All writers start as readers. And a lot of us started in the same place. Let’s take a trip to my childhood, and possibly to yours.
The “Harry Potter” series needs no introduction whatsoever. Magic school, prophecies, crushing angst in confusingly twee, punny environments, and political drama, all in one place. My mother owned these books, but the very first time I tried to read them I was a little intimidated by the opening. Then in first grade one of my classmates challenged me to see who could read them all faster, and in the face of competition, they weren’t so scary. I stayed up by my nightlight for hours to one-up him. Maybe that’s where my love of adverbs came from–after all, “Ms. Rowling never met an adverb she didn’t like.” Isn’t that right, Stephen?
The Castle In the Attic
I don’t ever hear people my age talk about this book, but everyone in my lower elementary read “The Castle in the Attic.” I reread it three years in a row. A boy discovers the toy castle (along with the lone knight accompanying it) in his titular attic is actually a real castle in another world, and the knight is a real knight. Desperate to stop a beloved caretaker from leaving, the boy enters the castle with her and the knight–and must then free the people there from a curse.
Children understand more than we give them credit more, and Elizabeth Winthrop knew that. Though the story is about the quest with the knight, the process of learning to let go was still very plain without ever being overstated. Reading books like this was what made me love writing.
The Underland Chronicles
Before Suzanne Collins hit huge with “The Hunger Games,” she hit pretty big with “The Underland Chronicles,” my absolute favorite series in second grade (sorry, Harry). A boy whose father has been missing for years wanders into a dark and deadly world beneath the sewers with his toddler sister, where he faces massive, intelligent animals and a pile-up of grim prophecies. To this day I’ve never read the first book all the way through, because I hated it. I would have abandoned the books completely if a friend hadn’t begged me to at least read the last one, which she swore was the best.
She was absolutely right. As soon as I finished the last one, I went back and read all the others. We used to play-pretend we were rats and bats, and my favorite animals to this day fall on the nocturnal side.
Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
This novel, unsurprisingly, also features a rat-heavy plot. “Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat” introduces an entire cast of funny and frequently adorable rodents with various odd effects on humans–which protagonist Emmy only discovers after her class’s pet rat bites her, thus making her able to understand them, and then bites her again, making her shrink to his size. Meanwhile, everyone in her life seems to be slowly forgetting she exists, and her nanny Miss Barmy is chomping at the bit to send Emmy to the Home for Troubled Girls.
I got rid of this book when I moved, since not all my books could come with me, but I bought it back at a used bookstore. I treasure this story, and all the characters in it. Even Miss Barmy, and especially the Rat. And the Dear Mouse. No, really. Read the book; you’ll want to die for it by the end, too.
A gentleman mouse with a wife, a house, and a settled routine is swept away to an island, where he must weather the challenges of solitude and find a way back. This story was unique to me in depicting an adult character as the protagonist of a narrative meant for children. As I’ve said before, the best books to read as a child were the books that gave you all the credit to recognize the depth of meaning in the writing. The ending in particular is still very vivid; the feeling of it was so satisfying, both as a reader and as Abel’s advocate.
Meanwhile, note the theme of rodents. I was doomed to love ratties. Abel’s a mouse, not a rat, but the exposure is equally valid.
I didn’t even know what “The Hobbit” was when my sister gave it to me. I had heard of the “Lord of the Rings,” maybe once or twice. I had watched the “Chronicles of Narnia” movie, but didn’t know it was a book first. I’d like to say this book opened the gateway to the wonderful world of classical fantasy literature, but in actuality I was not clever enough to make a connection between “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of Rings” until a couple years later.
“The Hobbit” makes a better story for younger audiences than the “Lord of the Rings” does, in my opinion. It was less about a greater good and a collective responsibility, or the inevitability of losing the past and more about learning to venture beyond established boundaries and make the hardest decision. Even though “Lord of the Rings” is my favorite, “The Hobbit” has a sentimental value that can’t be replaced.
The Tale of Despereaux
“Despereaux” tells several stories at once, centered around a hopeful mouse with oversized ears, a lonely young princess, and a kingdom where soup has been outlawed. The use of light and dark in this book helped me understand theme and motif in writing, even though I hadn’t learned those words yet, and Chiaroscuro–the evil rat who longs for light, named for a blending of light and dark–helped me understand mixed morality, and the importance thereof.
The characters verge the believable and the impossible, creating a certain ambiguity that left me with an odd, slow-moving, and not unpleasant vertigo–a bit like magical realism, which would eventually become my favorite style to write in.
(Also, note the rat character.)
Now, “Varjak Paw” is a doozy. A cat raised in a proud, cruel family of distinguished Mesopotamian Blues finds himself suddenly learning the ways of ancient combat from his ancestor Jalal to survive on streets dominated by the vicious Sally Bones. I remember as a child this and the sequel “The Outlaw Varjak Paw” were the first books I ever read that left me shaking by the end. The writing is brutal and gripping. The use of broken formatting punches every action home, and the illustrations are surreal. It’s bizarre, mercilessly violent, and creepy as all hell. It’s avant-garde for kiddies, served in a certain flavor of magical realism.
Both “Varjak Paw” and “The Outlaw Varjak Paw” (my favorite of the two) are strongly stylistic, and interact confidently with the rules of their own aesthetic–one of my favorite qualities in fictional works.
There’s a lot to love about “Coraline.” It’s creepy, has a more negative protagonist than most other books in its dubious age range (perfect for that incoming teenhood), and has more rats–a very vogue decision, as you might have noticed. “Coraline” doesn’t really feel like it’s for kids, but doesn’t really feel like it’s for anyone either. Part of the reason it’s so special to me is that it feels like it’s own world entirely, Coraline’s world, a book for the sake of being a book. And giving you the heebie-jeebies.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, a girl disillusioned with her life in a new house she hates and a struggling mother finds a key and a covered passage in the wall, which she climbs through to discover another version of her own home, complete with magical entertainment, fun, engaged parents, and talking animals. There’s only one catch: she has to let the Other Mother sew buttons in her eyes, and stay there forever.
If you’ve only seen the movie and not read the book, I highly recommend the book. Visual representation just can’t convey the eerieness of the settings like Gaiman’s wordcrafting, or the same sense of discomfort and decay that mount through the story’s progression. There’s no “Wibey” character for comic relief in the novel, and the ending is a bit different. Very, very magical realism.
Bones of Faerie
At time of reading, I remember disliking this book very strongly. This might have been because it was my first introduction to the devastating landslide of loosely-justified cliches that were brewing into the YA “genre” gloss, which would largely replace the appropriate YA age label to become a paper mill of empty literature in my middle school years. I never reread this book again once I owned it, which is very unusual for me–I even reread “The Bobbsey Twins,” for God’s sake.
Essentially, it chronicles the story of protagonist Liza in a version of Earth’s future where wars with fay have turned nature against humanity and magic is taboo. Liza, of course, then discovers she had magic, and must go find the fay realms. Yet despite it all, this book stuck with me. It’s atmosphere, ambivalent magic, and rock-hard surrealism echo in almost all the writing I do. Why? Who knows. I’d like to read it again, to see what exactly about won’t leave me alone, and see if finishing off the trilogy wouldn’t relieve me.
As you might have noticed, many of these books relate strongly to themes of isolation, and feature very singular protagonists. Flavor of the mouth in the sweet spot of my reading life seems to have been on individuals who never fit in, for better or worse. I remember when Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” and other books started coming out. The concept of a character discovering they didn’t fit in with “normal” because they were a part of a different normal seemed very foreign to me, and didn’t resonate quite the same way.
How have books from your childhood shaped your writing?
8 thoughts on “Reading Imprints: Rats, Magical Realism, and Isolation”
I like your description of YA here… thanks for reminding me there is more subtlety and artistry in books that are directed at young people and children than a lot of the cliched dross that gets published these days.
Personally I grew up in a big, loud family, and there was always a part of me that craved isolation rather than struggled with it. I really l loved survival books like Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, and Julie of the Wolves, etc. I also really liked fantasy adventures where hero-protagonist gets to leave their hometown and see the big wide world.
That’s interesting–I was opposite, but similar. I grew up an only child (the sister mentioned is my much older half-sister) living in the middle of Nowhere, Backwoods, so the greatest stories to me featured independent children who had adventures alone (like Coraline) or featured children taking on mature responsibilities beside competent, unvillainized adults. One of my favorite books ever, “The Tower of Shadows” by Drew Bowling, is my favorite mostly because it features four main characters ranged between young teenager and middle-aged adult, who are all equally flawed but equally sympathetic.
What books shaped my childhood? That’s an interesting question. The Boxcar Children comes to mind and Oliver Twist. I was also a big fan of comic books; they had an influence as well. I prefer to write short, vivid stories.
Oh, yes, I read the Boxcar Children as well! I read them about parallel with the Bobbsey Twins. It’s interesting that a different medium affected the way you write now–the first concept we build of “story” seems to stick with us the rest of our lives. Thanks for sharing!
Yes. Very different forms. I’m also influenced by animation. I think I’ll reread the Boxcar Children, and I just remembered Nancy Drew!
Huh, that’s right! The Nancy Drew graphic novels were great, and the Hardy Boys novels, too. Happy reading!
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