The other day on Facebook, as a fun twist on Throwback Thursday, author and publisher Michael Seidlinger asked a “throwback” question: “The first book you read that blew your mind?”
The question elicited a few hundred responses, many of which felt nostalgic for me: Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which remains one of my favorite long stories ever; Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which taught me that my casual love of books was much more important that I’d realized; Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula, which were revelations of literary horror; various Hemingway novels (I reread For Whom the Bells Tolls every few years); various Vonnegut books (my first was Breakfast of Champions and it changed everything) . . . .
But while all these books blew my mind, none was the first.
When I was doing my blog tour and book tour for Hagridden, several people asked me how I got into writing, and I told stories about reading Stephen King novels and my dad’s old Phoenix Force books and how I had stories I wanted to tell, too, and I realized I could tell them. I started writing my first book (a terrible action novel) in seventh grade. But those Phoenix Force action novels didn’t come anywhere close to “blowing my mind,” and even Stephen King, who was a fast favorite, didn’t do anything for me that Poe and Hawthorne and Lovecraft hadn’t already done.
Thinking about Seidlinger’s question, I realize there’s an earlier book, a single novel that changed the way I viewed the world and myself.
I was in the fourth grade, and I don’t remember where I got my copy or how I came to read it, but I became utterly engrossed with Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. It was the first novel I’d read that felt like a novel, something more sophisticated and complex than the chapter books I’d read as a younger kid.
But the real reason it stands out in my memory is Harriet’s notebooks. Sure, she wanted to be a spy, and her notebooks full of her critical observations of the lives around her were in pursuit of what she perceived as espionage. And they were, let’s face it, a terrible invasion on other people’s privacy.
But for me, at nine years old, they were also notebooks full of stories, and while I didn’t quite have the language to explain this at the time, I realize now that I wasn’t reading Harriet as a spy-in-training — I was reading her as a writer-in-training.
My habit of carrying notebooks around with me, my love of people-watching, of scribbling character details and bits of dialogue, of describing the things around me and recording my impressions — these are things I learned from Harriet. It would be a few more years before I thought to apply those habits to the craft of fiction, and many many years before I knew anything about what all those notebooks were actually good for — before I knew how to do anything but imitate a stereotype of writers everywhere — but when I look back now, I realize how transformative Harriet the Spy was for me.
She taught me not only how to observe but also how to respond, how to tell stories about the lives of others (in my case, I tell fictional stories about fictional people), and, most importantly, how to tell those stories responsibly. Because Harriet gets herself in trouble with the stories she writes down, and rightly so. But with the help of some important mentors, she finds a productive outlet for her talents — in her case, journalism, a great producer of writers and a field I occasionally practiced in school myself. Following in Harriet’s footsteps, even if by then I’d moved on to other novels, other exemplars of the life I planned to lead as a writer.
But it was Harriet who helped me take my first steps as a writer.