Books that Make a Difference

This past weekend, Jim and I were chatting about science fiction and fantasy with our friends Kris Dorland and Kennard Wilson.  Eventually, the subject ambled around to those books that are special to individual readers because the ideas hit them at a particularly receptive point and the world starts opening up.

Just a few books...

Just a few books…

Kris spoke movingly about how much Anne McCaffery’s Menolly books had meant to her, when she discovered them as a fifteen-year-old who didn’t quite fit in.  However, almost as important were the discussions she had about books with two friends, one of whom was devoted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Darkover” novels and another to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant tales .  Those lively discussions comparing and contrasting approaches were important, too.

Ken – who is a chemist at Los Alamos National Labs –  began his journey as a reader of “hard” SF.  However, anyone who knows his lively personality will be unsurprised to find out that he appreciated Fantasy as well and remains an avid reader of both.

The book I mentioned as having a huge impact on me was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  This was given to me when I was fifteen by a law school classmate of my mom’s.  I already read SF/F and had even read Heinlein. (Space Cadet was a lot of fun.)  However, Stranger exposed me to so many things I’d never really thought about before – and no, it wasn’t just the group marriage concept, although I’ll admit that was rather mind-blowing to a student at an all-girl’s Catholic high school.

I was fascinated by the concept of the Fair Witness, trained to report precisely what occurred, without all the unconscious editorial information we usually add to our descriptions.  Since I had grown up in Washington, D.C., I’d seen a lot of statues, but it was Jubal Harshaw’s comment “’Statues’ are dead politicians. This is ‘sculpture.’” that made me see the difference between the categories of sculpture and statuary.  And I loved the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, something that helped make sense of cryptic comments I’d heard all my life as my parents and their friends discussed politics.

I could go on just about this one book, but I thought it would be fun to ask some friends about the books that made a difference for them.  Since Jim was sitting across from me in our office, I started with him.  He couldn’t narrow it down to one book and finally settled on “Reading a lot of Andre Norton in seventh grade and thereafter opened my mind to what the future might be, both technologically and socially.”

John Maddox Roberts (author of both SF/F and mystery fiction) told this wonderful tale: “September 1959, 1st day of 7th grade, South Junior High School, Kalamazoo, MI. I was already a reader, and went to check out the new school’s library. Went in the door, turned left, found myself in the fiction section. Came to the H’s and found an intriguing title: Space Cadet.  Checked it out, along with another: Red Planet. Read them both that night, came back the next day and checked out the rest by the author whose name I couldn’t pronounce yet. I was hooked. Proceeded to the N’s and read all the Andre Norton books. 12 years old, the golden age of SF.

“In the years since, I’ve often wondered how my life might have been different if I’d turned right that day.”

Sally Gwylan (author of A Wind Out of Cannan) was already a devoted SF/F reader (the Oz books, Red Planet, A Wrinkle in Time were all favorites) when she read Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea: “The book that changed my life.”  She says, “That book told me to turn around and face what you fear and made it believable.  LeGuin made it clear that there would be a high price.  That book led to me getting out of an abusive home.”

Suzy McKee Charnas (author of many SF/F novels) had a fascinatingly diverse list:  “Gunner Cade (don’t know who wrote it)[collaboration between C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merrill; thank you Gardner Dozois], More Than Human (Sturgeon), Earth Abides (Stewart), Judgment Night (Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore), and Against the Fall of Night (Clarke, also titled The City and the Stars).  But it all started, for me, with an illustrated edition of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island that we had in the house.”

She went on to say: “Gunner Cade sticks as a clear, uncluttered example of the basic SF plot of the naive young man completely integrated into his authoritarian society’s soldier class (or other take-orders stratum) who, unfairly ejected from his familiar environment by the plot, is nabbed by ‘the resistance’ under whose aegis the scales fall from his eyes, and he ends up leading the violent overthrow of the wicked ruling regime.  It was and is *everywhere* in SF – I  just picked up a forthcoming first novel called Red Rising, and there it is again, only nowadays it apparently takes three volumes to cover the same ground that flew by so satisfyingly in the form of one skinny paperback.  Come to think of it, when I used it myself, in Walk to the End of the World, that was a skinny paperback, too.”

Steve Gould (SF author and current president of SFWA) contributed a nice, juicy list: “First sip was The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey. Then, out of sequence, I found my grandfather’s copy of The Gods of Mars, followed by Warlord of Mars. Didn’t read Princess of Mars for another five years. Time Traders by Andre Norton. Think my first Heinlein juvenile was Red Planet but once I found that I rolled through them all in time to hit Starship Troopers when it came out and then Stranger [in a Strange Land].”

Laura Mixon-Gould (who also writes as M.J. Locke) had a somewhat different selection: “I had a summer of discovery when I was 11.  Clifford D. Simak’s Ring Around the Sun and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time were the first two that did it for me, followed by Asimov’s I, Robot, then Burroughs’s ‘Mars’ books, followed by C.L. Moore’s ‘Jirel of Joiry’ stories, Jack Vance’s stuff, and, of course, the Heinlein juveniles.”

Editor Ellen Datlow had an interesting list, especially for someone who would become an award-winning editor of horror: “Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books when very young, then Bradbury short stories, Dangerous Visions, and much later (college-independent study course) some novels like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Slan, The Humanoids, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Creatures of Light and Darkness.”

Another editor, Gardner Dozois, weighed in with a long list that covered his later high school reading as well: “… my first taste of Sword & Sorcery came in De Camp’s Swords and Sorcery, and also in Dan Benson’s Unknown.  De Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter and Castle of Iron were important to me, as were his historical novels The Bronze Gods of Rhodes and An Elephant for Aristotle.  The Heinlein “juveniles,” of course.  (I actually hit the Andre Norton juveniles first, but soon decided the Heinleins were better, and moved on. ) Hal Clement’s Cycle of Fire and Mission of Gravity.  James Schmidt’s Agent of Vega and Van Vogt’s The War Against the Rull.  A bit later on, the stories in Cordwainer Smith’s Space Lords blew my mind, as did Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time.  Jack Vance’s The Star Kings and The Killing Time.  Delany’s The Towers of Toron trilogy, little read these days… I’d read The Hobbit years before I ran into the pirated Ace edition of The Fellowship of the Rings, but when I did, it had a major impact on me.  Le Guin’s early novels, Avram Davidson’s Rork and Masters of the Maze.

“First book that made a big impact on me might have been Kipling’s The Jungle Books.  At about that age, I gobbled up Burroughs’s Tarzan books too, although I didn’t read his Martian stuff until much later.”

George R.R. Martin (author of SF/F and Horror) weighed in with a diverse list:

“Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel introduced me to SF.

“A couple of anthologies did the same for fantasy and horror – Swords and Sorcery, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, and Boris Karloff’s Favorite Horror Stories, edited (allegedly) by Boris Karloff.  The former was my first taste of Conan and REH [Robert E. Howard], the latter my first taste of HPL [H. P. Lovecraft].

“And then, of course, Lord of the Rings.

“I also read a lot of Andre Norton and/or Andrew North in the early days.  Star GuardStar Man’s Son, Plague Ship were particular favorites.”

Pennsylvania area fan David Axler shaped his comment to make  an interesting point: “Pre-teen stuff for me included the original Tom Swift books (the Boys’ Club in Binghamton NY had a full set in its library, along with a pile of first-edition Burroughs ((which must be worth a fortune now if they’re still around) and an odd mix of other stuff published mostly before WW2)), the Mushroom Planet series that Ellen mentioned, the Winston juvenile series (, and a bunch of Verne and Wells. Andre Norton, of course, as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and its successors.

“I think it might be just as important to note the best book SOURCES from my childhood, because availability played such an important part in the amount of sf/f I read.

“My family moved from Binghamton to the Philly suburbs in ’58, and into the city proper two years later. The Philadelphia school system at that time was a big supporter of the Scholastic Book Clubs, and a fair chunk of my allowance went into sf/f they made available.

“That was also a time when the Philadelphia public schools had both libraries and librarians, and many of the latter made sure that their fiction sections included a fair amount of sf/f.

“I also have to give immense credit to the Philadelphia Free Library, which sponsored a Vacation Reading Club that was a big part of my summer reading experiences.

“Through the latter, I encountered a lot of the ‘classic’ anthologies from the 40’s, 50’s, and early 60s, which led to a major expansion of my overall reading list — any time I liked a story, I wrote down the author’s name so I could look for more on my next visit to the library.”

My query received many shorter replies as well,  many that duplicated the above lists.  Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton won as “gateway authors” – which may reflect the generation of my research pool, as well as these authors’ undoubted popularity.  However, what was wonderful was how diverse a selection of authors were represented.   Edward Eager, T.H. White, Edgar Pangborn, and Ray Bradbury were just a few.

So what are your special books?  Where did you find them?  Did programs like Scholastic Book Clubs have an impact?  (They did for me!)  Was there a person who handed you a special book?

17 Responses to “Books that Make a Difference”

  1. Sue Says:

    Lots of my favorites mentioned here — Norton, Heinlein, Simak, LeGuin, McCaffrey — and Runaway Robot was probably the very first SF book I remember reading (a Scholastic book which I still have!). Lots more that sound familiar but I don’t remember if I read them, so I’ll have to find them and get reacquainted. 🙂 I love it when you talk about specific books, so I can add some new favorites to my library. Thanks!

  2. John Michael Poling Says:

    For me, the first fantastical novels I read were in a collection my mother had given me when I was about ten or eleven. They contained “A Tale of Two Cities”, “The Time Machine”, “20,000 Leagues…”, “Pride and Prejudice,” “Frankenstein,” and five others. After fallen in love with all of these stories, it was my middle school drama class that introduced me to my first love: Edgar Allan Poe. We read several of his stories and after that, I found myself searching, yearning for more. Over the next year I read my mother’s Steven King novels, “IT” and “The Stand” were the first ones where I quickly went to the library and read the stories he published under Richard Bachman. When I was 12, I discovered a collection of horror stories that had the greatest endorsement on the cover that I could have ever imagined. It read”
    “I have seen the new face of horror and his name is Clive Barker.”
    -Stephen King
    That was all I needed to know and from the first pages I was hooked. “The Books of Blood” not only began my adoration for Clive Barker, but it was the first book I read that had main characters who were gay, but being gay had nothing to do with the story. It was also the first time I had seen gay in a light that was neither humorous or demeaning. These books saved my life, told me that I too could survive the horrific events of life, and introduced me to the belief that being gay is okay.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Jeez, that covers most of my favorites. My parents were dedicated bibliophiles, so I had a lot of books to go through. However, I think what first got me hooked was my mom reading The Hobbit to me when I was perhaps seven or eight. It was during the summer, and the deal was that we kids had to take a nap in the afternoon, after she read a story to us. She read The Hobbit, among with L. Frank Baum (not just Oz), and many others.

    So far as strict science fiction goes, I seem to recall my mom also getting me into Tom Swift quite young, and Heinlein a few years later. I read a lot as a teen, often under the covers with a flashlight. My mom grumbled about the number of batteries I went through, and I grumbled about being tired all the time during school. Shame on me (heh heh heh).

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    I should add, since I’ve had this discussion a couple of times, that one of the best ways for parents to help their kids do well on the verbal part of the SAT is to give them a good flashlight and access to a good family library, along with just enough disapproval to make it really fun to sneak in at night and read. I’d suggest doing this when they enter middle school, if not younger. It’s too bad L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt have passed, because I’d love to thank them personally for what they did to my vocabulary.

    Sadly, when I’ve suggested this to both parents who want their teens to improve their vocabulary (SF, fantasy, historical romance, whatever, so long as it’s got a lot of big words and is, um, just a bit too old for them), they look shocked and sign the kid up for one of those test-taking classes. It’s so sad, too, because without that foundation of illicit reading, it’s hard to cram in enough vocabulary during high school to make much of a difference on the tests.

  5. Laura L Says:

    Raiding my older brother’s library introduced me to SF and F, through Norton, Tolkein, Lloyd Alexander, and a few others. But the first book I read from my brother’s library was Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”, which might as well have been fantasy for me in terms of world and language and concepts. It made a huge impression. I read it 2-3 times the summer between 7th and 8th grade, and it changed me. After that book, I understood that the usual YA options were enjoyable but limited.

    Beth Hilgartner’s “A Necklace of Fallen Stars” was one of the first fantasies I read, featuring a heroine, setting out on her own. It was transforming to realize that all of the stories I loved featured heroes, and here was a heroine who could stand up and participate along with the best of them. That was reinforced by Menolly, in McCaffrey’s books.

    And that realization was not a negative of girls instead of boys, rather it was reassuring that girls and women had a part and place to participate in science and adventure – we didn’t have to be left behind to keep the household going, or write reassuring letters from home.

  6. paulgenesse Says:

    Scholastic’s Book Club did impact me. I found Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword that way. Also, The Black Cauldron novel, all at a very young age. I’d read The Hobbit before these books, and it had the biggest impact. Then came Lord of the Rings, and Dune. Starship Troopers was awesome, and as a 7th grader I liked Battlefield Earth (I know, it’s terrible, right? I know that now.). The Thieves World Books were a big influence and made me love darker fantasy. I read all of them and all the spin off novels. The Burroughs books set on Mars were lots of fun. I must admit I was a fan of the Thomas Covenant books, though I was horrified at the turn it took in the first book. I don’t think I’ve read as much as most authors, but I’m trying to catch up now. I read a little of Andre Norton’s Witch World and I really need to read more of her books. The library in my home town was my refuge and I spent hours there just looking at books on the shelf, but it didn’t have that many fantasy or sci-fi novels. Now I’m just trying to keep up with books my friends put out.

    So many books, so little time. This is a first world problem, so not that big a deal. 😉

  7. Peter Says:

    Norton, definitely, if we’re talking about gateway reads and authors who’ve been influential on my life. A lot of the other usual suspects already mentioned, plus Lin Carter and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line and the librarian at the Kingston Public Library who’d stocked the SF section with the collected Hugo Winners anthologies through the mid-1970s, which served as jumping-off points to a lot of authors.

  8. Kat Says:

    We were too poor to afford books when I was growing up, but I read extensively through the library. Thanks to RIF and a fantastic middle school librarian, I discovered spec fic and my two favorite YA authors – Clare Bell and Meredith Ann Pierce. I picked up Ratha’s Creature (Bell) at a RIF fair, and then found both The Darkangel and Birth of the Firebringer (Pierce) on the shelf in the library. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read these series over the years. I still have my battered copies of Ratha’s Creature and Clan Ground with their RIF stamps inside, and was lucky to find an autographed copy of Tomorrow’s Sphinx (my favorite by Bell) on eBay back in the late 1990s.

    My intro to SF was through a junior high history teacher who played the 2001 and 2010 movies for us at the end of the school year. I didn’t understand the movie at all, so sought out the book to figure out what was going on. Clarke’s 2000 series is still my favorite SF series, with Dune a close second.

    I picked up a copy of Zahn’s Heir to the Empire around 1993 and that rekindled my childhood love of pop-SF (and Star Wars in particular).

    Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Elf Quest here. A friend loaned me her copy of Fire & Flight (the first graphic novel collection) when I was in 6th grade, and I never looked back. EQ is probably my favorite series of all. I got to meet Wendy & Richard Pini at Phoenix Comic Con this year – such a thrill!

    I’ve never been able to get into the books that everyone else loves – Earthsea, L’Engle’s series, the McCaffrey books, Tolkein, etc. I’m not sure why, but they just don’t stick with me like my “security blanket” favorites.

  9. Chad Merkley Says:

    It sounds like I’m somewhat younger than a lot of those replying here….The first modern sci-fi that I remember reading is Ender’s Game. I was 10 or 11 years old (circa 1991). I did read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings before that. Somewhere in there was a lot of Jules Verne, and a lot of Madeline L’Engle.

    Another “fantasy” novel that I read when I was about 12 that I loved (and still do) was The Once and Future King by T.H. White. That’s a novel that crosses boundaries between traditional literature and legend and modern fantasy. The stylistic and thematic changes as it progresses throughout Arthur’s life and reign are awesome.

    As a young teenager, I also read a lot of Gordon R. Dickson, Robert A. Heinlein, and a lot of Star Wars and Star Trek novels. It sounds like there are a lot of other authors that I’ve missed that I should look into.

  10. Thomas rawlins Says:

    I am 78 years old, about to retire. I have read most of what the posts above have talked about. But, I also like historical fiction, good writing of almost any kind! I still have several hundred books yet on my reading list. The point is let your children read, even if what they read does not appeal to you. It is the best thing you can do for them!

  11. Paul Says:

    I’m closer to Thomas’ age group than Chad’s, but I love this topic! Captain Marvel comics and a child’s story, “Peter and Prue,” got me started on the Greek and Roman gods’ pantheon. In my middle/high school library, I discovered Asimov’s first novel, “Pebble in the Sky,” and “David Starr, Space Ranger” (by Asimov under a pseudonym); Heinlein’s “Rocket Ship Galileo” (which I didn’t realize for years was the template for the first SF film I ever saw, “Destination: Moon”), and “Farmer in the Sky” serialized in Boy’s Life, a magazine to which the library subscribed; and the (original!) Tom Swifts and Hardy Boys, of course. I didn’t realize the ACE doubles were reprinting short novels from the pulps, but those were great, starting with Simak’s “Ring Around the Sun” and Russell’s “Sentinels from Space.” The ACE doubles also gave me “Atta,” a story which so moved me that I didn’t simply move over to the flip side immediately but had to think about what I’d just read for a while. I could go on and on (which is why I love this topic) but I’ll stop here.

  12. Alan Robson Says:

    If I may, I’d like to bring a UK point of view to this. I’ve read most of the books you all mention above, and I certainly agree that they are wonderful stories — but I came across them quite late in life. American books by American authors were very few and far between when I was growng up in England. So the formative influences on my reading were quite different from yours.

    I vividly remember my mother persuading me to read John Wyndham’s “Day of the Triffids” which just absolutely blew me away. She also turned me on to Brian W. Aldiss, particularly “Hothouse” (which was published in America as “The Long Afternoon of Earth”). And of course Arthur C. Clarke was everywhere — “The Sands of Mars” was a particular favourite of my youth.

    Those were quite adult novels of course (though Clarke did write some novels that these days we’d refer to as YA stories), but I was quite familiar with “juvenile” SF as well. The library was full of E. C. Elliott’s “Kemlo” novels about the adventures of a boy on a space station. And Captain W. E. Johns (of Biggles fame) had an exciting series of stories about flying saucers and space exploration which I devoured.

    And Edgar Rice Burroughs, of course. He belongs to the world. My mother had some Tarzan stories which she read to me, (though I think I was too young to appreciate them). When I was about 10 I discovered “A Princess of Mars” and after that there was no holding me back!


  13. Paul Says:

    I first encountered Wyndham in a paperback of “The Kraken Wakes,” retitled in the US as “Out of the Deeps.” To this day, I remember cracking up as the wise older character in the story complained about being born in a democracy where every idiot’s vote was equal to that of every sensible person’s. “Day of the Triffids” was my second Wyndham, and “The Midwich Cuckoos,” both later made into films. Good stuff. “Sands of Mars” was one of my early Clarke paperbacks, but my first by him was his nonfiction “The Exploration of Space,” gifted to me by a great-aunt when it was a book-of-the-month-club alternate. It’s dated now, but still full of great stuff. Also above, I should have mentioned those Winston “juveniles” that David Axler cited above; I’d get a couple each Christmas and devour them quickly. And I need to re-read “Gunner Cade” (thanks, Suzy McKee Charnas), which I have here as part of an ACE double, but I didn’t know the actual authors when I read it ‘way back when.

  14. janelindskold Says:

    I’m incredibly impressed by the Comments here — especially those that talk about how the books you read shaped your later reading — and in some cases, lives.

    To me this demonstrates the special synergy between book and reader that makes reading a unique artistic experience.

  15. OtherJane Says:

    I’m not sure if they were Scholasitc books or from the school library…but I remember loving books by Scott Corbett when I was 10 or 11. They were all “trick” books like The Lemonade Trick and the Mailbox Trick. I don’t remember them well now, but the main character was a kid with a chemistry set. They must have made an impression on me because years and years later I have fond feelings for them.

    Lord of the Rings were my first experience with serious fantasy, though I was older then. Ann McCaffrey (Pern) and Katherine Kurtz (Deryni series) were also influential.

    Scot often talks of Heinlein as his first major influence as a young reader.

  16. Kennard V Wilson Says:

    One book I didn’t mention was RA Lafferty’s “Not to mention Camels.” I still think this ranks as the most bizarre SF/Fantasy novel I’ve ever read. I read it when I was working on my Masters in the early ’80s, and about a year later went back and read it again just to see if it was as strange as I remembered. And even the other Lafferty I’ve read hasn’t proved as strange. Reading Heinlein and Clarke and Tolkien while in high school and college helped keep me sane (or at least what passes for sanity for me 😉 ). And having met you and the various other NM authors has helped broaden my horizons on what I read. And nowadays I’ll read just about any SF/F I can get my hands on when I have time to read. I really need to get a t-shirt that reads “Too many books, too little time!”
    Thinking back, I think the first Heinlein I read was “The Rolling Stones” an entire science fiction family! But also part of my intro to science fiction and fantasy was reading comic books in the ’60s.

  17. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Well, I’m late, but oh well.

    Strangely enough, most of the books I hold dear or had an impact came to be through school. The first that comes to mind is “Where the Red Fern Grows” By Wilson Wrals. It was a required reading in elementary school, but it has always been a source of comfort somehow. When I lost a pet that basically saved my life (long story there), I went back to it’s pages to mend. I always think back on it for that reason. Another is “The Giver”. I can’t tell you why, but it’s one that has just never left me. I can’t point to an emotion, or a morel, or anything else, but it’s one that I think of fondly. “Timothy of the Cay” makes more sense. It’s the struggle, and the bonds formed during it, that make it endearing to me. All three were books my elementary school “made” us read.

    Outside that, not many others have left much mark at all. Books I’ve loved, sure. Books I’ve inhaled, absolutely. But aside from the creative sponge a good writer needs to be, those three are the biggest.

    Though there are two exceptions. First there’s the Firekeeper series, a funny mistake by my brother (bought book 2 and 3 for my birthday) that lead to so much more, but that’s another story.

    Second, “A Wrinkle in Time” and “A Ring of Endless Light” have special meaning to me. The second because of the emotional story as well, but both share a unique trait. You see, Madeleine L’Engle was my mom’s god parent. More than that. She was my mom’s creative mentor too. A lot of the lessons I’ve taken to heart about writing have come from Madeleine by way of my mom. The two biggest being the fact that “A Wrinkle in Time” was rejected 32 times, and that a lot of times the path I think is right for a story is better than an outsider’s view. This was proved twice when I wrote an essay for an essay contest in my younger years. My teacher wanted me to change them both. I didn’t. So we submitted both versions (I don’t remember how we were able to do that, but we were). My rendition, not his, won top prize… twice.

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