The books that made us readers

Vannessa Cronin on October 28, 2020

The books that made us readers

Whenever I'm asked about my favorite book as a child, my mind immediately flies back to five or six books, books that I read and loved, books whose characters I remember like old friends: distant but indelible. My fellow editors also have books that opened them up to the power of reading and the worlds novels could introduce them to, even if those worlds weren't fantastical so much as they were eye-openingly different to the ones we knew. 

Here is a selection of the books that made readers of us.

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My mom still had her childhood copies of the Little House books and I remember her reading them to us, and later reading them again myself, and the sense of wonder I felt at the life of that pioneer family. Making maple sugar candy, getting a corn husk doll for Christmas, Ma making butter, Pa bringing home venison to be salted and cured to carry them through the long, hard days of winter; this book made me see a wider world and a way of life so different from my own, and it made me thankful for small things. In recent years there has been controversy over these books, and I get it. But Laura Ingalls Wilder made me want to know more about the world and the experiences of others, and for that I will always be grateful. —Seira Wilson

Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary

I still remember being a little kid and learning to read. I couldn’t put down those books about Nan the Rat—just thinking about them now makes me happy. My parents were very generous when it came to buying me books. We took frequent trips to the bookstore and I spent at least one day a weekend at the library. I was an insatiable reader, but picture books went so quickly. Soon after I learned to read, I was in the bookstore, walking around the children’s book section. And I kept walking. I landed in the middle grade reader section, the one with the chapter books. And the funniest book jacket caught my eye. It was a little girl standing in front of a sink filled with a perfect mountain of toothpaste, as her mother looked on in horror. I read the title: Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary. This book was much longer than any book I had read, but I opened it and realized I could read all the words. That funny jacket art made me realize a chapter book is just a picture book, but with more story and less pictures. I convinced my own mother to buy me Ramona and Her Mother, and I never looked back. I still remember my favorite books as a child, but I owe it to Ramona (and Beverly Clearly, I guess) for giving me the confidence to tackle chapter books. I always planned to name my daughter “Ramona,” to pay homage to the character that ignited my own love for reading. Alas, I have two boys, and I’m hoping to use the name on a dog or cat. While the current edition of Ramona and Her Mother has a different jacket, the jacket that I owe so much to is captured on page 143 in Anna Katz’s beautiful new book, The Art of Ramona Quimby. —Sarah Gelman

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Alice Hoffman once said: “Books may well be the only true magic.” I knew this to be true when my third grade teacher, Mrs. Robinette, would carve out time each day to read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to our normally fidgety, motley crew—but at these moments, we were utterly rapt. The most beloved, or at least best known, of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia follows four English children who access an enchanted world via, of course, a wardrobe—a place where animals speak, mythical creatures abound, and a White Witch has condemned this world to an eternal winter. It will be up to the siblings and Aslan, the King above all High Kings in Narnia, to thaw her icy ways (or perish trying). It took me 19 years to come out of the closet, but I can’t help but peer carefully into every one I encounter. You never know if Narnia will be on the other side. Mrs. Robinette, thank you.… —Erin Kodicek

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

The first book of the Chronicles of Prydain grabbed me when I was a young reader with its story of a boy who loses a prophetic pig (really!) and runs away to find it. Luckily, the whole series had already been published, so I sped through these delightful—but also dark—fantasy novels based on Welsh mythology. Taran the assistant pig-keeper and the lovable creature Gurgi were fun reading companions, but my favorite character was Eilonwy, the young princess who was bored (and isolated) and leaped into dangerous adventuring with gusto. And so began my lifelong love of fantasy novels featuring imperfect heroes trying to do the right thing—even when they’re only assistant pig-keepers. —Adrian Liang

Stuart Little by E. B. White

I’ll be completely honest here. I’ve been writing for the Amazon Book Review for 10 years, so I have answered this question several times. And each time I am pretty sure I’ve named a different book. The truth is I don’t remember one book that made me a reader. But I do remember loving Stuart Little when I was about five or six. And I remember it because it awakened my imagination. I’m not sure a book that’s more than 75 years old will have the same effect on kids today; but Dogman and a certain Wimpy Kid have had that effect on my own kids. There’s a part of me that would love to see my children read the books that I have loved, but times change and so do tastes. The important thing is to get them reading. Plus, now they can just watch the frenetic movie that bears a not-so-striking resemblance to the Stuart Little that I used to curl up with as a child. —Chris Schluep

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

When Nana Lucey took care of us, entertainment often came in the form of a big box of used books she had pulled together at a local bookstore. That's where I discovered, and almost passed over, a battered paperback with a big splotch of blue paint on the cover: Ballet Shoes. Published in 1936, it's the story of three adopted sisters, Pauline, Petrova, and Posy. When their guardian stops sending money home, his great-niece Sylvia and the three young sisters need to find ways to generate income, and those ways involve ballet shoes. Addressing real-life issues like money problems and having different talents than your siblings was something I hadn’t encountered in other novels yet, and it was spellbinding to me. Ballet Shoes is about dance, yes, but this lovely novel is also a candid portrait of family—especially sisterhood—and friendship, and the power of hard work, and dreaming big, to overcome obstacles. —Vannessa Cronin

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy made me into a lifelong reader. I carried that paperback book everywhere. My favorite part about this young, seemingly fearless kid who would hide in dumbwaiters during her routine spy route was that she recorded everything in a notebook—the power of words! She was curious and intrepid, fastidiously writing everything down (even at the cost of her friendships); she recorded what she saw and then hypothesized about what was going on. After her journal is stolen on the playground, she learns that words have consequences. And for this reader, I also learned the power of narration. One person’s interpretation of an event is different from another’s and that is why I read: to learn about how other people experience the world. Thanks, Harriet, for having gumption, wearing high tops, and setting out to learn more about the others around you. —Al Woodworth

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