All readers can think of one book—or a dozen—that left an important mark on their lives. These influential books may have shaped their readers as people, helped them through tough times, provided counsel, or offered a mirror to their own lives.
Last month, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ (AWP) annual conference, more than 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, and educators converged in Washington from all across the country to celebrate literature. They gathered for conversation and dialogue on how to get the most of out writing, teaching, publishing, and reading.
At one panel, young-adult author and reigning Poetry Foundation’s poet laureate Jacqueline Woodson discussed her work with students. Her book Brown Girl Dreaming was recommended as a must-read for the 2016 Read Where You Are campaign by former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
Woodson has been traveling the country, bringing poetry to K-12 classrooms, juvenile detention centers, and libraries. In the process, she has “stressed that everyone has a story and has a right to tell that story,” she said. When writing stories for students, “you never want to talk down to young people. They get it at such a deep level.”
So what were the books that spoke deeply to authors like Woodson before they began to write their own? During the conference, I asked children’s and young adult authors, as well as teachers, what books left an impact on them as K-12 students. What was one of the most influential books they read as young people and why? Here is what they had to say:
J.J. Austrian, children’s book author of Worm Loves Worm (HarperCollins, 2016), Minneapolis:
“The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. It was the book that made me want to write and showed me there were other people who are also obsessed with dragons.”
Jennifer Bartell, poet and English teacher at Spring Valley High School, Columbia, S.C.:
“Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak was one of the first books that unlocked the potential of imagination for me. There are no bounds to imagination.”
Nancy Boutilier, poet and teacher at Concord Academy, Concord, Mass.:
"Story Poems: An Anthology of Narrative Verse, selected and edited by Louis Untermeyer. It’s got Ulysses in charge of the light brigade, all of Paul Revere’s ride. I love the idea of telling stories through poetry.”
Noelle Gipson, reading specialist and literary coach at Friendship Armstrong Academy, Washington, D.C.:
"The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake is important for building African-American girls’ confidence. It’s important that they see themselves, and if they have insecurities, see they can overcome challenges.”
Dori Graham, children’s librarian, Fort Wayne, Ind.:
“The Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary. It was the first time I saw other people love quirkiness. [One of my teachers] read it out loud, and everyone was laughing so much. I could relate to [Ramona] on so many levels, and I was trying to minimize my quirks. But I said, forget this, I’m just going to be weird! It has helped me throughout my life.”
Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr, writer and mentor at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Penn.:
"Her Stories and The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. She wrote so many books for children of African descent. She started the Council on Interracial Books for Children [founded in 1965] and should be on everyone’s list. She was a pioneer in black children’s literature.”
Donna Koppelman, children’s book author and educator, Edenton, N.C.:
"On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. He walked through the world in a different way.”
Rajiv Mohabir, poet and author of The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books, 2016) and former teacher at PS 92 Harry T. Stewart Sr., Corona, N.Y.:
"The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper is an Arthurian legend attuned to the magic all around. It was one of the strategies I used for growing up in the South as a queer brown person.”
Walter Mosley, novelist and author of the young adult book 47 (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006):
“When I was 6 years old, it was Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. When I was 11, it was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, without a doubt. And when I was 14 years old, it was Demian by Hermann Hesse.”
Jacqueline Woodson, young adult author and young people’s poet laureate:
"Stevie by John Steptoe. Not only were brown-skinned people on the cover, but [Steptoe] is speaking in a dialect. ... The core of it was a mirror. It was the first time I saw people who looked like me and talked like me on the page. It provided a lifetime of learning that continues.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.