We are the Product of the Books we Read as Children and Young Adults

From this post by Seanan McGuire at tor.com: Finding Poetry in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin

We are the product of the books we read as children and young adults. They shape the vocabulary we use to shape the world we live in: they spark interests and ideas and ideals that we may never be consciously aware of harboring. Sometimes we’re lucky. Sometimes we can point to the exact moment where everything changed.

I completely agree. I mean, not necessarily about being able to point to an exact moment or a particular book, though that might be so as well. I’m thinking here about the overall thesis that the books we read at about age fourteen set our taste and ideals … I don’t want to say in stone … let’s say, these are the books that are most likely to have a profound and lasting effect on what we view as the ideal for stories, for themes, and for characterization.

Obviously McGuire identifies Tam Lin as a seminal work for her own image of what is best in stories. (I didn’t check, but yes, she was fourteen when she read this book.)

I was older when I read Dean’s Tam Lin and for me it was okay, but not that important. Fire and Hemlock is probably my favorite Tam Lin retelling, and honestly that is far from my favorite of DWJ’s books.

The author I point at as most seminal for me is Patricia McKillip — everything of hers, but I specifically remember reading The Riddlemaster of Hed for the first time. I remember sitting in a hallway in school reading that between classes, and I don’t really have a lot of clear memories from that long ago.

Also Robin McKinley. Also Patricia Wrede, and sure, Diana Wynne Jones, and CJ Cherryh, and RA MacAvoy. But particularly Patricia McKillip.

McGuire’s post is also about poetry; about discovering poetry in fiction.

Although I did not sit down and write a sonnet every day, as Seanan McGuire apparently did after reading Tam Lin (and now I kind of regret that I didn’t think to try something like that!), I would say that you can’t read McKillip without discovering poetry in fiction, because McKillip’s prose IS poetry. That had a huge impact on my writing, I think. Much more so in some novels than others; particularly in The City in the Lake. But I hope it’s always there to some extent. That’s why I’m pleased and flattered whenever anybody compares my writing to McKillip’s, which I’m glad to say does happen now and then.

Also, after reading this post, I do sort of feel like going and getting my copy of Dean’s Tam Lin off the shelf. I’m almost sure I still have it in my library.

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19 thoughts on “We are the Product of the Books we Read as Children and Young Adults”

  1. I think my favorite Tam Lin (although I like the other two mentioned also) is Holly Black’s, Tithe, which yeah, I read around age 14.

  2. Most of the books that have shaped and made me were ones I read well before I was fourteen: Narnia, LOTR, A Little Princess (and to a lesser extent The Secret Garden), Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, The Dark is Rising sequence, Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy and all the rest of the books he wrote, Agatha Christie … when I was fourteen I started tackling Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and while I did fall in love with some of those books–Jane Eyre was fairly transformative for me–it’s the books I read from about 8-12 years old that had the most impact on my life. Well, and some of the books I read as a newlywed at age 22-23. LM Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Emily of Deep Valley, and Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey were all books that I read for the first time then, and all of them had an enormous impact on my outlook on life.

    … Wait, I lie, I *must* have been more than fourteen when I read LOTR, because I remember buying one book in the trilogy every two weeks with the small amount of spending money I allowed myself from each paycheck, and I didn’t have a job with a paycheck until I was fourteen. But honestly Narnia has shaped me more than Middle Earth, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I *wasn’t* reading the Narnia books, so the general principle still stands.

  3. Interesting, Louise! I believe when I was eight, I was still reading animal books almost exclusively — Kjelgaard and stories like that. I didn’t start reading much SFF until I maybe twelve or thirteen, somewhere in there. Except, yes, Narnia was earlier.

  4. Just. Cannot. Resist. Quoting. John. Rogers.
    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

  5. Louise, we must be twins separated at birth! Other than Agatha Christie, that sounds exactly like my childhood reading. Narnia I was first introduced to in grade 3, and probably re-read every year until I was in high school (where it may have dropped to every second or third year between re-reads!). For me Alexander was the Prydain chronicles; I didn’t discover Westmark until I was an adult. Anne along with Emily of New Moon. Jane Eyre was huge for me at probably around 14. Along with The Far Pavilions, by M. M. Kaye. (That’s definitely the right age to read that one!) I can’t remember when I started Jane Austen, but they were all well-re-read by the time I got to university and found out there is a Jane Austen Society!

    Then there were the required horse books: Black Beauty and all the many Black Stallion books. And Arthur Ransome: I still remember the shelf in the library where they were, and how exciting it was to find one I hadn’t read yet. (I was convinced that if I was ever put in a sail boat on a body of water (I grew up in the land-locked prairies!) I would instantly become an expert sailor!)

    Oh, and I can’t forget Madeleine L’Engle! And Ursula Le Guin a bit later.

    All hugely influential on my sense of self and moral code, and it’s always fun to reread and to recognize that influence.

    I don’t remember how old I was when I read McKillip, McKinley, DWJ, probably because I’ve re-read them so many times they’ve just become part of my DNA! I probably subconsciously compare every story I read to them. (Which is probably why Rachel’s writing appeals so much to me!)

  6. Sounds like we all read most of the same books- CS Lewis, LM Montgomery, Lloyd Alexander, and then around 12-14- LOTR. My sister gave me Atlas Shrugged at 15 and there is so much to love about that book, and so much to cringe at. Some of her imagery- like Dagny feeling as though she was walking through empty rooms on her way to the top of the railroad business— ‘there will always be a Taggart to run the railroads’ but so much of it ugh! Never got through any of the speeches.

  7. I hesitate to say this, but Jane Eyre did nothing for me. I didn’t read it until I was an adult, though.

    But, those of you who love Jane Eyre, have you ever read Jenna Starborne by Sharon Shinn? That’s her SF Jane Eyre retelling.

  8. Ditto to Rachel’s remark about Jane Eyre – I read it late, and didn’t like it.

    The earliest books that I remember well and that had a big impact on me were the Dutch “Paulus the wood-gnome” series by Jean Dulieu, from my preschool years.
    I only learned English at nine, and then was limited in my English reading to reading dad’s and grandpa’s old favorites. First Arthur Ransome, Rudyard Kipling and Narnia, then dad brought me the first 3 books of Anne of Green Gables from one of his astronomy trips, and during my slightly-older teen years I read mostly detectives from grandpa’s box, Perry Mason and the Saint, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie, Helen MacInnes and mom’s Mary Stewart half-shelf, and dad’s halfshelf of Heinlein juveniles. And Wodehouse, but a lot of that was in translation, from the library. Our village library didn’t really have an extensive English collection apart from the books read in high school English classes, but still the variety and imagination available in English was so much wider than what used to be available in Dutch, that I started to prefer reading in English. Really, only Tonke Dragt (still one of my favorite fantasy authors for MG and YA) was just starting to publish those kinds of imaginative stories for kids and teens around that time, and Annie M.G.Schmidt and Paul Biegel, for young children. Those three are really good, funny and imaginative, but hardly any of their books are translated into English. Thea Beckmann started publishing very fat historical books for teens when I was a teen, so I read those.
    Later (I think I was about 15) a Canadian friend sent dad home from one such trip with a veritable treasure trove of English books for kids and young teens, from Brian Wildsmith picture books, The children of Green Knowe, The little white horse, L.M.Montgomery’s Emily trilogy, up to the Chanur saga by C.J.Cherryh.
    I never looked back, I’ve been reading almost exclusively in English since my late teens, and switched from detectives to F/SF during the time I was studying to become a librarian.
    For YA and adults, Dutch literature is still very boring, badly lacking in imagination.

  9. For Childrens’ “chapbooks” the ones that stick in mind are “Swallows and Amazons” (natch), Hornblower, a few boys’ adventure stories. I didn’t actually think much of C.S. Lewis, but I did like L’Engle. And a litle bit later, Le Guin.

  10. Everything by Sharon Shinn is wonderful, but I like Mark Henwick’s A Name Among the Stars better as a type of Jane Eyre retelling.

  11. I have a lot of overlap, but for beloved early books I’d add Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey, and Mercedes Lackey into the mix. I do remember that my first favorite book was Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.

  12. Oh, how could I forget: My father read aloud all 4 JRR Tolkien books over a few years. It involved orcs. That was popular with the kids, along with his rambling adventure story about the Hoboken railroad rat, who stowed away on various trains and about which I recall no details.

  13. I distinctly remember reading Les Miserables at age 13 – I stayed up far too late to finish it and cried for a good hour after – whether it was because Jean died or the book was over, I’m still not sure. Perhaps both. I did the same with Little Women and The Secret Country trilogy, by Pamela Dean (I never read her take on Tam Lin, but that trilogy is one of the only ones I know of where the children get to stay in the fantasy world they got drawn into!) at much the same age.
    I also remember reading a whole bunch of books based on ‘East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon’, but specifically East by Edith Pattou.
    Some other influential stories were Sabriel by Garth Nix, all the Star Wars books in our library (my brother read them, too; he moved on to the science section after he finished the last one and now he’s becoming a mechanical engineer), and, yes, Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley and Megan Whalen Turner. Diana Wynne Jones I discovered through Howl’s Moving Castle, but I think The Homeward Bounders influenced me the most, along with Dogsbody. Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish, which led me to discover Grieg’s delightful ‘Into the Hall of the Mountain King’, and thence the rest of his music.
    The Lord of the Rings and Narnia I read much earlier – along with a random assortment of dog and horse books, dinosaur everything, Little House on the Prairie and all of L.M. Montgomery’s books.
    . . . I read a lot of books as a child (still do, I guess!). I seem to recall stacks of 10-20 coming home from the library with me every week, and nearly all of them being returned the week after.

  14. E.C. … … … wow. Just wow.

    I read Les Mis after I saw the musical for the first time. It’s the longest novel I’ve ever read, I’m pretty sure. I was a lot older than thirteen!

  15. early books that shaped my reading even today that haven’t been mentioned: Mushroom Planet series; for even younger readers Matthew Looney; also the usual Narnia, Kjelgaard, Lloyd Alexander, Sutcliff

  16. The first no-pictures-at-all book that I read was Pierce’s Alanna— I distinctly remember turning up my nose at books without pictures before that. Then came many of the ones already mentioned here— McKinley, McKillip, McCaffrey (I must like the letter M), Austen, Colfer, Dean, DWJ, Nix, Levine, Wrede. I never did pick up Narnia until much later (never finished the series). And as much as I love LOTR, I didn’t read it until my late 20s.

    I read Jane Eyre early on, and still consider it very influential, so I did pick up Jenna Starborn. I think I recall enjoying it? It doesn’t stand out in my memory. I’ll have to pick up Henwick’s retelling (thanks, Allison!).

  17. @ Rachel,
    I . . . I was a weird kid, no doubt about that. I did listen to the musical on CD, fell in love with the music, and got the unabridged version of the book from our library, because I was a *pretentious* 13-year-old. I can’t say I understood very much of it, especially the tangents into the Parisian sewers and Waterloo, but Jean Valjean’s redemption sure hit me hard.

  18. @E.C. – I was one of those kids too! I fell in love with the music when I was twelve and issued the unabridged version of the book. I could hardly carry the thing: it took BOTH arms. However, you got further with it than I did – I got so fed up that I started skimming over the pages looking for “Valjean”, “Javert” or “Cosette”. The one bit I do remember is Fantine’s slide into destitution – it was heartbreaking. I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if the extraneous nonsense had been left out.

    @ Rachel – I was quite an odd kid when it came to books. When I was growing up, “popular” children’s fiction was stuff like Goosebumps, Animorphs, and Paul Jennings, meaning that I formed the strong opinion that “popular” was shorthand for “rubbish”. This is why it took me until Book 3 came out to even start reading Harry Potter even though I was a fantasy nut… once I started I loved it, but it took that long to persuade me that just because everybody my age was raving about it didn’t *necessarily* mean it was hopeless.

    I clearly remember two books from my childhood. The first was the earliest book I remember buying for myself from my own money: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”… with a absolutely terrifying picture of Marley’s ghost on the front cover, which was clearly why it was cheap enough for me to afford it. I adore the story and knew I adored it before I bought it (I think I first came across it while exploring the Children’s Classic Books at the library) but the cover scared me for years – I was CONVINCED that it glowed in the dark. The second book I remember is the book that sent me careening into the Adult Fantasy section of the library when I was ten: “Magic Kingdom For Sale/SOLD” by Terry Brooks. It’d been misshelved as a children’s book at a book sale, and I fell for it. Hard. I still enjoy about half of the Landover series, even more than 20 years later. Shannara, OTOH, I found boring. This careen into Adult Fantasy meant that I found Mercedes Lackey (who I’ve mostly grown away from although will still read sometimes), and Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley (who I still adore). It also led me to The Last Unicorn through the epigraph of the second book in the Landover series, and THAT (and McKillip, and “A Christmas Carol”) cemented my love of beautiful, uplifting fantasy that plays with both language and expectations. Most unfortunately, this is hard to find, although I will willingly take “beautiful and uplifting” that only plays with ONE thing. (For example, Rachel’s beautifully-written Tuyo series doesn’t play with language but hits the “playing with expectations” bit dead centre!)

    Other books I remember loving as a child are Narnia (go figure: it’s popular and I’ve always loved it…), George Macdonald’s “The Princess and Curdie” and “The Wise Woman”, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s books, Anne of Green Gables but not the sequels, and “The Raging Quiet” by Sherryl Jordan.

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