What Was the First Book You Fell in Love With?
The Center for Fiction’s 2019 First Novel Prize Authors Weigh In
We asked this year’s Center for Fiction First Novel Prize finalists about their earliest love affairs with reading. Meet them all at the Finalist Reading and Fête on December 9 at The Center for Fiction.
Chia-Chia Lin, author of The Unpassing on
The Elves and the Shoemaker, Fran Hunia and illustrated by John Dyke
My copy is a mini hardcover, a 1978 edition from the British publisher Ladybird Books. The spine is duct-taped. The corners of the covers are rubbed away, exposing tissue-soft, 40-year-old cardboard separating into its layers. I don’t remember how we came to have a whole set of these books—The Enormous Turnip, Billy Goats Gruff, Gingerbread Man—but they were among our nicest, most prized belongings as children, and are now split among us. In a family that valued neither sentimentality nor durability, these books might be as close to heirlooms as we get.
“Here is the shoemaker,” reads the first spread, with an illustration of a decidedly ungroomed man. The next two spreads: “This is the shoemaker’s wife. The shoemaker and his wife have no money.” Because it’s part of a series for beginning readers, the tale has a clipped, declarative style. The sentences are repetitive and simple, and yet somehow the book avoids the feeling of oversimplification, that diminishment of language and reader.
The hand-drawn illustrations of John Dyke have a lot to do with it. They balance out the abstractness of the prose with flourishing details. We can see the shoemaker’s bristly arm hair, the buttons that have fallen out of his wife’s otherwise empty wallet, the misshapen carrots of their dinner. He ushers his wife into hiding with a hand on her butt. Every time I reach the part where the couple makes clothes for the elves, a wild swell of joy rushes through me; just look at these tiny plumed hats, fanciful tailcoats, beribboned breeches. In this version of the tale there is no moralizing. Does this shoemaker deserve these capricious, ingenious elves? Who knows?
The Read It Yourself series still exists, but the pocket-sized hardcovers are no longer in print and, appallingly, the illustrations have been completely replaced. The shoemaker in the glossy modern edition is rosy-cheeked, snowy-haired and a bit prim, whereas the moppy-mustached, haggard shoemaker I adore looks nearly deranged whenever he wields his leather-cutting knife. The modern illustrations feel homogenous, flat, safe. Am I mourning the world’s loss of these books or something else altogether? In any event, here is a story made up of 55 words that is everything we strive for in our writing: it is deeply, weirdly specific, but leaves billowing space for mystery.
Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth on
The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm
As a kid, I carried around a 1992 Bantam edition of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm like it was my security blanket. It was a lavender paperback, the front cover of which had ripped off at some point. At 750 pages, it was heavy as a cobblestone, made heavier by the fact that I’d dropped it into the bath so the whole thing had gotten water-logged and ripply. Still, I carried it to the kitchen table during meals, to my parents’ car, to elementary school, to friends’ houses. I loved it.
I took comfort in how familiar the text was after repeated readings. Fairy tales rest on tropes: maidens are virtuous, stepmothers are wicked, youngest sons aren’t taken seriously, kings aren’t to be trusted. Those archetypes are reliable. They assure you that the world makes sense. Yet as much as I adored the qualities shared from tale to tale, I also obsessed over the details, strange and bloody, that were particular to each story. The boy decapitated by the lid of a heavy chest in “The Juniper Tree.” The human baby covered in quills in “Hans My Hedgehog.” The mother-in-law shoved into a barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes in “The Twelve Brothers.” Every bloody egg, cut-off limb, and cursed child was a shock and a thrill.
When we’re young, we have so little power; we can’t shape our days in the ways we might wish. We have everything to learn and nothing to control. So the brutal simplicity of the Grimms was a godsend. In that book, I knew the rules. I decided which stories I read when. I got to choose what world to inhabit. Again and again, I picked the thick, soaked pages of these fairy tales, where I could keep company with Bluebeard, Simple Hans, and Rose Red, where villains were always punished and heroes rewarded, where life was violent but clear.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain on
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
I can’t say that I experienced early love with a book the way I’ve heard others talk of favorite childhood reads. As a kid shuttling between Bangkok and elsewhere, I didn’t absorb any one culture’s canon for young readers. My first readings came from whatever was on my relatives’ shelves or at international school libraries. They ranged from Doraemon manga translated to Thai, to my grandfather’s English-language copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I read everything that came my way and loved more books than I can now remember. Do I single out the Chinese fantasy adventure epic Journey to the West or should I profess young love for the palm-sized Golden Guide books that I lined up on a shelf for ready reference to the flora and fauna of faraway places?
Perhaps it would be better for me to think on my first few years out of university, when I began to more seriously pursue writing. At that age, I’d found myself wonderstruck by how books were made of words that someone had chosen and arranged to tell stories, and with books I loved, I read them again and again, wanting to understand how their authors had managed to pull it off. I can’t name any specific book that first compelled me to inspect the telltale ways a particular story was written, but a book from those inceptive times did resurface to me. I see myself on a subway car, riding back into Manhattan from a café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that I nightly frequented from evening to closing, to write after my day work. In my hands: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
It’s only a sliver of memory. I can’t even recall what I was writing then—likely some part of a novel that deserved to later be abandoned—but I can clearly see this book by Ishiguro, and Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson on its unfashionable movie tie-in cover and, within, earmarked pages and underlined sentences and margin scribbles in unassured pencil. What did that younger writer think was important to remark about the book? What did he think he would be able to do with those gleamings? I don’t have that copy of Remains anymore, so I can’t say for sure. Like most youthful romances, only vague recollections linger. As I tried and failed and tried again to write, there were and would be many other books as well-thumbed and marked as Ishiguro’s that I carried around and placed on the café table. I remember the books in that talismanic stack changing week by week, depending on which books I felt I needed with me, so that I could flip through them for some fleeting assurance while in the throes of desperate struggle. Remains was one likely to be there.
Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous on
Thunder Cake, Patricia Polacco
It’s about a girl and her grandmother who decide to make a cake in the face of an incoming storm. I loved that notion: of making joy and sustenance in the face of danger. It’s a children’s book and can be read as a silly enactment of childish irrationality. On the other hand, it can be taken as a praxis for living in the midst of fear and hopelessness. As such, making a cake together in the shadow of rupture is a radical act of ecstatic love. I want to live like that. I am trying to live like that. I want to eat cake with those I love when the storm takes me.
Joe Wilkins, author of Fall Back Down When I Die on
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I grew up in eastern Montana, on a high swath of nearly riverless prairie pocked here and there with boils of badlands. Though heavily settled in the first two decades of the last century—following the Enlarged Homestead Act and an advertising blitz chock full of pseudoscience and downright dishonesties—shifts in grain prices after WWI and the privation of the dirty ’30s soon cleared most everyone out of that big dry country. Those who were too poor or too stubborn to leave scavenged what they could. The house I grew up in, for instance, was stitched together from the husks of old homesteader’s shacks, which meant half the walls were hollow and the roof uneven and the house itself full of odd seams and gaps and hidey-holes. Which, of course, made it perfect for reading.
Of a November evening, the early dark falling, I’d pile pillows behind the worn, brown couch in the living room and settle in to read, read, read. Our coal furnace coughed ash and smoke, the plains wind worried the ill-fitting windows, and I was far away, worlds away. I read whatever I could get my hands on: my older sister’s Archie comics and my grandparents’ many volumes of Western history; back issues of Time and Reader’s Digest; the liner notes on all the weathered LPs—Baez, Cash, and Lightfoot—my mother kept by the broken HiFi in the basement. Each week I checked out as many books as they’d allow at the tiny library in the county school, and I saved my chore money for trips to Billings, the only real city in the eastern half of the state, so I could buy fantasy and science fiction paperbacks at the B. Dalton’s in the mall. As Marilynne Robinson says of her own bookish childhood in the American West, “Relevance was precisely not an issue.”
Yet I can’t say I loved any of what I read. I loved the reading, the act itself, the ceremony of lamps and pillows and pages that transported me, that took me away for a time from those hard high plains, from my father’s death, my family’s poverty, my rural community’s struggles with violence, alcoholism, and wrongheaded mythologies, but what I was reading, the stories themselves—easy, reassuring—began to wear thin.
My mother, though, was and is a great reader, and I had the good luck as well of having a few teachers in late elementary and early middle school who pushed books into my hands. I don’t know exactly how I came by Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I spent years in those pages. Never mind that I had only a vague sense of where Brooklyn actually was, I saw in Francie Nolan’s story poverty, and began to know my own. I saw in Francie Nolan’s story grief, injustice, yearning, tenacity, and hope, and despite the differences of time, geography, and gender, I looked up from those pages and knew, seemingly for the first time, my own world. Here was a true story, a story that, yes, took me away from my world, but brought me back to it as well, brought me back wiser, kinder, sharper, more alive.
In high school and college I’d discover Steinbeck, Cather, Baldwin, and so many other writers reckoning with what it meant to be poor, what it meant to lose a father, feel invisible, be an outcast in one’s own home. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn came first. Francie Nolan was my first love.
Lauren Wilkinson, author of American Spy on
Matilda, Roald Dahl
I grew up an only child (I met my half-sister in my twenties—a story in itself) and so I spent a lot of my childhood entertaining myself. I was the kind of kid that you could leave alone with a pile of books, and you wouldn’t hear from me for hours. When I was seven or eight, I fell in love with Matilda by Roald Dahl. The first few pages of the book are strange—Dahl opens with a tangent about how he would behave if he were an elementary school teacher: he writes about the mean, hypothetical end-of-term reports that he’d give out to the unappealing hypothetical children that populated his hypothetical classroom. In these pages, he’s being actively hostile toward children (the target audience of the book, presumably) and my guess is that his editor was probably baffled by it. Still, I’m glad they let him keep that part in—I absolutely loved it when I was a kid. I thought it was so funny.
Anyway, once Dahl (finally) gets around to describing the titular character, he tells us about a child that is sensitive, can look after herself, and loves to read. In retrospect, I think that one of the reasons I loved the book so much was because I identified with Matilda on those terms. Plus, I was completely enraptured by the magic and fantastical logic that the story is hinged on. Matilda is small but powerful. She understands at a very young age that the world of grown-ups is bullshit (although admittedly, the character never uses that language), so she uses her “eye-power” to successfully outmaneuver the cruel and crass adults in her life. It’s a great underdog story, and I’ve always been a sucker for underdogs.
I even wanted to get a tattoo of the Quentin Blake illustration that was on the cover of my old copy—it is a drawing of Matilda sitting with a large pile of books. I chose not to, though, when I learned that Roald Dahl was an anti-Semite. It hurt so much to learn the book that had taught me that hatred is a poison had been written by a man who believed hateful things.
De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills on
Invisible Life, E. Lynn Harris
I didn’t grow up around books in the home—unless you count the Encyclopedia set in the living room. During my elementary and middle school years, whenever I checked out books from the school library, it was often to complete an assignment. Even when I started college in ’98 (the first time I started college), I only read books when I had to.
In ‘99 an older gay friend of mine—the first man I’d ever met who had been named “Sandy,” though he most often went by “Alex”—was horrified to learn that I hadn’t read E. Lynn Harris’s novels. At that age, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there were black gay male authors who wrote almost exclusively about the gay black male experience. I’d been raised in a small, rural North Carolina town where people didn’t even discuss queerness unless it was in a derogatory context.
Alex owned copies of Harris’s first two novels, and he loaned them to me. He demanded that I read them in order: Invisible Life (1991) and Just As I Am (1994). I was in love with Invisible Life within the first few pages. It was the first time I got to see gay black men portrayed as intelligent, responsible, lovable and individual. The stories were also full of wonderful sex and drama!
I have fallen in love with many books since 1999—mostly books written by African-American women such as J. California Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. But Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris was my first book love. It gave me permission to be ok with myself.