I recently led a writing workshop at my daughter’s school, and one of the fifth graders said, “I understand that to be a good writer you have to read a lot. Is there one book that influenced your writing more than any other?”
I answered without hesitation. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This book has poetry on every page. Any writer interested in overcoming cliché should read this book. Zusak is a master of the unexpected metaphor. The setting—Nazi Germany—made me hesitate to read it at first, since I find that period of history deeply disturbing. But Zusak makes it worth the trip.
Sometimes it takes me a while to come to the books that everyone’s raving about. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, was worth the wait. As a writer, I kept imagining the sticky notes and timelines Niffenegger might have used to keep it all straight in her head. How she presented such a complicated narrative so smoothly is part of the magic of writing. The characters come across as authentic human beings, despite the oddness of their lives.
I was also slow on the uptake with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. The writing in this book drew me in—it’s evocative and poetic, and the first chapter that is written from Almondine’s point of view is one of the most moving pieces of prose I’ve ever read. However, this book reminded me why I prefer Young Adult literature to that written for adults. Even in tragedies, I hope for some redemption, and I didn’t find it here.
Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, has one of the most gripping first lines of any memoir I’ve ever read. And from that first sentence, Walls never lets the reader go. Her story drew me in even as I cringed at the poverty and tough times she endured as a kid. The unflinching honesty and the survival of the family’s love make this an incredibly powerful book.
In lighter fare, I devoured The Mortal Instruments trilogy by Cassandra Clare. City of Bones, City of Ashes, and City of Glass all provide a fast-paced read, alternating humor and suspense. My library classified these as horror, but I’d call them dark fantasy. Clare captures the voices of her teen characters and weaves a complicated plot with a satisfying payoff.
Bones of Faerie, by Janni Lee Simmer, starts with an interesting premise and weaves elements of the known world into a near-future that looks very little like the present. Though the back jacket copy bills it as a young adult book, this is really for middle grade readers. The plot is fairly simple, but the world building will draw readers in.
Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied evokes post-World War II America with a compelling plot and complex characters. The protagonist deals with situations that teens today will understand—falling in love, getting a new perspective on her parents—but also deals with prejudices and situations particular to her time.
Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon, masterfully paints a historical world with the perfect amount of detail and information. The book blends history and fantasy, but the fantasy is tied in so tightly with the world that it works as a seamless whole. Though she struggles with the sexism of her world, Ai Ling is a strong young woman with a lot of ingenuity.
As a family we recently aloud Thirteenth Child, by Patricia C. Wrede, because her books make delightful read-alouds. This one kept everyone’s attention and made us laugh aloud. The alternate American history was perhaps less accessible to the kids than the adults, who had more understanding of the history this was based on and so could see the places of divergence more clearly. Some of the references were confusing for the kids, but those moments didn’t stand in the way of them enjoying the story.