Age 25: Pigs and Wine

The last page of The Three Pigs

The last page of The Three Pigs

Dana: David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs might just look like a retelling of the story of the three little pigs. And it is, only this time the pigs are the ones doing the telling. When the wolf comes to visit the pig who built his house of straw, he huffs and he puffs and—he blows the pig right out of the story. Straw Pig figures out how to take his brothers with him, and they go on a trip through a bunch of other stories before they finally land back at home, in the brick house, where they literally arrange the words of their happy ending on the page themselves.

So, yeah, this is a picture book. But picture books are brilliant because they can do things by combining words and pictures that novels just can’t. I first came across this book when I was in college working on a paper for a class on graphic narrative, and since then I’ve written three different papers about it (I don’t know how Serena and I both got so lucky that we get to be graded on what we think about our favorite books). It’s one of the reasons I decided to build my career around children’s books. But The Three Pigs is not a book to read just because it’s been anointed by grownups who care about kids’ books. It’s a book to read because it’s about stories—all stories, for all ages—and how we tell them.

The three editions of Dandelion Wine on my shelf.

The three editions of Dandelion Wine on my shelf.

Serena: When I was a junior in college, I spent an all-too-brief 24 hours in Venice, wandering around with a group of other students, oohing and aahing at everything we saw. I have never, before or since, been so completely enchanted with a place. I think I barely breathed for those 24 hours, too afraid I’d somehow shock myself back into a much less pleasant reality. Food, alcohol, conversations with my fellow travelers (usually very appealing prospects), all were just distractions from what I wanted to do, which was to never stop looking.

For me, reading Dandelion Wine is like that. I’m a sucker for poetic prose, and Ray Bradbury was the master. His writing in this quiet little book breaks my heart the same way Venice did: it’s so beautiful it hurts. The first breath I drew after finishing the last sentence felt like first breath I’d drawn all day. That feeling is pretty hard to forget, and I haven’t tried.

Book people everywhere will understand me when I say that picking a favorite book is pretty near impossible. But if I do have one, this is it. I don’t have the money to return to Venice (much as I’d love to, obviously), but I can keep three copies of Dandelion Wine on my shelves, and I swear that’s almost as good.

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Age 20: Future Noir and British Repression

51mDiCUSHFLSerena: I’ve heard this book described in a lot of ways (hard sci fi, thriller, cyberpunk, postcyberpunk), but I think the most accurate one comes from the author himself, who calls it “future noir.” And that’s exactly what it is, complete with a wonderfully knotty whodunit, a classic gumshoe antihero, and a city whose seedy underbelly has pretty much consumed it. All that, and a world where consciousness is digitized and stored at the base of your skull. Imagine the possibilities.

I discovered Altered Carbon my sophomore year of college, and since then I’ve read every piece of Richard Morgan’s writing I can get my hands on. His gritty, tactile, tightly evocative prose ensnared me immediately, and I became so fascinated with his characters and the world he’d put them in that two years later I actually wrote about the book for my senior thesis on masculinity in cyberpunk.

I remember being afraid that studying Altered Carbon so closely would somehow disillusion me and I’d come out the other side hating it. A reasonable worry, maybe, but if anything, I loved the book even more after having thought about it for so long. I could see the flaws, sure, but they just gave me more to think about. Which is exactly what the best books do. They make you want to read them all the time, and then they make you want to think about them all the time.

9780679731726_custom-e2991b4e5f5e023cc9595645b92b67221229f944-s6-c30Dana: The Remains of the Day is the first and (spoiler alert!) only grownup book on my list of five favorites. It’s not my only favorite grownup book, but it represents what I like (angst! Britishness! repression!) pretty well. Like, my other option for this spot was Persuasion, so.

Stevens is a butler in a fancy British house called Darlington Hall–think Carson from Downton Abbey, but lonelier and more socially awkward. The house was Once Great, a place where important men met to make important decisions about the way the world should work. Now, in the 1950s, Lord Darlington is gone and the house is owned by an American named Mr. Farraday, who is perfectly respectable but insists on bantering constantly. Mr. Farraday insists that Stevens take a trip, so Stevens obliges: he drives across the country to see the former Miss Kenton, the housekeeper from Darlington Hall’s pre-war glory days. As he drives, Stevens relives the time when he and Miss Kenton ran the house together; perhaps if he can bring her back, he can make everything good again.

The book is completely internal: almost everything happens in Stevens’s mind and memory, but he refuses to admit anything to himself. The truth is pretty obvious to the reader—you love Miss Kenton, you idiot, and your boss was a Nazi sympathizer—but the way Stevens tells himself stories about himself is even more true. It’s the best character portrait and the best piece of first-person narration I have ever read.

Age 15: Letter Writers and Sword Bearers

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The REAL cover

Dana: The main character of Feeling Sorry for Celia isn’t Celia; it’s Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a little bit of an awkward teenager who really likes to write letters, and Celia is her best friend, who really likes to run away and join the circus. Elizabeth has to figure out what to do with herself now that Celia’s gone, and it’s a novel in letters, so of course, she writes to her pen pal. And gets ridiculous notes from her mother about raspberry-flavored cat food. And finds mysterious letters from a secret admirer in her backpack. And conducts her entire internal monologue in letters addressed to her by The Association of Teenagers, the Best Friends Club, The Secret and Mysterious Association of All That Is Secret and Mysterious, The Society of High School Runners Who Aren’t Very Good at Long-Distance Running but Would Be if They Just Trained, et al.

This book very quickly became my most important comfort object (besides, of course, Harry Potter*). The first time I read it, I was visiting my best friend in Germany the summer I turned 15, and when I got home I went off to Borders (may she rest in peace) to pick up my own copy. It’s originally Australian, and some terrible person in America decided to publish it as an adult novel and change the cover. I hate that person. I managed to procure a British copy with the right cover for myself, and it’s still the book I read whenever I’m sad, every time I have to move and leave behind people I love, when I’m stressed about school and work. I’m probably going to go read it right now. It’s not that it’s a mopey book. It’s actually, ultimately, a happy book, but I think that for 15-year-old me (and 27-year-old me), it was also just very true.

Or I’m just a sucker for teen girl friendship/romance. Whatever.

My family's copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Return of the King has gone missing, which is I guess what happens eventually when you take a book everywhere with you.

My family’s copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Return of the King has since gone missing, which is I guess what happens eventually when you take a book everywhere with you.

Serena: So I’m fudging this one a bit. I think the true height of my Lord of the Rings fixation was probably around 13 or so. But too bad. There’s no way I can look at my reading life and leave Tolkien off the list. With the possible exception of Harry Potter*, I don’t think any book has had more of an impact on me than this one. (And I’m counting LOTR as one book because, you know, that’s how Tolkien wanted it. Certainly not because it means I don’t have to choose.)

The Lord of the Rings made me want to write. It made me want to read. It made me want to spend my life surrounded by books—teaching them, making them, distributing them, whatever. It made me want to create my own fantasy worlds. It made me want to live in his. There was a pretty significant period of time when I wouldn’t leave the house without a copy of The Return of the King physically on my person. I was enchanted with everything about those books, from the writing to the world to characters (ahh, Aragorn, my first love), and all I wanted was to be a part of that magic. Hell, that’s still pretty much all I want. To be a part of the magic that brings books and their people together. Thinking about it that way, well,  I know I’m a bookseller for a lot of reasons, but The Lord of the Rings is definitely in the top five.

*Which, let’s be honest, was the Big Book for everyone who was 15 when we were 15.

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Age 10: Juniper and Anastasia

ImageSerena: There were a lot of contenders for this one. Well, there were a lot of contenders for all of them, obviously, but ten years old probably takes the cake. I think it’s safe to say that I read more between the ages of 10 and 15 than at any other time in my life. And unless I somehow manage to retire to Hawaii (or the backwoods of Vermont), it looks like it’s probably going to stay that way. I read a lot now, but during that time, I lived in books. And at ten, I’d say I lived in Juniper most of all.

Juniper is the prequel to Monica Furlong’s earlier Wise Child, a fantastic middle grade book about magic and nature and being different and growing up. I loved both of them, but Juniper was my favorite because it shows the title character, a fully grown, beautiful, and highly capable woman in Wise Child, as a young girl. I loved reading about her trials and tribulations, knowing all along that by the time the next book rolled around, she’d be living in a wonderful house on a cliff overlooking the town, growing herbs, fighting evil, and protecting Wise Child. I wanted to be her more than anything. And since that wasn’t an option, I named my cat Juniper and reread the books more times than I could count.

(These links go to Better World Books because the Monica Furlong’s titles are no longer available from the publisher. It’s an online bookstore that donates books and money to literary initiatives and isn’t owned by Amazon.)

This is the original cover, because the current cover is The Worst. You can see it if you click, but I'm not putting that thing on the internet again.

This is the original cover, because the current cover is The Worst. You can see it if you click, but I’m not putting that thing on the internet again.

Dana: If Eloise is the person I think of every time I see a child living in New York, Anastasia Krupnik is the one I associate with every Cantabridgian kid. Mainly because I think Anastasia would really like the word Cantabridgian—very precise and a little pretentious. Anastasia has a very big year the year she’s ten:

1)   She writes a wonderful terrible fabulous poem.

2)   She develops a small pink wart on her thumb.

3)   She gets to know her grandmother, Ruthie with the red red hair.

4)   She gets a baby brother, whom she graciously refrains from naming One-Ball Reilly.

She keeps track of everything in her green notebook full of lists, and updated lists of Things I Love and Things I Hate punctuate every chapter.

When I was ten, I was a giant poseur, so I did everything my favorite characters in books did. I decided a clump of trees in my backyard was Terabithia. I made myself a spy kit complete with marbled composition book. When my dad told me to bring the trash bins back from the curb, I changed into a pink gingham dress and lace-up boots and dragged them all over the wide prairie (or, you know, front yard).

And so of course I also had a green notebook full of lists. But I think the Anastasia behavior has stuck with me more than Jesse’s or Harriet’s or Laura’s. Here’s an entire blog of lists to prove it.

Age 5: Elmer and Eloise

This month is a little wonky: since we’re two different people, and we each want to talk about our own favorites, we’re doing two books per post this month. In the future it will just be one, so don’t get used to this bounty.

All links go to Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA, because we’re sticking to our roots this month.

I liked to follow Eloise circuitous stair-and-elevator journey with a purple marker.

I liked to follow Eloise’s circuitous stair-and-elevator journey with a purple marker.

Dana: When I was about five years old ooooh I absolutely loved Eloise. I think her voice just got stuck in my head, and to this day, whenever I see a little kid walking out of a fancy building in New York, I think “I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child. I live at the Plaza.”

Here’s the thing about Eloise: mostly she just wants to play. As an adult I recognize that that kid is super annoying, but back then, she looked like me: just a kind of weirdly shaped kid who lived in a neighborhood without any other kids, and she wanted to play. I was talking with a friend this morning about how as a child I was obsessed with the idea of finding neighbor friends. It just seemed so wonderful to be able to go down the street and hang out and, I don’t know, play kick the can or something (I have no idea what kick the can is, it’s just a thing I heard on Nickelodeon).

Eloise ALSO just wanted someone to hang out with. Although I think she’d probably be more likely to play kick the bellhop, because seriously, that kid is super annoying.

The original cover of Elmer and the Dragon

Serena: Elmer and the Dragon was the first chapter book I ever read. And by “read” I mean listened to my father reading. I can’t remember exactly when I learned to read—in fact, I can’t remember anything about the process, really—but I’m completely confident I wasn’t up for reading Elmer at age five. Didn’t stop me from loving it, though. The whimsical story of a boy and his baby dragon, not to mention the simple yet perfect illustrations, stuck in my head so completely that I spent the next several months pretending I had my own dragon and shaping versions of him out of everything from modeling clay to soap suds.

I’m not quite sure why my parents chose Elmer and the Dragon (the second in the series, oddly enough) as my first chapter book. It was pretty dated even then. But whatever. The sheer charm of those books is ageless. Or at least it was for me. By five years old, I already loved books—my parent’s fabulous taste in picture books had taken care of that—but Elmer and his baby dragon showed me what it was to be desperately attached to a book’s characters, to care what happens to them, to want them to be a part of my real (much more boring) life.

My Father's Dragon Eloise

Hello, internet!

Welcome and rejoice, we’ve got a blog! We’ve got a blog with a PLAN, and the plan is laid out on our about page, and we’re not going to rehash it for you here.

This is post number one of month number one, so we’re here to tell you about theme number one. We figured that the best way to introduce ourselves to the internet was to talk about our five favorite books, the ones we loved when we were five, ten, fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five. It’s a cute and useful gimmick!

These books are our real favorites, the ones we’ve loved our whole lives, and we tried to be as real as possible when we picked them out. They show our tastes and our biases and they’re very personal.

We ran into a bit of a problem while we were picking them out: they’re pretty white. We grew up liking some white books about white characters by white authors, and that is something we’re very aware of now. We think that reading books by and about people of color that represent a whole range of diverse lives is really important, and we’re going to be making a conscious effort to include those books in the future. But we also thought it was important for us to be honest about where we come from in our reading lives. Yes, diversity is a HUGE problem in the publishing industry, but it’s also important for us as readers to make sure we’re seeking out diverse books (because they exist! Maybe we can go back in time and tell our five-year-old selves).

We’re both really excited that Read Five is going to force us to pay attention to genres that we’re not familiar with, to read consciously and think about how the books we are reading are turning us into particular kinds of people. These books are the ones that made each of us the kind of people who want to read more stories and then talk your ear off about them on the internet. So here we go. First recommendations will be posted on April 5!