As a reader, English-degree-holder, and aspiring publishing professional, I get asked one question a lot:
“What’s your favorite book?”
Which, frankly, kills me because do you know how many good books exist in the world? And even having read only a small fraction of them, that still equates to dozens of books that have made me laugh, cry, have existential crises, and wish I were a better writer. Narrowing it down to just one? Impossible.
But ten? Ten is more manageable. Don’t get me wrong — it still requires hours worth of scanning my Goodreads, combing my bookshelves, and flipping through page upon page of great writing. But it’s doable.
So, without further ado, here are, in no particular order, the ten books that shaped my life:
1 – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
When I first read it: 2002
Why I love it: If favorites were judged by how many times one had read a book, The Phantom Tollbooth would easily top this list, coming in at somewhere around 7 or 8 times. Our older sister gave me this book as a present, as it had likewise been a favorite of hers.
This was the first book that really, truly demonstrated to me what language could do. I reveled in the puns and the beauty of the language. I was captivated by the cast of strange and intriguing characters, annoyed at Milo for not immediately realizing the richness of the gift he’d been given, and delighted by the little pearls of wisdom I found as I read. Every read of this book felt like diving into a world both strange and familiar. This is a book I hold close to my chest, one that I am both nervous and unbearably excited to present to my nephews when they get old enough, and one that I will certainly read aloud to any children I have.
At its core, it is a delightful tale of a boy (and his Watchdog) discovering the wonder that lies in the world around him. It embraces wonder over apathy, investigation over stagnancy, and perseverance above all else.
And some of those grains of wisdom stick with me even today: “I think I’ll continue to see things as a child. It’s not so far to fall.”
2 – The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia Maclachlan
When I first read it: 2002
Why I love it: Most people know Patricia Maclachlan as the author of Sarah, Plain and Tall, a book I remember reading as a child without any particular profound impact. TFFMP, however, is a different story. I stumbled across this book by chance in my elementary school library. I soon acquired a copy, because I’m fairly certain the school would have tired of me monopolizing their copy.
Simply put, the language is magical. It’s written in the present tense, which is so very hard to do well, but Maclachlan accomplishes it effortlessly. It’s witty, it’s lovely, and above all, it’s true. As is so often stated during the book, “Facts and fictions are different truths”, but for me, this is one of the truest fictions I’ve ever had the good fortune to read. Minna inhabits the world I’d like to live in, one of expectation and beauty and discovery. It is also a book about music, which further endears it to me.
And, of course, Minna’s younger brother, with his endless facts, is adorable. Did you know that shiny teeth are highly valued in the beaver community?
3 – Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
When I first read it: Around 2002-2003?
Why I love it: Really, the entirety of The Chronicles of Prydain ought to be on this list. “Taran of Caer Dalben, I’m not speaking to you!” is a perfectly valid — and giggle-inducing — way to end an argument in our household. Talk of “grumblings and rumblings” abound around mealtimes. And “oracular pig” still tops my list of favorite fictional creatures. The Chronicles of Prydain was the spark that kindled my love of fantasy fiction, a love that hasn’t abated all these years later.
Much of the series, featuring such entries as The Black Cauldron and The High King, is pretty exciting, adventurous stuff. For those familiar with the series for its epic scale, Taran Wanderer might not be the most obvious choice for a favorite. It is certainly the most contemplative of the books, a bit of departure from the pace of the rest of the series.
But I firmly believe it is the best example of the bildungsroman out there. It is a book about finding yourself and discovering your capabilities, about realizing that the person you were born is important, but not as important as the person you choose to be every day. It is a message I feel as strongly about now as I did when I was a child of eight. With Lloyd Alexander’s vivid cast of characters, delightful prose, and rich setting, it’s a book both wise and warm.
4 – Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
When I first read it: 2006(?)
Why I love it: Le Guin is a powerful writer. There are few people working today that I admire more. I would recommend any and all of the things I’ve read by her, nonfiction and fiction alike.
Tehanu, like Taran Wanderer, is the slow and contemplative novel of its series, The Earthsea Cycle. I read it at a tumultuous and formative time in my life. It’s a story about growing old, about what it means to be a woman in a society that does not value your contribution as it should, and about humility and strength. And dragons. Did I mention dragons? Written beautifully and emotionally, it’s a story I’ll be returning to with new eyes for years to come.
5 – The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
When I first read it: 2007
Why I love it: Shannon Hale’s work is the kind I want to place in the hands of young girls everywhere and say, “Go. Be. Do!” She takes a fairy tale about a disenfranchised young woman, and makes it about her empowerment. She also doesn’t shy away from the consequences of power — if not properly handled, it can be overwhelming. The characters are good, the dialogue is snappy, the setting is rich. There’s a lot of Isi, the protagonist — and Enna, her best friend, for that matter — in the characters I write today. Goose Girl was the first book that made me realize this was the kind of book I wanted to write.
6 – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
When I first read it: 2009
Why I love it: Ender’s Game is the sole entry that graces both of our lists. It doesn’t surprise me – Laney is Valentine. I was the last of the three of us to read Ender’s Game, being the youngest. I think we all got similar things out of it, but I think we all got some different things as well. For me, it was a familiar narrative: the youngest of three intelligent siblings, struggling under the pressures of adults and dogged by the ever-present spectre of competition. Mind you, my sibling situation was vastly different from Ender’s – my sisters both spoiled me and were always kind and constructive in their attentions. But there were high expectations from the very start – if I wasn’t doing as well as my sisters, I wasn’t living up to my potential.
Ender’s Game conveys all of that and more. It is the ultimate study of empathy, what it means to inhabit another person’s way of living. I keep expecting to reread it and find it less profound, but that hasn’t yet happened.
I will add the caveat that, unlike Laney, I didn’t enjoy the extended Ender series. I loved the Bean series, but the Ender series fell flat. So YMMV on that one.
7 – Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson
When I first read it: 2010
Why I love it: There are many works of Sanderson’s that could have made this list. But Warbreaker stands out for me because it’s a) a story about sisters, which I like for obvious reasons, and b) it contains the single best transition of a storyline from frivolity to tragedy. Sanderson’s dialogue is endlessly readable and his worlds are among the most unique out there. This one had me laughing aloud on multiple occasions. If you like solid fantasy with creative magic systems, Sanderson is for you. It gets more ingenious every time I read it.
8 – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
When I first read it: 2010
Why I love it: The Things They Carried is a tragic book. Many of the books on my list prior to this have reasonably happy endings (Ender’s Game, perhaps, the sole exception). But TTTC, half-memoir and half fiction, presents all the guilt and grit and intense moral questions of the Vietnam War. It’s not an easy book to read, for those reasons. Likewise, it’s a story about humanity. It’s about the things we do to ourselves and others, the responsibilities we take on, and the things we must forget to carry on — or perish trying. It is profoundly sad and profoundly lovely.
9 – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
When I first read it: 2012
Why I love it: To the Lighthouse is not a fast-paced book. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s about philosophy and unfulfilled dreams and how hard it is to create something meaningful. It’s a book I’d recommend to artists of any kind because, while not necessarily reassuring, it perfectly conveys the moments of despair and joy that result from creative work.
Too, the middle of the book is one of my single favorite pieces of writing ever. It makes a character out of an empty house and conveys perfectly how fragile both people and our creations truly are. Woolf’s writing is evocative and lovely, and there are few character with whom I resonate as deeply as Lily Briscoe.
10 – View With a Grain of Sand by Wisława Szymborska
When I first read it: 2014
Why I love it: Simply put, Szymborska’s poetry, translated from her native Polish, is beautiful. It’s simple and complex, conveying everyday circumstances with startling clarity. View with a Grain of Sand collects much of her work throughout the years. She draws on classical experience and modern life to create enduring images that portray nuanced emotional states. My favorite poems from the collection include “Cat in an Empty Apartment” and “A Soliloquy for Cassandra”. (I was introduced to her by Laney, who notes that she was introduced to her by the same fantastic Gifted-English teacher that suggested Tuck Everlasting.)
Honorable mentions: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens