Saturday, May 30, 2009


Sonia Sotamayor decided to become a lawyer after reading Nancy Drew -- books written, if any ever were, to entertain (and make money for the publisher). The author got paid a modest flat rate and never minded: she was quite content, going to her job as a reporter until she died at some amazing age -- in her nineties, I think. She wrote her column as usual, went home, and died in her sleep.

But that's another story. Sonia and Nancy Drew made me think about how children are influenced by what they read. A physicist I know decided to become a scientist after reading a biography of Madam Curie; someone at NASA chose astronomy when he got THE GIANT GOLDEN BOOK OF ASTRONOMY and went out to look at the stars with his father. He posted about that, which is how I know about it -- I remember it because I love, love, loved this book when I was around seven and had always felt faintly embarrassed by that. It's not exactly well-written and the illustrations are awful: MEN go to the moon, women are pictured only as scantily clad cavewomen worshipping it or conservatively dressed mothers.

Sometimes the influence is instant: the other day I was babysitting and, as usual, had some books with me -- YEAR OF THE DOG was one. The eight-year old instantly grabbed YOTD and started reading it, guffawing often. I was cooking dinner, and wanted him to tell me what was making him laugh so I could tell Grace....and then he got very excited when eating dumplings (which symbolized gold coins) made people rich.
"Can you put one in the pasta? And whoever gets it will get an extra privilege?"
Of course, I said yes -- with the caveat that the privilege had to be something allowed by their mother, and that I boil the coin to sterilize it first. He then ran upstairs to get a gold coin, with the caveat that whoever found it would have to give the coin back to him.

I was amazed at how into this idea both brothers were all through dinner, excitedly wondering who had the coin and trying to make me tell (I knew -- I had actually gasped as I saw it go onto the younger one's plate - but then I covered up this lapse by saying that that might have just been a trick on my part). Anyway it was a very jolly dinner: The privilege the finder chose was to "watch a movie with Libby -- not on a school night." Thank you Grace!

The ways books influenced me as a child were as different and unpredictable as the few examples here. What they have in common is that they enlarged my sense of possibilities, in big and little ways -- and often ways that neither the author or publisher could have foreseen. Ironically, the preachy books -- the ones adults probably thought were teaching valuable life lessons -- had by far the least influence!

In my own writing, I don't set out to influence anyone; but I appreciate being told if I have, in big and little ways. One girl recently wrote to me saying I probably didn't remember, but she'd written to me years ago about BLOW OUT THE MOON and how much she liked it (I did remember her). In this email, she said she just wanted to tell me she had re-read it often since then and it had really helped her get used to her English school and she wanted to thank me. At a school visit, a boy told me, with great earnestness, that he always put his knife and fork together at the end of a meal the way I did:
"And I always think of you when I do it." It's kind of fun (and also a little intimidating?) to think that we as authors are in other people's minds as much as that.


Grace Lin said...

What a great post! Kind of reminds you why making books is worth it. thanks, Libby!

alvinaling said...

I love this post, too. And I think I mentioned this to you, but I put my utensils in the "done" or "not done" positions often and think of you and BLOW OUT THE MOON!

I often tell the story of the book that made me stop wanting to be a veterinarian. It's true you never know what book will influence you and in what way.

Meghan McCarthy said...

It's scares me sometimes that books can have that effect. It's a great responsibility. As a nonfiction author it makes me realize how careful I have to be. But it's also very cool indeed.

Great post Libby! I think I would have loved to have had you as a babysitter.


Libby Koponen said...

Aw, thanks guys! And Meghan I would have loved to babysit for you.