The Books That Made Me
I have friends who can reel off plots from books they read forty years ago. Character names, surprising twists, beautiful or frustrating endings, the minutiae remain impressively at the forefront of their clever minds ready for intricate discussion.
My brain does not allow for this. Rather, stories – fictional or otherwise – either disappear into the ether or teeter, as blurry and distant as the view through an unfocused telescope, on the tip of my often-tied tongue. Ask me what I read as a teenager, and I will struggle to recall anything but Francine Pascal’s long-running Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High series, in which twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield navigate friendship, sisterhood and betrayal.
I have sometimes felt the need for a more earnest answer to that favourite-reads question. Snobbery around reading is rife, and it’s easy to dismiss these kinds of books as fluffy or unimportant. This is in part because these kinds of books are written for young girls, and society is often derisory about the cultural pleasures of women. I’m sure we’ve all heard the difference in tone when some bookish types talk about chick lit or literary fiction.
And yet Pascal’s storytelling informed my writing as much as – thanks to my mum for the reminder! – Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Margaret Atwood’s Cats Eye and Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret all of which I read as a teen. An earlier favourite was Marmaduke the Lorry by Elizabeth Chapman, which I read repeatedly while staying at my Nanna and Granddad’s house. I recall Marmaduke was red, and the illustrated characters in our edition were often thin legged and hatted. What I remember more clearly though are the muted sounds of Radio 4 and the smells of beef stew and apple pie seeping through the gap beneath the door as I was reading. I remember I was warm and safe and happy to be in that pink room where there was always an unexplained cluster of dead flies below the window.
And so it seems while my memory isn’t great at the specifics of the books, what is firmly embedded is how I felt when I read them. This is certainly true of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, the first two young-adult novels I read as an aspiring author. While very different in their style, what Niven and Nelson both showed me was that the young-adult genre has changed significantly since I was a teen. Always careful of their adolescent audience, neither shies away from difficult subjects, and Nelson especially brings a lyricism to her writing that made me want to try harder, write better, and not be afraid to take risks.
The same can be said of Louisa Reid’s novels. Like me, Louisa writes both YA and adult fiction and, like me, she tends to err on the dark side, exploring issues such as rape culture and coercive control. Because she writes in verse, every single word works incredibly hard to earn its place on the page, and so when I read anything she’s written, I am inspired to instil that same rigour in my own words too. The Poet is an incredible novel, which I often return to when I want a reminder of how precise and emotive a single line can be. I feel similarly about Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water. Having first listened to this stunning love story on Audible, I had to then buy the paperback because I wanted the ability to see his beautifully crafted words on the page.
The words are what do it for me. For as much as I love a brilliant plot – Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is a favourite in this sense – a playfulness and appreciation of both meaning and sound are what will make a book truly stick. This was certainly the case for Stella’s Duffy’s Singling Out the Couples, a modern fairy tale in which a princess leaves her land of milk and honey in favour of a Notting Hill tower block, where her one goal is to break up couples in love. Reading this in my early twenties, I knew for sure that I wanted to write. And that I wanted to write like Stella. It was reading this book that led me to Arvon, where Stella was running a creative-writing retreat. Singling Out the Couples is, then, perhaps the novel that’s most shaped me, because the Arvon course was life changing. This statement is not hyperbolic. It’s true. Stella and her wife Shelley instilled a sense of confidence that allowed me to think of myself as a writer, which in turn gave me the belief to keep going when it may otherwise have felt like a waste of time.
This is the power and joy of reading. It takes you places – fictional and real – you may never otherwise have imagined you could be.