We’ve all seen them. Those lists of the 100 books you should have read by now, or before you die. They’re often shared with laughter at how many (or likely, how few) have been read, and what is always, inevitably, missing from the list…
So here’s a chance to influence one of those lists.
World Book Day are asking teens and adults to pick the books that were – or are – the books that formed rites of passage. Books that made you laugh, cry, look at the world differently. Books that made you question who you are, where you’re going. Books that scare, thrill, teach and transport.
We all have them. Even if they’re possibly ones we’re not so keen to admit to. The great thing about this poll – it’s sure to bring up some forgotten gems, and –dare I say it – some genre and other titles that wouldn’t usually make a mainstream list. Or they will appear if we make sure they are there by voting for them…
So mine? It’s so hard to choose. I read Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife in one breathless weekend, utterly transported into those other worlds and desperate to climb out of mine and find something different. I can’t not mention Harry Potter… it changed my life by showing me what I wanted to do, and making the way through my dissertation clear.
And I know that I’d make my mum really unhappy if I failed to mention the beautiful paperback edition of The Hobbit that we read together, (around the time of BBC’s Narnia I’d think) and then I read again – her 70s paperback is, I think, now in one of my many, many boxes of books in storage (sorry mum!).
And if I was a teen now? I know that I’d have been shocked and completely addicted to The Hunger Games; that anything Malorie Blackman writes has the power to really make me think; that Elizabeth Wein’s historical novels have given me a new sense of untold stories from our past; that a new voice like Laura Dockrill could challenge assumptions about female role models; that from our Indigo and Gollancz lists, just this year I have fallen for and would love to get lost in the worlds beautifully created in Leigh Bardugo’s Siege & Storm; in the Edinburgh of Elizabeth May’s The Falconer; I’ve seen our modern obsession with reality entertainment reflected back at us in Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and had my worldview shaken by the narrators of Marcus Sedgwick’s She Is Not Invisible and Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds.
I know that I would find it almost impossible to choose just one novel in each of the categories for Writes of Passage. But I will do my best – because we should all vote!
And here are some of the rest of the team’s choices:
It by Stephen King
I was thirteen and away at summer camp when I first read Stephen King’s It. Yes, it scared me senseless and there were images that kept me up late, staring into the dark—Pennywise’s tongue unfurling, Bev’s hair brushing the drain as voices floated up to her through the pipes. But even at the time, I realized that what really made the story matter was the way I felt about the characters. That summer, I was at the height of my awkward phase. I was pale and pudgy and had all the wrong clothes. I fell in love with brave Bill, Ben with his secret poetry, Richie and his voices. I believed in the ghosts that haunted them—real and metaphorical—and I felt every victory and casualty in their war. I’ve had people call me out on the very peculiar way in which It‘s plot resolves and what it means to be female in that narrative. They’re fair critiques. But that was the story I needed most when I was far from home—not one of comfort, but one that I could see myself in and that made literal all the terror and anger and mystery of being thirteen.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
“…they just wanted to run forever, shadow and shadow.”
I must have been about fifteen when I read this book. And it was a revelation. It was the first book that showed me that horror and fantasy could come to your house. It explained the excitement and the undercurrent of unease that you feel around fairs. And, most important of all for me now it showed that lyrical and deeply poetic writing was every bit at home in a novel as it was in a poem and that poetry, wherever you found it, could hit your heart hard. And scare you at the same time.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
‘I am writing of my own beginnings rather than the beginnings of this land. I do not even know to whom I try to explain myself. My life has been a web of secrets, secrets that even now are unsafe to share’
They say you always remember your first, and this was mine – the first novel that I stayed up all night to read. It was winter, in 1996, I was fourteen and I actually couldn’t stop reading. It was mesmerising, like a window into another world; one full of potential, dangerous opportunities, enduring friendships, danger and sacrifice. A hard world, a strong character, and no guarantees that anyone would make it out alive . . . held together with the knowledge that Fitz was always capable of more than he was credited for, and all he needed was a chance. For all the darkness and the hardship, for all the subtext and details I now realise I entirely missed, Assassin’s Apprentice did something extraordinary: it inspired me.
As a teenager, I was properly introduced to fantasy by my godmother, a woman of impeccable and wide-ranging taste. Oh, up until then I’d read some kid’s stuff – Narnia, Dragonlance – but she saw which way my tastes were leaning and gave me a bunch of authors to try. Perhaps my fondest memory is of the Dragon books by Anne McCaffrey (which might more properly be called Science Fiction, but dragons). I went on a reading binge, picking up almost all of her books from secondhand shops, libraries, bookshops… They seem a little simplistic, now, but at the time they opened up vistas of other worlds and different times, and that feeling of wonder – so rarely captured in adulthood – has always stayed with me.
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kinslover
I was just applying to colleges when I read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I was hooked in the first chapter. Something about the title, “The One to Get Away” really appealed to me. This was a book about a girl leaving behind her small town and setting out on an adventure. Not an adventure in a fantastical world, but in our world. Filled with love, loss, hope a bit of revolution and compelling characters this is one of those books that has never left me and encouraged me to look more critically at the world around me.
Arthur C. Clarke’s incredible imagination and ability to put a sting in the tail of his stories was addictive stuff to my younger self. The way his books played with reality and extrapolated existing scientific principles was like having the top of my head pried off, and the universe poured in.
Harry Potter by J K Rowling
I was a late teenager by the time I reached the Harry Potter series, and it may seem like a slightly frivolous choice. I was too old for the target market but nonetheless, I queued at a bookshop at midnight for the fourth one and would stick my fingers in my ears when someone said a word against it. The worst insult I found were the dismissive ‘it’s a kids book’ comments. I would tremble with anger. The best thing about Harry Potter is that it’s a series of kids’ books which teach you how to be a better adult. Not only is it full of curiosities, which made me ever more curious for our world, but it is the age old triumph over evil, and fighting for your beliefs. Obviously, this is a lesson we all know, and probably learned early on, but it sinks much deeper when it is told through wands, Quidditch and vomiting slug curses. I grew into adulthood with a wonderful array of magical escape, which, when I re-entered the real world, made me think differently about it.