‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ – Franz Kafka
I asked some of Australia’s top children’s and teen authors to share a book that they read as a kid that changed their life in some way. Perhaps it showed them another way of being that they’d not considered before, or inspired them to make a positive difference or to become a reader or a writer. One book that had that impact on me was My Side of the Mountain and you can read one of my favourite authors, Scot Gardner, talking about it below. Also sharing their life-changing children’s books are Wendy Orr, Tim Harris, Jaclyn Moriarty and Mark Smith.
Wendy Orr (author of Dragonfly Song, Nim’s Island)
‘But the mist was creeping down from the high moors, and the Legion marched into it, straight into it, and it licked them up and flowed together behind them, and they were gone as though they had marched from one world into another.’
I was about twelve when I read that sentence in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, and already knew I wanted to be a writer. However, this book, which drew me in with its combination of a powerful adventure story with poetic writing and complex characterisation, convinced me that I would grow up to write historical fiction. I think the answer is in the foreword, which described the two historical mysteries that Sutcliff based this book on, and elucidated for me that historical fiction requires strong research behind the author’s creation of their own world. We were living near the US Air Force Academy in Colorado at the time, so I got my mother to take me to the library there, where I made notes on Roman military history and spent the next year or so writing my own story of ‘Eagle Lost, Honour Lost.’
After 25 years of writing, when I finally entered the world of prehistory with Dragonfly Song and then Swallow’s Dance, I’d moved from Roman Britain to Minoan Crete. However, my mother still has my Roman story and notes…
Scot Gardner (author of The Dead I Know and Changing Gears)
The book that woke me to the joy and power of stories snuck out of the bushes dressed in full camo. I did read nonfiction so I knew how books worked, but stories seemed like a waste of time. Time that would have been better spent huntin’ and fishin’ and generally being feral. The librarian at school caught me in a weak moment of pre-holiday euphoria and offered me My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I told him I’d read it – like always – only this time I did. It was an accident! I found a character who spent his time huntin’ and fishin’ and generally being feral. I found more than a fictional friend; I found myself on the page. ‘See,’ I wanted to shout to the world. ‘I’m not as weird as you thought.’
Jaclyn Moriarty (author of ‘Bronte Mettlestone’)
Usually when I’m asked about ‘the book that changed me’, I say The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl. I read that book every week for a year when I was seven. I think this was because it’s about a little girl whose anger gives her magical powers. I was secretly angry myself, and very keen on magic.
But today, I can’t get What Katy Did, by Susan Coolidge, out of my head. Katy is the eldest of several children: she falls from a swing and becomes an invalid. I liked Katy—she’s the typical heroine, full of spark and drama—but the reason the book was so compelling to me was Katy’s younger sister, Clover. As second sister, Clover is quiet, occasionally funny, and adores Katy. She is a minor but important character and, a few books into the Katy series, Clover gets a book of her own.
I myself was the second sister in a big family. I was quiet and occasionally funny, and I adored my older sister (who was full of spark and drama, the indisputable queen of the family). Clover was a revelation, and helped shape my identity and future writing, because, it turned out, you didn’t have to be the feisty one, the confident one, the typical heroine, to be a complete character—a hero in your own right, the lead in your own story.
(On the other hand, I just looked up the Wikipedia entry for What Katy Did and found Clover described as ‘pretty and smart, she loved everyone and everyone loved her’—so I wonder if my identifying with Clover was less about ‘identity’ and more a sort of optimistic vanity.)
Tim Harris (author of Mr Bambuckle series)
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’
My primary school librarian had set a challenge. So, finding the book with the plainest cover possible, I put this idea to the test. The book I scrutinised was The Loner by Ester Wier, with its near-greyscale jacket of a boy staring wistfully across the horizon. Boring.
I’ve never been more wrong. The Loner was a hidden gem on the library shelves. Its coming-of-age tale of a runaway boy escaping into the Montana wilderness connected with me deeply – there was a whole world out there that I had no idea about. Could I go looking for this world – this freedom – like the main character did? The story seared itself into my memory.
Years later, when teaching primary school classes, I often found myself reaching for The Loner to read aloud to my students. I hoped the story would impact my students as much as it impacted me.
Mark Smith (author of The Road to Winter, Land of Fences)
The first book that impacted me in a significant way as a teenager was Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy. I was very much an outdoors kid. We lived on the fringes of Melbourne and all my waking hours outside of school were spent adventuring, building huts in the bush, pinching vegetables from market gardens and climbing trees. I would ride miles from home on weekends and school holidays. I wasn’t interested in reading because I’d never found my love of the outdoors mirrored in the books that filled the shelves at home. But Storm Boy changed all that. The evocation of the Coorong and the freedom Storm Boy had to wander its expanses, touched something inside me. I felt I knew it without ever having been there. The love Storm Boy had for that environment – and the friendship he developed with the indigenous character, Fingerbone, spoke to me. The book connected with feelings I hadn’t been able to put into words for myself. I think it helped nourish my love of wild places, something that has been reflected both in my writing and where I have chosen to live.
Jack Heath (author of the Liars series and The Cut Out)
I discovered Summerland in year 5, I think. That was when I did most of my formative reading, since my ear infections kept me from doing much else. It wasn’t my first Jackie French book – the teacher librarian was a bit obsessed with her, and passed that obsession on to me. But it became my favourite, and not just while I was reading it. The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I liked it. In the book, Iddy is a girl living in a village with dragons, unicorns and other wondrous things. But there are also shadowmen, and a spooky hilltop house no-one likes to talk about. Ominously, Iddy can’t quite remember how she got to the village, or where she was before. Summerland taught me a lot about mystery and suspense, but it also changed the way I thought about my own imagination, and about stories in general. I had always been a daydreamer, with not just my head but my whole body in the clouds most of the time. This seemed like a fun way to live, but I had never considered the power of fantasy to help me escape. To get me out of my situation – a lonely bedroom and a sore ear – and to provide me with solutions for when I eventually found my way back to reality. There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness these days – about being in the moment. It’s a worthy skill to cultivate, but so is the opposite, I think. Storytelling is a sacred duty, because it gives the listener or the reader a break from the moment. The teller, too.