. Good memories!

  • Elizabeth Stevens Omlor

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Yup. It was the first big book I read on my own. And the fact that there was a chocolate bar out there that was life changing for a select few has molded me into the chocoholic that I am today. I also think that the in terms of imagination, that book opened my eyes to how magical literature could be.

    Also, Matilda. I have always been a little bit of a loner so I identified with the main character and the special relationships she formed with the librarian and her teacher. I have always loved being around people that are older than me, talking to them, learning from them. I saw a bit of myself in her.

    But nothing compares to your dreamy experience with My Antonia. What a special book for you guys. Thanks so much for sharing Amy D.! Great post.

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

      Oh, a Dahl fan! I loved Matilda. I only ever saw the old Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, never read it. Have you read the Dahl biography, Storyteller? It sounds amazing and is on my TBR list!

  • Chitra Soundar

    So many books, where to start. But I think the one that opened the door to my imagination and made me a storyteller was Faraway Trees by Enid Blyton. 

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

       I know, Chitra, it is so hard to narrow it down! I haven’t read Faraway Trees, but have already requested it from my library. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Terilove

    Amy, I loved reading this post. And I love that Rob read that book! :)
    My favorite was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and now I want to analyze why, especially in light of what you wrote about your books.

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

      Thanks, Teri! I LOVED A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that is one that is definitely due for a re-reading. I would love to read a blog post on what it meant to you!

  • http://bildebok.wordpress.com/ Cathy Mealey

    “All Creatures Great and Small” and all the succeeding books from James Herriot.  A glimpse into Great Britain and the struggles of a rural vet, and led to a love of animals and the humans who cherish them.  From there I jumped off into Jane Eyre and other British novels, “Born Free” and other animal classics.  Thanks Mom and Dad for buying all those silly Reader’s Digest Condensed Books which let me dip my toes into ‘literature’ beyond my middle school library.

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

       We had those Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, too! It’s funny because sometimes in my memory I am not sure whether I actually read a book or the shortened version :-)

  • Mirka Breen

    I write for kids because I was changed more by book I read
    as a kid. Pippy Longstocking gave me the inspiration to be gutsy, if only in my
    mind. The Little Prince convinced me to question perceptions. And that’s barely
    the tip of the iceberg… I could go on and on.  

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

       It really is difficult to narrow it down to just a few influential books! Thanks so much for coming by, Mirka!

  • Larissa Marks

    I loved reading as a child, so there are so many books that shaped me! A few that come to mind are Bridge to Terabithia, Maniac Magee, Anne of Green Gables, and all of Roald Dahl’s magical creations.

    • http://amydixonbooks.com/ Amy Dixon

       It has been fun for me to try and catch up on the ones I missed growing up. I actually read both Bridge to Terabithia and Maniac Magee in the last couple of years and loved them. It is so different reading them as an adult. So much more analyzing! Sometimes I think as kids we read them and are not really sure why we are so captivated by them. Thanks so much for sharing, Larissa!

  • http://annebingham.wordpress.com/ Anne Bingham

    I discovered an old copy of Have Space Suit, Will Travel in the stacks of the library in the small town where I grew up, and life has never been the same.

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