Books that shaped my childhood

I’m so thankful that I grew up surrounded by books, and that my parents instilled in me a lifelong love of reading. I read a lot of books as a kid, but there are a some that had a particularly big impact on the way I thought about stories, storytelling, and imagination.

I narrowed down the list to my top seven. In no particular order, here are the books that shaped my childhood.

Ella Enchanted

My favorite thing about author Gail Carson Levine is the way she creates cultures: Her worlds feel lived-in because of the subtle way she writes about the languages and customs of their inhabitants. This book fueled my fascination with linguistics, and it inspired me to rethink the potential of fairytales. I reread this one every few years, and it remains one of my all-time favorites.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

What a weird and brilliant concept. A fictional writer (Lemony Snicket) records the tragic and mysterious lives of fictional orphans. Their experiences range from frustrating to horrific, and yet their story manages to be witty, charming, and even laugh-out-loud funny.

It all comes down to the way Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) uses language — he breaks the fourth wall, begs the reader to stop reading, peppers the pages with vocabulary lessons, and generally pushes the limits of what we think a book can be. Who could forget the time he explained déjà vu by printing the same passage twice? A Series of Unfortunate Events was unlike anything I’d read before, and it that made it an absolutely delightful adventure.

Rowan of Rin

It’s been a long time since I read this book by Emily Rodda, but the two words it brings to mind are “quest” and “riddle.” This is the novel that ignited my fascination with both. Young, timid Rowan (who lives in a land called Rin) embarks on a quest with a group of fellow villagers; there’s a mountain, a dragon, peril, and puzzles; I’m pretty sure Rowan’s ingenuity saves the day. And I’m pretty sure I’m due for a reread.

The Jewel Kingdom series

I remember getting the first book in this series, The Ruby Princess Runs Away, from the school book fair. I was especially excited because it came with a “ruby” necklace. Six-year-old me loved books that came with things — the smallest trinket could be a talisman that brought the story to life.

Written by a married couple under the pseudonym Jahnna N. Malcolm, the Jewel Kingdom books were about four young princesses, each of whom owned a magical object that gave them special powers, had an animal sidekick, and — most importantly — wore a pretty outfit that matched their designated gemstone. (My favorite was Sabrina the Sapphire Princess.)

Not only did these books inspire countless hours of dress-up and pretend play, but I also loved writing my own additions to the series. I think this was the first time I consciously tried imitating the style of a writer: the Jewel Kingdom books were short, had heavy-handed morals about friendship, and overused the word “murmured.” And they were magical.

The Encyclopedia Brown series

These solve-it-yourself stories by Donald J. Sobol might have been the inception of my sleuthing phase (and my lifelong love of well-crafted, logical mysteries). From what I remember, the kid-friendly whodunits — or rather, how-do-you-know-whodunits — were just the right balance of clever and solvable. Plus my mom and I joked for years afterward about the neighborhood bully named Bugs Meany.


My first experience with Louis Sachar‘s award-winning novel was listening to the audiobook, which we had borrowed from the library as road trip entertainment. My mom and I enjoyed it so much that we bought a paperback copy and read it again. I think I was around eight years old at the time, and looking back I marvel at the heavy topics Holes presented; it was a departure from the fantasy novels that made up the bulk of my personal library (though it does have a hint of magic), and that made it all the more memorable.

The Harry Potter series

And, of course, this list could never be complete without J.K. Rowling‘s wizarding world. I read the first book with my mom when I was around 7, and it remained a huge part of my life as I grew up. It’s still a source of comfort and inspiration. A good story like Harry Potter never really ends; no matter how many times you reread it, there’s always something new and insightful to discover. (If you don’t believe me, listen to an episode of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text!)

Penny for your thoughts

Books that shaped my childhood: the Harry Potter series. Ella Enchanted. A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Jewel Kingdom series. Rowan of Rin. The Encyclopedia Brown series. Holes.

If you’re on Instagram, you might be familiar with “story templates” like this one — shareable images on which users can fill out information about themselves. I love them: They’re a quick way to get to know someone a little better, and who doesn’t love taking personality quizzes or writing about themselves? 😉

I made the one pictured above; you can find it (and a few others) on my Instagram profile (@quillandbean) under Templates. There’s also a blank one so you can make your own “Books that…” list.

Anyway, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on social media. Have you read any of these books? What would be on your list?

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