A “Name Your Top 10 Favorite Books” Challenge has been making the rounds on Facebook, so when my friend Lisa challenged me, I was excited to do it. But then came the hard reality of deciding which books would make the Top 10. Should it be comprised of books I’ve loved for years and thus have stood the test of time, or should it be newly found novels that have wormed their way into my heart? Should it contain my beloved books regardless of their critical acclaim or should it the best literary books I’ve read? Top 10 Beach Reads vs Top 10 Non-Fiction? Top 10 Children’s or YA books? And where do short story collections and mysteries and thrillers fit into the mix?
1) The truth is I can never make this list. I have too many favorites because I have been an avid reader for years, ever since that intrepid detective with the titan-colored hair fell into my lap in The Secret of the Old Clock. Nancy Drew was my hero for many reasons. She was smart, pretty, and independent. She had great friends, Bess and George, and a hunky boyfriend named Ned, and she solved mysteries that involved cunning, danger, and travel to exotic locales. I wanted to be Nancy Drew, but in the end she gave me a greater gift than her identity: she taught me to love reading. Nancy Drew paved the way for my love of mysteries, such as anything by Agatha Christie, the A is for Alibi series by Sue Grafton, The Da Vinci Code, Gone Girl, and Case Histories.
2) So I decided to make a list of the Top 10 Books That Made Me a Reader. When I think back, no book made a bigger impression on my young mind than Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.
This book was about as far away from me as you could get. It was about a young boy in the Ozarks who spent his nights raccoon hunting with his two dogs. I was a young girl in the suburbs who spent my nights safely tucked in my bed. Ultimately, this novel about love and adventure transcends gender, locale, and life experience. This novel taught me I could be carried away to worlds that I knew nothing about and then spit me out in a puddle of my own tears: books could move you. This paved the way for novels like Unbroken, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (World War II) and anything by Pat Conroy (the South), Maeve Binchy (Ireland), and of course, sad stories involving animals, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down.
3) D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire was my first non-fiction love. I read it about a thousand times, and then I read it aloud to my fellow second graders during class (I’m not entirely sure how that came about). Greek mythology was like nothing else I had ever encountered. Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and whisked away to the underworld. Athena turned Arachne into a spider and Hera’s servant was covered with one hundred eyes. Cronus ate his own children so they wouldn’t overthrow him. Wild, fantastical, and true! (As much as myths can be true.) This led me to Richard Feynman, Oliver Sachs, Malcolm Gladwell, Ann Rule and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
4) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a revelation to me. How could something so magical and fantastical be rooted in concepts that were scientific? This novel opened my eyes to possibilities I hadn’t considered before, which is why I now enjoy the magical realism in novels by Alice Hoffman and Aimee Bender as well as straight science fiction with a human twist, such as anything by the magnificent Isaac Asimov.
5) Visions of Terror by William Katz. There is no explaining this novel except to say that it was my first horror/thriller novel and I loved it. I couldn’t put it down, despite the fact that I had read it multiple times. It introduced me to what a suspense novel should be and led me directly to Stephen King, Harlan Coben, David Baldacci, Robert Ludlum, and any other suspenseful thriller you can find at airport bookstores.
6) Seven Days To A Brand New Me (or any of her other books) by Ellen Conford. Conford wrote what I’d now call YA chick lit. Likable, funny high school protagonists wind up in embarrassing/humiliating situations trying to get a boy to like them, and yes, they walk off with the boy in the end! I ate these books up. What girl doesn’t struggle with the age-old question of should I tell the boy I like him or lust in secret from afar? Conford planted me on the road to my most beloved chick lit novels of all time by Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, and the fabulous Jane Austen.
7) Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Oh, Anne Shirley! I wanted to be her too. She was adventurous and wholesome, funny and loyal, and when she finally realized she loved the dreamy Gilbert Blythe when he was at death’s door with thyphoid fever the agony of that long night nearly tore me apart. Every one of the novels in this series is lovely, and they led me directly to:
8) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The unrequited love between Laurie (a boy), Jo (a girl) was filled with heartache and disappointment was nothing compared to Beth’s fragility and ultimate demise. (What? She died? That’s not allowed!) This may have been the first novel I read where a character who wasn’t an animal died, and it was traumatic, but it was something else too: a great story. This led me to other more sophisticated stories combining reality and tragedy like Sophie’s Choice and Of Mice and Men.
9) The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois. It’s hard to explain this Newberry award-winning novel, but it is a magical hot air balloon ride. Imagine landing on an exotic island named Krakatoa and finding 20 families, each named after a letter of the alphabet, like Mr. A, Mr. B, etc. They rotate making dinners for everyone on the island, so that the M family might make a Moroccan meal, and Mr. F would host a French night. The island is home to both a volcano and one of the biggest diamond mines in the world. The novel is rich in fantasy, so rich I might have referred to it as “out there.” Yet I read it many times, unable to stay away from this completely unbelievable world that I absolutely believed in.
10) The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This is the classic battle of good vs. evil with fauns, Turkish delights, betrayal, mythology, religion, and magic added in. This one paved the way for all the great books in this genre to come, namely the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, 100 Cupboards, The Passage and The Stand.