Sometimes I just say, “It’s too hard to choose,” and the poor kid who asked the question looks crushed.
So more and more often, I say that I can pick a favorite only if I limit the criteria to a very, very narrow range. What was my favorite book when I was, like the audience in front of me, in my second month of fourth grade? What’s my favorite book when I want to be scared? Etc.
One of my favorite categories of favorite books is this: my favorite books from childhood that shaped me the most as a writer.
Even that is hard to choose, because there were so many books that I read and re-read and re-re-read so many times as a kid that they might as well have become part of my very bones—not to mention the bones of every book I’ve written.
But here’s my best attempt at that list:
1. FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, by E.L. Konigsburg
Like probably everyone else who ever picked up this book, I wanted to live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after reading this. But this book is so brilliant that even as a kid I think I was able to appreciate the way E.L. Konigsburg mixed adventure (running away, solving a mystery) with Claudia and Jamie changing and growing. Of course Claudia wanted to go home “different,” not just “differently.” (The book also made me appreciate the subtleties of grammar.) And the kids in this book find out something adults don’t know!
When I was writing my first book, MIXED-UP FILES was one of several childhood favorites that I re-read to make myself think about what made a great kids book. That experiment made me see how annoying/stupid/badly written some of my former favorites actually were. But MIXED-UP FILES seemed just as impressive when I read it as an adult.
2. SHE, THE ADVENTURESS, by Dorothy Crayder
I’m going from extremely famous to extremely obscure here. I’ve only ever found two other people who’d even heard of this book, let alone read it. It seems almost possible that Dorothy Crayder sold only a few copies of this book, all to small-town libraries in either Ohio or Arkansas.
The word, “adventuress” doesn’t exactly convey the same pizzazz now that it did back in the 1970s when the book was written, and about 90 percent of the main character’s problems would have been solved by owning a cellphone. It also seems even less plausible now than it did back then that sane, responsible parents from Iowa would send their young daughter (Is the main character, Maggie, ten? Twelve?) all by herself on an ocean liner to spend the summer in Italy. But I longed to go to Italy after reading this book; I longed to be an “adventuress.” (Or an adventurer. I didn’t care at all about the grammar here.)
This book also made me see that you didn’t have to be bold and brave to have adventure. Sometimes adventures are more interesting when the adventurer/adventuress starts out as a coward.
3. THE CHANGELING, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
I was a huge Zilpha Keatley Snyder fan as a kid. (Partly because: Zilpha. Could there be any cooler name?) And her characters were almost always so eccentric and intriguing. THE CHANGELING is about two girls who are misfits for very different reasons. I think I came to THE CHANGELING after reading too many books where kids fit into cookie-cutter stereotypes, and I savored the way both Martha and Ivy seemed so real and unique to me.
A lot of writing has to do with making readers know and care about characters, and I felt like I knew and understood Martha’s perspective completely.
4. ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, by Alexander Key
This book was made into a Disney movie that turned out a lot like any other Disney movie—what I remember best from the movie was the flying RV. But the book was weirder, darker, more fascinating and, somehow, also more hopeful. Orphans Tony and Tia are different from everyone else around them, and the few clues they have about their past seem to indicate a deeper story than they know. And the secret they ultimately find out about themselves has huge ramifications that go far beyond their own search for safety.
This may have been the first book I read that fed me clues to such a huge surprise at the end. It made me want to write books that also portrayed characters finding out big secrets.
5. ENCHANTRESS FROM THE STARS, by Sylvia Engdahl
This is a glorious mix of science fiction and fairy tale—the two genres are literally intertwined because the story is alternatingly told from the perspective of a space traveler on a mission to a primitive planet and a woodcutter’s son on that planet who sees everything in terms of magic and superstition. I loved the genre-twisting. I also loved the respect the author showed for each character’s perspective. And this was probably my first exposure to the idea that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can have incredible power.
That’s my list as of right now. Of course, if you ask me tomorrow or next week or when I’m working on my next book, the list might be totally different.
Margaret Peterson Haddix’s newest book, CHILDREN OF REFUGE, the second in the Children of Exile series, is about a misfit named Edwy who has a strange adventure. Even though he’s not so brave in the beginning, he changes as he finds out more about the background story of his life—and makes choices that have ramifications for all of humanity.
September 12th — Crossroad Reviews
After Edwy is smuggled off to Refuge City to stay with his brother and sister, Rosi, Bobo, and Cana are stuck alone—and in danger—in Cursed Town in the thrilling follow-up to Children of Exile from New York Times bestselling author, Margaret Peterson Haddix.
It’s been barely a day since Edwy left Fredtown to be with his parents and, already, he is being sent away. He’s smuggled off to boarding school in Refuge City, where he will be with his brother and sister, who don’t even like him very much. The boarding school is nothing like the school that he knew, there’s no one around looking up to him now, and he’s still not allowed to ask questions!
Alone and confused, Edwy seeks out other children brought back from Fredtown and soon discovers that Rosi and the others—still stuck in the Cursed Town—might be in danger. Can Edwy find his way back to his friends before it’s too late?
About the Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix grew up on a farm near Washington Court House, Ohio. She graduated from Miami University (of Ohio) with degrees in English/journalism, English/creative writing and history. Before her first book was published, she worked as a newspaper copy editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana; a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis; and a community college instructor and freelance writer in Danville, Illinois.She has since written more than 40 books for kids and teens, including Running Out of Time; Double Identity; Uprising; The Always War; the Shadow Children series; the Missing series; the Children of Exile series; the Under Their Skin duology; and The Palace Chronicles. She also wrote Into the Gauntlet, the tenth book in the 39 Clues series. Her books have been honored with New York Times bestseller status, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award; American Library Association Best Book and Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers notations; and numerous state reader’s choice awards. They have also been translated into more than twenty different languages.Haddix and her husband, Doug, now live in Columbus, Ohio. They are the parents of two grown kids.