This post should actually be titled “Top 5 Books That Messed Me Up as a Kid But Influenced My Growth as a Reader”, but it was too long. I’m sure everyone can count on one hand the books that they read as a child that have stayed with them well into adulthood. You don’t have to be a frequent reader, or a famous writer, or even college educated to have this list. Everyone can name at least one book that brought out some emotion in them that maybe they couldn’t explain as a child.
Listed below are five books that I was either forced to read or came across by accident during my middle school years. Those tender prepubescent years were when I really was starting to become a regular reader and frequenter of the library. I was dipping my hands in everything, from historical fantasy to romance novels, but for one reason or another I remember these ones the most.
Spoilers ahead for these books
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
This was probably my first introduction to M. Night Shyamalan-style-twists in stories. The House of the Scorpion is about a boy named Matt, growing up in the rich care of El Patron, ruler of a strip of land between the US-Mexican border called Opium. At first, you believe that Matt is being groomed as El Patron’s son, but people treat him strangely throughout the first half of the book. Then Matt discovers that he’s actually a clone of El Patron, being groomed and fattened up for El Patron to use his organs once the time comes. The facade of luxury and promise is shattered and Matt must deal with the aftermath in his escape.
I was very shocked upon my first read-through. I was little, and it was the first time that an author had betrayed my expectations. It’s a gripping story, without a concrete time period: it could be the near future, or a full-on dystopia. In either case, the reader was as sheltered as Matt was from “the real world”, making the reveal behind the curtain that much more gut-wrenching.
Full Disclosure: I just found out that there was a sequel to this book all along, The Lord of Opium, but haven’t read it yet. I’ll add it to my list!
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I discovered Hitchhiker’s by accident. It was sitting there on my middle school library shelf, a large tome with a funny title, that I decided to give it a try. I had tried my hand at science fiction before (see Ender’s Shadow), but few other books had come close to that same feeling of futuristic wonderment. But this book glued me to my seat with laughter; the sheer nonsense of the premise, the universe, and the vibrant characters, were outstanding. The premise is simple: the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for an interstellar freeway bypass, and one of the very few survivors is Arthur Dent, thanks to the quick thinking of his (secretly) alien friend Ford Prefect. They hitchhike onto a passing spaceship just in time, and chaos and shenanigans ensues from there. They explore the galaxy with a ragtag group of “friends” as Arthur tries to understand the mysteries of the new universe. By the end, I wanted nothing more than to grab a towel and hitchhike across the universe with Arthur and Ford.
It was my first introduction to science fiction comedy in books, something that I had only seen reserved for movies, up until that point. I didn’t know that foolish stories like these were publishable. I quickly devoured the entire Hitchhiker’s series, and have loved them ever since. It just goes to show that even the most stupid of premises can be a work of genius in disguise.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket
This series was one of the defining book series’ of my teenage years, painstakingly awaiting each new volume like fans did with the Harry Potter books. But of all the haunting and twisted tales the Baudelaire children had to face, the third book was the worst for me. I actually have a big fear of being in a small vessel in open water, and the ending of this book stuck with me for that very reason. The children are trapped on a small boat in the middle of a humongous lake with their latest guardian, Josephine, with hungry leeches on their tail. Count Olaf, the series villain, tricks Josephine out of the boat and her life ends at the mouths of angry leeches. As you can see, I didn’t want to go to a beach for awhile after that.
Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card
I’ve actually devoted a previous blog post to why I love this book so much, and you can read it here. For some background info, I read this book in late elementary school. My classmates and I were in small reading club groups, and our group in particular wanted to read something more challenging. Of the books available, my teacher let us read Ender’s Shadow, although we all hadn’t realized at the time that this wasn’t the first book in the series (it was actually a parallel novel, as explained in my other post).
It definitely was a surprise that we had been allowed to read it. My teacher was rather conservative with her choice of books we could read, but this one either slipped by her attention or she hadn’t read it herself. Ender and Bean’s story is dark, a great and brutal space school experience where kids are forced to fight each other in mock battles and turn against each other frequently. It’s all in preparation for the imminent return of the Buggers, a race of aliens bent on wiping out humanity, and Ender is the supposed “savior” to end the war. It’s a critical look at what it takes to create a leader, embracing both the good qualities and killer qualities that are needed. It was like Lord of the Flies without the cannibalism.
Mimus by Lilli Thal
My all-time absolute favorite book series is The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. But what I especially loved about this trilogy was the terrifyingly witty narration of the titular character, Bartimaeus. How can one describe his voice…think of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Jorden Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, that suave self-confidence, that lilt and swagger in his dialogue. Bartimaeus was just like that. But the end result was that I was spoiled by that voice; I craved it, wanted to find someone equally as witty in another book. And I found that voice in the titular character in Mimus.
Mimus is a German novel that was brilliantly translated into English, and happened to catch my eye at my local library. It’s about a boy prince named Florin who visits a neighboring kingdom on the pretense of peaceful relations. Upon arrival, he is ruthlessly betrayed, stripped of his kingdom, and forced into apprenticeship with the court jester, named Mimus. Though depressed and hurt, Mimus convinces Florin that he can use his standing as an apprentice jester to gain favor with enemy king, at least until Florin’s allies can rescue him. Florin and Mimus together endure humiliating acts, exhausting training, and copious amounts of intrigue to help Florin regain what he lost.
It wasn’t lacking in it’s own dark areas: I vividly remember the creepy-ish climactic scene involving Mimus (somewhat) exacting his perfect revenge for all the abuse he faced at the hands of his master. As a reader, you’ve been cheering for this guy for so long, you forget that he had his own agenda all along.
And there you have it! Five books that either creeped me out as a child, or blew my mind, and very well shaped my hankering for books today. What books do you remember from your childhood that had a lasting effect on you?