There is no single reason anyone becomes a writer, and yet for so many authors, there are distinct moments in their lives when they realized they had stories they wanted to tell. For many, these moments come when reading the kind of books that provoke, disturb, and inspire—the kind of books that make us marvel and wonder if we too can inspire that sort of reaction in someone else someday.
Below, 25 writers share which books made such an impression on them. The selections range from children's books to YA series to 19th-century classics to true crime novels, but they all have one thing in common: They made someone understand their own potential to tell stories, and share those stories with the world.
The Sweet Valley High Series by Francine Pascal The Sweet Valley High series was what made me want to be a writer. All the iterations—Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley High, even the minor arcana of The Unicorn Club, which was the inspiration for my first significant “literary” short story, entitled “The Crystal Club.” I know Francine Pascal herself didn’t write each and every book, but rather was the creator and overseer of a brand that produced the world of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. From those books, I learned about story structure, the pleasure and importance of archetypes, dialogue, and tension. The later series that followed the twins into college and adulthood were soapy and overwrought and ridiculous, but I loved it. There has never been and will likely never be a great work of adult literature that will ever compare to the experience of reading those books. I would read 20 in a day, lose a night of sleep, a day of meals, read so fast I would reread the last 20 books in the series as I waited for the next one to come in. The power those books held over me will never fade. —Jenny Zhang, author of Sour Heart
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery In the fourth grade, I discovered Anne of Green Gables and promptly fell in love. I was a voracious reader before then, but this was the first book where I felt deeply connected to the main character. Anne was independent, intelligent, funny, and complex. Reading about her made me want to write my own stories with my own female characters (ones who looked more like me physically), who would have their own adventures. —Crystal Hana Kim, author of the forthcoming If You Leave Me
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard I could reach back further and find something childhood-formative, like Michael Ende's Momo or Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, but this play came to me at a time when I needed to be slapped around a little with the idea that an intelligent piece of art could also be deeply funny. (I was a Very Serious college freshman.) Preoccupied with math, time, and also the vagaries of style, Arcadia remains so emotionally grounded that its cleverness never tilts into either preciousness or didacticism. It hit me in the heart and the head—I still love it. —Adrienne Celt, author of Invitation to a Bonfire
The Portable Dorothy Parker The book that comes to mind immediately is Penguin's The Portable Dorothy Parker, which I found on my mom's shelf when I was 12 years old. I only read the poems and epigrams in it, and I thought it was crazy and great that you could become an Important Writer by writing jokey poems about suicide. She was the first of many writers I would fall in love with whose books waste no opportunity for rudeness; I later discovered her rude kindred spirits including Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Hilton Als, Joy Williams, and Muriel Spark. When I write, I still try to be as big a bitch as possible, and that's because of Dorothy Parker. —Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
Little Women by Louise May AlcottAt least twice a year, from childhood through high school, I read Little Women, inspired by the character Jo March, who determined her own fate by writing and selling fiction. We were both strivers: mine that of a Chinese immigrant family’s, Jo’s born out of fallen fortunes. We were outsiders, too: My family was among a handful of Chinese Americans in the suburbs east of San Francisco, and Jo was a whistling tomboy among her ladylike sisters. In her, I found a mirror, even though we didn’t share the same face, place, or era. She was proof that a bookish but feisty girl like her—like me—could get published someday. In rereading Little Women, I’ve found it to be more sanctimonious than I remembered, but it doesn’t change its impact, how it made me feel at more at home because I recognized a character who shared my dreams and ambitions. What I held onto was what I need to make my way in the world. —Vanessa Hua, author of the forthcoming A River of Stars
West with the Night by Beryl Markham Beryl Markham's 1942 memoir, which spans her Kenyan childhood and career as a horse trainer and bush pilot, was my mother’s favorite book, and after I inherited her two copies, each underlined and annotated from years of rereading, it became mine as well. For a time, Markham was the only professional pilot in Africa, and she was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo, nonstop flight. She wasn’t a writer, but her book is arrestingly beautiful and seductive, and is simply one of the best I’ve ever read. The lyricism of her sentences and observations inspired me to write, while the adventures she shared made me want to travel and see the world as she did. Below is one of my favorite passages.
There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.
—Anya Yurchyshyn, author of My Dead Parents
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White I was young, maybe seven or eight, and the book was The Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White. It was the first book of his I read, and I can name the scene that got me—it was the one in which Louis the Swan stays at the Ritz after a long day playing his trumpet and swimming ahead of the Swan Boats, and he orders a dozen watercress sandwiches (one with mayonnaise, eleven without), and then goes to sleep in the bathtub. I've always loved a good dining scene in a book. And this one struck me then (and still does now) as a nearly perfect scene for a children's story: imaginative, wildly fanciful, yet also eminently practical in its acknowledgment of the fact that even the most extraordinary, well-traveled, musically gifted swan needs a good supper. I remember reading about that hotel stay of Louis' as a kid and thinking, Man, writing a story like this has to be the best job in the world. So began a childhood pastime of writing mostly terrible, never-completed novels. But I'm still writing today and White is still one of my favorite authors—I've shared all his children's books with my own kids, and I return again and again to his essays, in particular for comfort and inspiration. —Nicole Chung, author of the forthcoming All You Can Ever Know
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, the freest, most playful, delightful, and absurd book ever. Proof that the imagination can do anything: string laundry across a single point, arrange for parallel lines to meet in secret. The perfect lightness of fairy tales, applied to the farthest reaches of the imaginable. —Shelley Jackson, author of the forthcoming Riddance: Or, The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth ReichlThe book that made me start writing was Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. I read this memoir about Reichl's time as the food critic for The New York Times when I was feeling stifled and like my life was missing something. This book is about the fun Reichl had as a food critic, how she kept joy in her life despite all of the challenges, and how much she learned, and it was truly an inspiration to me. I realized how much I needed and wanted to have a creative outlet in my life that would make me discover new things about the world and about myself. I started writing shortly after reading it, and I'm so glad I did. —Jasmine Guillory, author of The Wedding Date
Great Expectations by Charles DickensThe book that made me want to be a writer was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I immediately identified with the young orphan, Pip, and his dreams of rising above his humble station. Now, some three decades later, I can easily point to the themes that struck me then and have carried over into my own writing—social class, alienation, wealth, ambition… Not to compare myself with Dickens, but, you know, I have always had pretty great expectations for myself. —Camille Perri, author of When Katie Met Cassidy
I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithIt's about a 17-year-old girl named Cassandra, set in 1930s England in a crumbling castle. Cassandra is a writer, and the book is her diary, and her voice feels so fresh and alive it could have been written today. By the time I was finished reading it, I was sure I wanted to be a writer too. —Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I've Loved Before
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre, more than any book I've ever read, made me both want to be a writer and it made me aware of a world where arts can be labored over, learned, and fetishized in a way which is creative and ultimately self-satisfying. Jane's world is populated from the first pages with books—she describes specific books, the pictures in them—with paper, and pens, with drawing materials, and, Jane's story for me, has always mostly been one of a young woman working ceaselessly to attain mastery. Mastery over herself and her work, and though I've read plenty of books since where narrative value is placed on self-reliance and hard work, the way that Charlotte Brontë deploys these basic values as specifically important to the creative lives of women was, for me, the match that lit the flame. —Laura June, author of Now My Heart Is Full
Bluets by Maggie Nelson Bluets is described as “a lyrical, philosophical, and often explicit exploration of personal suffering and the limitations of vision and love, as refracted through the color blue.” It’s difficult to classify. Are the 240 short sections poems? Prose? Nelson calls them “propositions,” which despite being a reference to pre-Socratic philosophical fragments sounds like an invitation for sex. I liked that this book was impossible to classify, as I felt that my writing, hell, my identity in general, was also this way. After reading Bluets, I saw this resistance as a strength rather than a weakness. Nelson showed me that you can be everything on the page. —Leah Dieterich, author of the forthcoming Vanishing Twins: A Marriage
The Ramona Quimby series by Beverly ClearyAs a kid, I devoured each and every Ramona book by Beverly Cleary. I loved Ramona's eternal curiosity. In fact, I'm channeling her now as I write. I think about how she did things her own way, making herself a crown of burs (that then had to be cut off), splashing her galoshes in every puddle, giving a kid a box of Kleenex for a present, naming her doll Chevrolet, and squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink JUST TO SEE WHAT IT FELT LIKE. There were repercussions, sure, and messes to be cleaned up, but that's the stuff of creative genius. May we all be more like Ramona as we write. —Jen Doll, author of the forthcoming Unclaimed Baggage
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas was a novel that showed me how immersive fiction can be. Sometimes, I would look up from the pages of the revenge tragedy and be surprised to find myself in 20th-century Lagos, instead of 19th-century Paris. I took that book everywhere with me. It made me want to build a world as compelling, with words as my only tools. —Chibundu Onuzo, author of Welcome to Lagos
The Diaries of Anaïs Nin by Anaïs NinIn high school, a teacher recommended I read The Diaries of Anaïs Nin—an edgy choice but totally perfect for me because at the time I was obsessed with 1920s Paris. I was immediately taken by this vision of a woman casting herself out into the world. That’s what being a writer meant to me, and that’s what I so wanted my own life to be. It would be a long time before I realized that a writer’s life is largely—and much less glamorously—spent sitting around alone in a room and thinking, but I’ve never really given up that vision of writing as an act of daring and radical self-invention. —Jasmin Darznik, author of Song of a Captive Bird
Autobiography of Red by Anne CarsonI can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t reading and writing, so it’s hard to recall one book that made me want to be a writer, but there were definitely certain formative books that broke open my sense of what writing could be, what a writer could do. One of them was Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red; I was a budding classics nerd when I first read it, either in late eighth grade or early freshman year of high school, and Carson’s work was world-upturning: the formal experimentation of its novel-in-verse, the fact that it was basically high-brow fanfiction, and its sharp, playful attention to how the world makes not just an artist (which the red-winged Geryon, the book’s protagonist, eventually becomes) but a person. Most of all I remember it being agonizingly tender, and, if not exactly fearless, then fear-facing—keenly tuned into the questions that follow all of us, artists or not: What does your childhood make of you? What does it feel like to desire, badly; to have a friend; to build a life; to know another person; to be known, especially by yourself? —Elaine Castillo, author of America Is Not the Heart
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit When I was nine years old, I read a book called Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry. Anastasia lived in a book-lined apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her novelist father and painter mother. Something about the depiction of her writer father struck me as aspirational, and it lodged itself in the back of my mind. A year later, when I was 10, I read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit and it was this book, the one that taught me about metaphors (among them that life is a Ferris wheel, and at some point, every one of us has to get off) that catalyzed my drive to spend my life doing for others (and by proxy, for myself) what Natalie Babbit did for me; namely, building metaphors that made the unwieldy circumstances of life feel more manageable to all of us. —Amanda Stern, author of Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote Probably the first book I read that made me want to be a writer was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Before moving into fiction, I was a journalist and nonfiction author, so I value research, and Capote’s investigation of this true crime was extensive and fascinating. I was a young teen when I first read it, but even then I was drawn to truth as storytelling, and the fact that parts of it were fictionalized resonated as a way to add interest and/or step away from fact to create more compelling characters. The triple narrative was also appealing, and today I enjoy writing multiple viewpoints in many of my books. And the overall quality of the writing—vibrant prose and perfect pacing—is something to emulate. —Ellen Hopkins, author of the forthcoming People Kill People
Don Quixote by Miguel de CervantesI was 13 when our well-meaning and enthusiastic Spanish literature teacher assigned Don Quixote to our class. While I am sure the book was too difficult for our age, and that I missed entirely in my first reading the nuances of the work, the world of a man who loves to read so much that he loses his mind—well, this, I absorbed with a passion. It was the first time too that I understood the wonder of books. The fact that words had survived in their magical, paperbound vehicle since the 1600s so that I could hold them and be nurtured by them in the 1990s moved me deeply. In the way we emulate what we love, I began to write my own very short stories after reading Don Quixote. They featured people who hallucinated realities of their own. —Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg I loved so much about this book—that it took place in New York City, where I lived. That it was a mystery. That it was about kids running away to a museum, which did (and still does) seem like the most wonderful idea in the world. But mostly, it was that the narrator’s voice was so present and so clear, so much so that it was the first book where I realized that someone was crafting this—that there was someone behind the curtain, creating this narrator who was telling the story, and pulling all these wonderful strings. And I remember thinking, I want to do that too. —Morgan Matson, author of Save the Date
Rabbit, Run by John Updike For me, that book was Rabbit, Run by John Updike, which I read during my first semester of undergrad. I was studying to be a screenwriter, and most of my classes were about film but I took a narrative fiction class as an elective, and this was the first book we were assigned. I loved how dark and sexy it was, how Rabbit—the protagonist—stayed unlikeable and irredeemable and petulant to the very end. It was unlike anything I’d been assigned to read in high school, a big beautiful big middle finger to an English department cannon. And the prose is so lovely, I can still quote lines of description from memory. Reading it made me want to subvert expectations, break rules, be a little bit naughty… unsurprising, as I’ve always had a soft spot for bad boys. —Siobhan Vivian, author of Stay Sweet
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith The book that made me want to be a writer is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which stars a girl named Francie Nolan, who grew up hardscrabble and dirt-poor in early 21st-century Brooklyn. Francie's favorite teacher told her that in life, she should tell the truth of the way things happened, but that in the stories she wrote, she could write life the way it should be. Francie took that advice to heart, and I learned from her. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn showed me that writing was a way to translate and transcend the wrenching experience of living, especially as a female, and I needed that. —Alison McGhee, author of What I Leave Behind
Breathe, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge DanticatI read Edwidge Danticat's Breath Eyes Memory for the first time in high school then read it over and over again, not because of the content of the story but because of the way the story was told. Danticat’s language stuns in its spareness, her dialogue is true to the ear, and she lays bare the richness of a culture with simple details: the names of the neighborhood children, the logistics of playing the community lottery. That was why I liked the book, but I only recently realized why it made me want to write. Reading her work introduced me to a form that I thought might be accessible to me. In her style, I recognized my own budding inclinations. —Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of A Kind of Freedom
The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene Many books made me want to write, but Carolyn Keene's The Secret of the Old Clock (the first in the Nancy Drew mystery series) was the one that earned my mother’s complaint, “The house could burn down, and you’d have your nose in a book.” It taught me the power of reading (I loved knowing I would have that if all else failed) and also the power of its female detective, who could solve anything, no matter how they scoffed. Carolyn Keene was not a real person but a syndicate—very good I didn’t know that when I wanted to be her. —Joan Silber, author of Improvement
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