2012 at 5am Posted by Rebecca Schinsky
The Bare Necessities is a series in which authors and book industry professionals share annotated reading lists of books they love.
Kristen-Paige Madonia is the author of Fingerprints of You, a YA novel out now from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. She’s here with a post about the books that have most shaped her as a reader and writer.
I can’t remember exactly when I received my copy of The Giving Tree, but that slick green cover is the first book I think of when I try to retrace my steps as a reader, as the kind of person that curls up with a set of characters for hours with no recognition or care that the “real world” continues to spin outside the pages. The book follows the life stages of a young boy and a tree as the boy ages and the tree provides any and everything the boy asks for: branches to swing from as a child, apples to sell and lumber to build a home with as an adult, and, eventually, a stump to sit and rest on as an old man. Shel Silverstein is a brilliant writer, the first I remember being truly moved by as a child, and I owned all his books. But The Giving Tree is the one I returned to most, the cover torn at the corners, the inside flap wrinkled and water-stained. And now, I wonder if it’s also the book I should credit in terms of my first interest in writing coming-of-age stories. Because isn’t that what’s it’s about? A child gradually loses his innocence and makes his way into that eyes-wide-open phase of life when he realizes things aren’t always what they seem, that life can be devastating and demanding just as often as it can be delightful. And if we believe the tree serves as metaphor for a parent, which I do, the boy, like most children, doesn’t recognize the sacrifices the parent has made; he doesn’t understand how much the tree gives up to take care of him. The parent-child relationship, the loss of innocence, that strange but brilliant time in life when you realize the world is much larger than you thought, those are the ideas that continue to fascinate me as a reader and motivate me as an author.
The second book that comes to mind that marked and guided me as an author is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a novel I tend to read every few years and a book that feels familiar but simultaneously changed each time I return to it. It seems to me that a book is a different book for every reader, and that once it is published, it doesn’t belong to the author at all. Once it exists in the world, it becomes the readers’ as they bring their own experiences, emotions, and viewpoints into the novel. Great Expectations, which depicts Pip’s struggles and triumphs as an artist as he gradually grows from a boy to a man, changes each time I read it depending on what I’m facing in my own life, which makes it one of my favorite reads.
As a college student, like many college students do, I fell in the love with the Beats, and part of my literary heart will always belong to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It was published in 1957, but there’s something timeless about the spontaneous cross-country road trip, the jazz and the booze, the poetry, and the indulgent sex and drug binges. It’s a spiritual journey, a quest for faith and true friendship, and a search for love as the characters hunt for a sense of an authentic and meaningful life. At the time Kerouac wrote the novel, it was a proclamation for a stripped and nonconformist existent, a reaction against the 1950s culture and social “norms”, but I think the book resonates with young readers across generations regardless of the current national climate.
When it comes to portraying a wry sense of society and utilizing dark humor in literature, Flannery O’Connor’s ominous southern settings and fantastical Gothic plots have always fascinated me. I read her stories and I want to take notes, to outline the plots, to study her methods, and to highlight all the magnificent words she hooks together to form those beautiful sentences strewn on every page. I’ve read A Good Man Is Hard to Find repeatedly when contemplating plot and humor in my own work.
But it is typically the voice I remember most about a good book, the kind of book that sends me to the shelves when I host dinner parties: “You have to read this,” I’ll say, shoving a novel into their hands. “Immediately,” I’ll tell them. So inevitably, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close falls at the top of my list; I’m fairly certain I’ve bought at lease five copies. When I think of the book, it’s Oskar Schell I hear, that raw and frantic nine-year-old that carries the reader through the streets of New York in the wake of 9/11. It’s his humor, his heartache, his honesty, and his grief that haunts me — not just the feel of the emotions, but the SOUND of them. He floats through an adult world as a child fighting the struggle between self-destruction and self-preservation, another coming-of-age novel, I suppose, but the voice is strictly his, Oskar unfiltered and up close, and that’s what stays with you after you close the book. As a writer and a reader, it’s always the voice that leaves me breathless; it’s the voice of the work that serves as my barometer for golden fiction.
I’ve found my mentors on bookshelves for as long as I can remember, too many to list here, and I’ve studied the craft through their successes. I’ve envied their triumphs and tricks, and I’ve attempted to mimic their talents in hopes of somehow getting it right when I return to my own blank page. Chekhov, Irving, and Vonnegut, Kundera and Carver, Tom Robbins, Jhumpa Lahiri, T.C. Boyle, and Zadie Smith… the list is endless and absolutely wide-ranging. But it’s the bravery that I always return to, that leap of faith each writer takes when they begin that amazes me, particularly with authors exploring the pivotal moments in our lives that change our perspectives, the events after which nothing is ever the same. I like to write from that place and I like to read about that place as well, because in the end aren’t we all constantly searching for meaning and for answers? Aren’t we all trying, desperately, to grow up, to grow smarter, and to grow into better people, somehow, in this impossible world? Aren’t we all still coming-of-age?