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The Book That Changed My Life: Why Do I Like This Story So Much?

The Book That Changed My LifeIt was spring of my freshman year of high school. While working crew for the spring musical I’d made a new friend, a sophomore named Sarah. (She would become a lifelong friend, my only daughter’s cherished godmother.) Sarah loved books the way I do and was shocked that I’d never read anything by her favorite author. The next morning she waved me over to her locker and thrust a pile of paperbacks into my hands. “Read them in order,” she said. “Start with the one on top.”

I recognized the title on top. It was a book my English teacher Sister Ruth tried to force me to read back in sixth grade, but I hated Sister Ruth even more than she hated me, which was saying something, and I planned to read her favorite book never. Not once before I died.

But Sarah was so enthusiastic about this author…and I was so glad to have a new book-loving friend…and the pile of paperbacks looked so enticing — I picked up the top book, stuck the rest in my locker, went along to French class, opened the book, and began to read.

I read during lunch and our free half-period in the gym. I read through every moment of spare time in my classes. From the very first line (“It was a dark and stormy night”) and first scene (an intelligent, isolated girl drinking hot cocoa with her genius little brother), I was hooked. I finished the story before the end of the day.

I sighed in satisfaction. I turned the book over in my hands. And then I thought, Why do I like this story so much?

As a writer, I’ve come to believe that why? is the crucial question. Not what? That’s easy. How? is also easy. Any writer worth her ink can answer those. Why? is the big question, and here I was asking it of myself, and of a book and an author, for the first time.

I turned right back to the front page and began to read again, not for the story but for the decisions behind it. Why did the author pick these particular words? Why show this particular scene? What did she do to make little black marks on a piece of white paper mean so much?

I didn’t know it then, but this was the moment I became a writer.

Half a dozen years later, in college, I would get the chance to have dinner with the author of that book. (Her visit was sponsored by the college chapel, where I attended Mass every week.) By then I’d read every single thing she’d ever written, scrounging through used bookstores and library stacks. I was a pre-med chemistry major taking advanced writing seminars and had a secret ambition to be a writer. Did I tell my hero any of this? I did not. I knew I had a long path ahead of me. I knew I had to walk it on my own. I would not, and did not, seek her assistance or approval.

I wish now I’d told her how very much her books meant to me.

The author was Madeleine L’Engle. The book was A Wrinkle in Time. It’s all the rage again, because of the movie but also because it’s the sort of story that endures. The sort of book that we all want to write, that makes a lonely child think, “Here, here is someone like me. At last.”

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.

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