Upon learning of this week's topic I thought, "How many times have I answered the 'what are your favorite books?' question? On closer reading, I saw that this wasn't about favorite books, but the ones that are a part of my soul. Books that reflected a time in my life. Three of my old "standbys" still made the cut, but surprises also bubbled up from some dusty room in my memory..
I've lost count of how many times I've said Charlotte's Web is my favorite book. I can't help it. Charlotte was the first book that become a part of me. However, I never questioned why this particular book moved into my soul and has stayed there ever since.
I don't like "talking critter" books other than picture books. However, Charlotte came along at exactly the right time, third grade. That year I lost two grandparents and President Kennedy (who felt like a family member) within six months. My Sunday School teachers told me my loved ones were all in Heaven. Heaven was all good and well, but they just felt gone forever, No one mentioned the beauty of the life cycle, and my place in it. Even though Charlotte's ending outraged me at the time, (main characters are not supposed to die!) it soothed me and gave me hope. It still does. Whenever I need to cry or laugh (Templeton will always be my favorite comic villain) or simply reassurance that Life Goes On, I visit my old friends Charlotte, Wilbur and Templeton.
I met Anne Frank in fifth grade, at a school book fair. What initially attracted me to The Diary of Young Girl was the idea of someone only a little older than me had published a book. I literally entered The Secret Annex with the Franks and their friends, and did not emerge until ninth grade (which was a lot longer than the Franks stayed in hiding.) In my mind, I became Anne.
I was living in 1964 Mississippi, and if there was anything less popular than LBJ or Civil Rights Workers, it would be FBI agents. My father was an FBI agent, working on the case that eventually became the movie Mississippi Burning. The agents and their families became the local pariahs. Mean people called us names, made midnight obscene phone calls, left snakes and rats in our mailbox. The "nice" people simply pretended we didn't exist. While in no way can I equate my circumstances to Anne's, I knew that if Anne were in my fifth grade she would understand. I identified with her fear (yes!) bravery (I wish) and eternal optimism (still working on that). We both had mothers that loved us without really understanding us, fathers we adored and of course, the First Crush. I marveled that someone who died before I was born had become my dearest friend and soul mate. Anne showed me how to find humor and hope, even in the most dire circumstances.
Fifth grade was a good year for new book friends, because I alternated The Diary of a Young Girl with Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet M. Welsch affirmed a truly outrageous idea that I had been mulling for the past year or so...that adults are people, not deities, and are not always right.
The notion of imperfect parents and teachers was so radical in my Leave It to Beaver world, I'm amazed it wasn't banned from my library. (Maybe the librarians never read it.) In Harriet's world, there were mean girls, weird kids, and clueless adults. Wow! Just like my life. Harriet also taught me to be constantly curious and to observe. I became addicted to journals and notebooks. Like Anne and Harriet, I discovered the power of the written word. People (especially adults) seemed threatened by my journals. Adults just knew I was writing about them, and that couldn't be good.
I found Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr in my college bookstore, even though the characters are young teens. Perhaps the bookstore buyer thought it was something hip and revolutionary, what with the word "smack" (aka heroin) in the title. The joke is that Dinky (who is only one of three main characters) didn't shoot smack or any other illegal substance. Dinky writes this graffiti all over her neighborhood in a desperate attempt to get the attention of her do-gooder parents who are too busy helping actual addicts to realize that Dinky has some serious issues of her own.
Dinky ignored all the requirements I had for a "good" book. The actual narrator is not Dinky but a boy, Tucker, who feels as alienated from the world as Dinky. Dinky is not a particularly likable character, yet you care about her. The book abounds with characters that a first glance seem outlandish.
Dinky's cousin Natalia talks in rhyme, the Hockers are archetypical activists, not to mention their fellow activists and the addicts. On second reading you realize that these people aren't cartoons; we all know people this bizarre and quirky. Only M.E. Kerr had the courage to not dial down their personalities. Nor does she tie up the several story lines in neat little packages. I have just now discovered that my college copy of Dinky is missing. I probably read it to shreds. Must buy new copy now. This book came out in 1972 and is still in print (a publishing miracle in itself). If you are a writer stuck in a rut of linear storytelling, go find Dinky. She'll straighten you out!
As I became an older and more jaded reader, it became harder to find books that rocked my world. Been there, read that, I thought over and over. I was a librarian and I read a lot. I was beginning to think there were no new worlds to discover, bookwise.
Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year was published the year I became pregnant with my daughter. The idea of being somebody's mother terrified me. Even though my biological clock ticked on, I kept hitting the snooze alarm. Then one of those home pregnancy kits turned the proper shade of blue. I threw the test at the wall and screamed. I was forty, pregnant and worst of all...still unpublished. While my husband did the Happy Daddy dance, I was frantic.
I love kids. I was a school librarian and responsible for 600 plus of them every day. But at 3 o'clock they were somebody else's responsibility. I could not imagine me actually parenting a being that crawled out of my and my husband's gene pools.
The "So You're About to Become a Mommy" type books did nothing to build my confidence. They seemed to fall into two categories. There were Supermommy books the books with recipes for homemade crayons and Play-Doh. They espoused the ecological wonders of cotton diapers. (At the time, my husband worked for the Huggies people, so that wasn't going to fly at my house.) What with stirring up healthy "treats" like rutabaga cupcakes and arranging playdates (what was a playdate? Two-year-olds going to the prom?) I could see the next eighteen years of my life circling the bowl. When was I supposed to take a shower, let alone write? I was already an unpublished writer. Now I'd be an unpublished writer with no time or energy to write.
Then there were the Doomed to Motherhood books with horror stories of marathon natural labors, husbands who felt "left out"....so they just left, and more details than I ever wanted to know about post-partum sex. The future looked scary and labor intensive (no pun intended.)
Because it was the next book in the "Pregnancy and Childhood" section of the library, I found Anne Lamott. Wild-haired, big-mouthed, highly opinionated, hysterically funny Anne Lamott. In other words, me. Unlike me, Anne was a recovering alcoholic and a single mom. Oh yeah, and she was published. And Anne didn't mince words. If you like your words minced and genteel, you might skip this book.
Who else would describe their post-partum belly as looking like a puppy nestled to her side? Give you the real lowdown on breastfeeding? Who told me that sometimes motherhood sucked, just like her writing did sometimes. There were days when she was dancing in the daisies; there were days of feeling terribly empty and wishing God had sent her a colic-free baby. (I should mention that Anne is an in-your-face Christian, although you might not agree with some of the ways she expresses it.) There were days she couldn't write, but obviously there were days that she could. She was very honest, yet funny, writing-mother.
I read Operating Instructions over and over. I took it with me to the hospital. I read itP when my baby turned out to be chronically cranky and a light sleeper. Anne was right there reminding me Yeah, some days you mess up but some days you don't. You don't have to be Supermom. And you write when you can. Thanks to you Anne Lamott, I am today the proud (well, usually proud) mother of a beautiful, wild-haired, big-mouthed, highly opinionated sixteen-year-old daughter, and the "mom" to seven published books (with "two on the way.")
Asking a writer to narrow down their "important life changing" books to a mere five is totally cruel.
So I am going to cheat and add five more books that influenced me as a writer, if not as a person. They
are I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph, A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, and The Quartzsite Trip by William Hogan (which is out of print, but there are always used ones floating around online bookstores.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman