The Books That Made Me

Books (and the rooms that contained them) were my first babysitters. As soon as I could read, my parents would drop me off at bookshops and libraries, or at neighbourhood homes that rented out rooms full of books. I would spend hours with these books, cross-legged on the floor consuming Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl and RL Stine till my parents were done with their errands. When they came to pick me up, I would be dismayed, ruing the forced separation from my precious books. Books were, and continue to be expensive in Malaysia, so every Christmas and birthday I would beg for a single Enid Blyton book that I would re-read over and over, tracing the illustrations, and repeating the words, often until I had memorized them. As I got older, I would hoard my weekly allowance and go to second-hand bookshops where I would browse the dusty shelves, choosing and re-choosing a single worn book to buy and cherish, running my fingers over the annotations of the previous owner.

I loved reading books about places I had no concept of. Books helped me travel – to places both invented and real – as I sweated and sweltered in the small house I grew up in, in tropical Malaysia. I tramped through Middle Earth with Tolkien’s Hobbits, I explored the lands beyond the Magic Faraway Tree with Enid Blyton’s Moonface, I wandered the halls of American high schools with Francine Pascal’s Wakefield twins and roamed through the picturesque Prince Edward Island with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines Emily Starr and Anne Shirley.

As an adult, I moved to the US, and have travelled extensively in the world I once felt I could only see through books. In a perhaps logical paradox, I am now drawn to books that investigate the ideas of home and return, and the ties of family, both blood, and found. A book I return to frequently for its storytelling, and incredible craft and form is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the story of biracial twin girls who choose completely different paths when they leave the home they were raised in – one choosing to return, and one choosing to hide her heritage. A book that I recommend frequently is Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds about a New Mexican family who love each other fiercely but make decisions that are often at odds with the ways in which they want to show care for one another – and yet, you root for them, and you love every single one of them. I also return often to Frances Cha’s If I Had Your Face about a group of room salon girls in Korea who fight, and love, and judge each other, but who are, at the end of the day, a family of fierce friends.

Books have changed me. When my world was small, they showed me a larger one, and when my world grew, they took me home again. As now, as a first-time novelist, books have helped me build a life around them. How lucky I am.

  • Vanessa Chan