While walking with Dave Eggers—now our most read Walk It Off ever, so congrats on that, team—we talked about how kids come to reading differently, and how he himself didn’t start reading for his own enjoyment until he was a freshman in high school. The first book Eggers read for fun? Dune by Frank Herbert. Which got me thinking, what was the first book you remember reading on your own for pleasure? For me, it was The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. What about you?
Also, as a bonus question, what books would you recommend for parents or teachers hoping to get a young person interested in reading?
The Boxcar Children. I grew up in the country and loved to pretend I was the 5th Alden sibling.
I was reading at a very young age -- I remember being in kindergarten and being told by my teacher to not read the fifth-grade reading book because she didn't want my classmates to feel bad. She was a sour old lady, may she rest in peace. My parents never censored what I read, so the first "adult" book I remember reading was "Gone With the Wind" at age 10. If I had questions, my parents were willing to talk about the sensitive topics in the book.
James and the Giant peach by Roald Dahl, because it contains tragedy, magic realism, fantasy and poetry! As a young reader it really blew my mind xxx
Nancy Drew. I was given one of her books each Christmas and Birthday and eventually bought them on my own. I read the whole series as well as the Bobbsie Twins. They would be too old fashion today. Going back further, our mother always read us stories at bedtime. That’s when I really began to love books.
Nancy Drew. Devoured her books. Mystery solving girl - I couldn't wait to see what new mystery she would solve. My older brother had the Hardy Boys - somehow that evened out the world.
Charlotte's Web! I think I was 6? If there was something I needed more as a very sad child than the unconditional positive regard of a friendly spider, I don't know what that is. I read that book a hundred times, still have the tattered paperback my parents bought when I kept checking it out of the library.
Catcher in the Rye blew my mind at age 16. I haven't been the same since.
Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, I think. And also D’Auliere’s book of Greek myths, I think partly for the illustrations.
I remember having an illustrated Robin Hood book (not the fox version) and being SO MAD that I didn't know how to read well enough yet. I could pick out some basic words, but not enough. It was definitely before kindergarten.
I also remember Harold and The Purple Crayon blowing my mind as a little kid.
I can't remember the very first book, but in elementary school, I was mildly obsessed with Sweet Valley High (and the younger version, Sweet Valley Twins), Babysitter's Club, Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine (the older books first, but Goosebumps started coming out when I was in 5th grade), and I read several of the Wizard of Oz books.
For middle grade reading, I'm forever recommending GAMEWORLD by CJ Farley because it's a great story about Jamaican folklore, but also video games, and I think kids enjoy that.
The Lord of the Rings was a great first read, and when I read it again while hiking the Juan de Fuca trail in British Columbia many years later, I felt like I was walking through the Shire. Such a beautiful set of books and trail 🥾
The Green Futures of Tycho, which I thought was an obscure sci-fi YA book, but turns out to be a pretty well-loved book. It's about time travel, but also family and the consequences of our actions.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I read this when I was around 12 or 13 and it started me on my life long love of science fiction and fantasy.
I remember loving The Seventh Tower Series by Garth Nix and Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda as a kid, nowadays saying how I found them as engaging as, if not more than, Harry Potter.
Changing the prompt a little since I came to this discussion from the substack headline, the first book that blew my mind, I'd say Ulysses by James Joyce was the first to fully break my head in a way that made me reconstruct what it meant to read for playful yet "serious" literary writing. I have an image of me throwing it across the room, or maybe I just threatened the book that I would do that, but it stuck with me because I was like, "Quit playing games, Joyce. You intentionally make this difficult! But I get it, you're a jokester." I ultimately didn't fully enjoy the reading experience, but I grew a lot after reading it, how to deconstruct my assumptions of what it means to read. Anyway, that's my more interesting response!
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scot O'dell and
The Absolutely true dairy of a part time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Alexie gets kids.
Island was one of the first I read as a kid and one my kids loved years later.
Need to jump in and give Beverly Cleary some love! Ramona and Ralph Mouse made me a reader for life. The Chronicles of Narnia were huge for me too. Great prompt! It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to remember some of the books I see in these comments. 💞
Matilda by Roald Dahl was the first book I absolutely fell head over heals in love with in first grade. I wanted super powers I could use to manipulate the adults in my life that made me feel powerless.
It was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which coincidentally I kind of wrote about over on Another Poem to Love last week because I was writing about Vogon Poetry. It probably took 15 years from my first read for most of the subversiveness to really sink in, but I’m really glad it did.
It's not the first book I read, but maybe my most memorable reading experience. I was 5 or 6 and an "older" girl up the street, Kim, I think, 13, loaned me Rascal the Racoon by Sterling North. Our first grade teacher told us to clasp our hands together until it was time to board the bus home. I was happily reading Rascal (warning, it has a sad ending as do all animal stories) and she took it away from me. Why any teacher would take a book away from a first grader is beyond me. It was cruel and idiotic. I cried. The book did not belong to me and I didn't want to have to tell Kim it was gone. The principal gave it back to me the next day. But to this day I remember every detail of that incident.
Follow My Leader by James Garfield about a boy who goes blind (illicit firecracker use!) and gets a guide dog. Fun note: I later trained dogs for people with disabilities!) I also remember reading My Friend Flicka and all the James Herriot veterinary novels (All Creatures Great and Small, etc) until their covers fell off. Yes, I was animal-obsessed!
I started reading for enjoyment at a pretty young age. I remember loving Clifford the Big Red Dog. But as an arbitrary marker the first book from the adult section of the library I loved was The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adam.
I think it was the PL Travers Mary Poppins books... I'd seen the Disney film as a child and was so desperate for more of that magic... and it turned out, the tiny country library in the next town over from ours had all her sequels. I must have been 9 and I just tore through them all and they ended up being my gateway drug to Dickens' Great Expectations and everything thereafter.
I don't remember what the first book was that I read on my own for pleasure-- I was an inveterate reader from a very young age-- but I do remember crying at Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was 13. Before then I hadn't realized that you could just *create* a philosophy or worldview on your own. I'd imagined them as somehow existing independently, and that book was this gorgeous walking-through of how to create your own philosophical system. The beauty and potential of that made me weep.
Definitely remember reading the Dune series as a kid (and getting goosebumps at finding out that one of the characters in God Emperor had my name!) and The Hobbit as well (weirdly I remember loving Smaug... dragons just being dragons, but he got killed for it). Grateful for both, and so many more.
The Catcher in the Rye. I was about 16.
When I turned from page one to page two, a new paragraph slapped me in the face.
"Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch's teat."
I had never read anything so shocking to my Catholic-raised, sheltered, young female mind. Holden Caulfield became my anti-hero, and I counted on him to reveal the private lives of the boys who walked about me in the halls of Bartlett High School. He did not fail me.
Junie B. Jones! I took those books with me everywhere and had nearly every one in the series.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School blew my mind pretty early. Def how I realized reading was capital F fun.
I read forever and always as a child anything I could get my hands on. These were the days before the great explosion in publishing for children such as we see today when categories such as YA did not exist. The book I most remember reading that was obviously not a children's book is Wilkie Collin's The Moonstone, heralded as the first piece of detective fiction written in the history of literature. I love it still.
As a kid, I always adored reading and felt most comfortable in libraries. My mom once asked me which book I'd like to have for my own personal collection, and I picked "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll. Since then, my bookshelf has grown significantly. Lately, I've been enjoying revisiting "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" as my little indulgence.
I grew up in Prospect Heights, a short walk from the Grand Army Plaza library where I worked during HS and college in the Young Adult Section (and no, I didn't realize how lucky I was). I used to accession new books and one day I came across the paperback of Alan Watts "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are." After accessioning, I borrowed it. As a newly minted atheist (helped along by Bertrand Russell protege Paul Edwards with whom I studied philosophy at Brooklyn College), this was aimed right at this lapsed Catholic and was my introduction to Eastern philosophy. To say it altered my perspective is an understatement. Decades later I got a degree in Comparative Religion but my exploration of other spiritual traditions began on the first page of The Book.
I'm seeing this late, going through older emails. The first book I recall making a big impression on me was one called Page Boy for King Arthur by Eugenia Stone, although I'm not absolutely sure if I read it or the other one that made a huge impression on me first. That book was called The Night Watch (Adventure with Rembrandt) by Isabelle Lawrence. I know I read both of these in 1955 when I was about 8 years old because my mother had a list of books I had taken out of the school library or the local public library and these two were under 1955. I was a kid who read everything I could find to read, and those two made a big impression on me because I was just transported to the worlds the authors had conjured up in them. I have tried to find a copy of The Night Watch, but never have been able to, though I've seen it on rare books lists.
So many books have blown my mind over the years but hardly any book has blown my mind page for page, paragraph for paragraph as the first time I read the essay “Our Secret” by Susan Griffin.
Isaac, my specialty is kids books: you know I have SO many thoughts on what books could get a kid interested in reading. But it depends so much on the kid! Talk to the kid! See what books they want to read: funny, or magical, or adventurous! And then match appropriately! (And if you get stuck, come talk to an independent bookseller like me, because matching like that is my favorite part of my job.)
I was a huge reader, so I always remember reading on my own for pleasure; but the first book I remember distinctly as imprinting on my mind to the point where I could pinpoint where I picked it up at the library was MOLLY MOON'S INCREDIBLE BOOK OF HYPNOTISM. The first adult book I read for fun (outside of the Nora Roberts slipped to me by my grandmother and, oddly, 7th grade earth science teacher) was THROUGH WOLF'S EYES. Both very different sorts of fantasies, ha.
Catcher In The Rye. Tenth grade. 1963. It helped me so much. I didn't know a book like that could exist. It sits on my top shelf.
Joan Aiken’s “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Little Princess,” Sydney Taylor’s 5-book series “The All of a Kind Family,” Maude Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy and Tracey” books and then later “Betsy, Tacey and Tib.” And of course Tolkien and CS Lewis. Just to name a few 😊
I enjoyed many books prior, but the first one that *blew my mind* was Michael Ende's "The Neverending Story". That book really runs the gamut of human emotion- great fear, great joy, great sorrow. It was the first time that I remember feeling transported by a reading experience.
Bonus Question Response: When I was volunteering in the library, I had some success with getting kids on board with reading through recommendations that were a little off-beat or by recommending a popular title, but from many years back. Kids are told to read the same books as their peers all the time, in school and through marketing, but they may latch onto something that feels like it is *theirs*.
Flowers for Algernon. Loved it so much I wrote to the author and, good on him, hw wrote back to an 8th grader!
Redwall in 5th Grade blew my mind and Ender's Game in 7th grade, because it made me love sci-fi and, ironically if you know about the author, I loved it because I thought it was the first gay book I'd ever read and it opened a world of possibilities for me. Just goes to show that books are often smarter, kinder, and more humane than their authors.
I was always a reader because my parents were; library visits were a weekly thing. As others have mentioned Nancy Drew books were a favorite, but at the same time I loved the Elizabeth Enright books--The Saturdays, House with a Cupola on Top. Loved that family. It was A Wrinkle in Time, however, that made a huge impression on me and led to my love of Ray Bradbury stories.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Wells! I loved that a curious, intelligent woman was the protagonist and it reinforced my love for history and science as a student.
Oh my goodness The Thorn Birds rocked my world. I found a used copy on a summer vacation and tore through it. My pubescent heart was mesmerized by the scandal of it all. I remember thinking Meggie was the cutest name and when I found out it was a miniseries I was so very excited. The miniseries did not disappoint either.
As to the bonus question, I think it really depends on the kid. I so appreciated what Dave Eggers had to say that I sent excerpts of your conversation to my brother and sister-in-law because my fourteen year old niece hates reading and Mr. Eggers gave me hope. For my niece, we're trying with Daisy Jones & The Six because she loves 70's music, it's an easy first-person read, and has a female protaganist at its center. And now a tv adaptation to watch afterwards. What is a story they can get invested in? Or maybe see themselves in a bit? If they like comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay or if struggling with identity Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides. I was always drawn to epics, the aforementioned Thorn Birds, Gone With the Wind, GIant. I liked big stories with families and romance and heartache. I wanted to get lost. Still do! :)
For recommending books for parents or teachers to get a young person interested in reading - the answer is keep trying with any and all sorts of different books (or short stories, or articles or comics or coffee table books or poetry, books of different lengths, genres, themes, publication dates...the list goes on). We never know what hooks us, but we know it when it does. Keep the channel open...
I read to my kids until they were well into their tweens....and had trouble getting them to read themselves. The bridge for both of them were graphic novels. Both, now in their early twenties, read (and write too).
I too was a late reader. Made to feel shame for not being able to read until I was older than most. The first book I read on my own was Alice Through The Looking Glass. But I fell in love with the Narnia series, then anything written by Roald Dahl (The Witches especially) and of course, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.
The Pokey Little Puppy! The first series that held my attention was probably American Girl or The Babysitters Club.
I remember being fascinated by the first book in the Five Kingdoms series by Brandon Mull as a kid in primary school
The first one that really took me - Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities! Next, Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker; John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany; Jeanette Winterson, The Passion.
The first book that really blew my mind was Beloved, and I had been a voracious reader up until that point. I had read Stranger in a Strange Land, Catcher in the Rye, and The Hobbit, but that one set the standard for all fiction after that.
In elementary school I remember reading my way through the shelf of biographies. Still one of my favorite genres.
The first book I remember reading on my own was Charlotte’s Web. Prior to that, I had no idea that books could make a person feel things so deeply. Then Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Then the Chronicles of Narnia. By that point, there was no going back: I read at every opportunity. During the summers, when the school library was inaccessible, I read and re-read my mom’s old Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew detective series.
But the book that first blew my mind was Richard Peck’s Voices After Midnight. It had everything Pre-teen Me loved: Time Travel! Humour! Cake batter!
The books that made my son fall in love with reading were the unabridged versions of Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. We re-read them each summer; they get funnier each time. The other books that he re-reads most often are Kate Milford’s Greenglass House series and David A. Robertson’s Misewa series; I'd recommend those to reluctant middle grade readers.
Also, I recommend comics and graphic novels to help kids fall in love with reading if they're not yet into novels. Luke Pearson’s Hilda series is amazing. Calvin & Hobbes remains beyond compare.
Under age ten: Enid Blyton's 'Five' collection; 'Great Brain,' Encyclopedia Brown,' collected 'Peanuts.' At twelve, I read Catch-22, twice, while sick in bed for a weekend. And that was all she wrote...
As for suggestions for new readers, my kids have picked up some of what we've had on shelves or recommended; they've resisted or rejected other stuff. I'd say encouraging them to dig what they dig and encouraging THAT, rather than a prescriptive list.
I loved reading the Hardy Boys books as a young boy but I have really vivid memories of getting lost in Clive Cussler novels, specifically Sahara which was a series of books based on his character Dirk Pitt which was a kind of Indiana Jones type character tries to solve a mystery based on historical clues.
I was always reading, but what turned me into a reader was The Three Investigators series by Robert Arthur and others. It was deeper and smarter than a lot of the other kids series (Bobby Twins, Hardy Boys, etc). Took plan in an exotic location (Malibu - though not much like Malibu in real life). They were smart and getting into trouble. There was a sense of adventure and mystery. Reading them as an adult I can see the uncomfortable "dated" ways the books talked about people and the stereotypes they leaned on. But that sense of strangeness and possibility. Without becoming some supernatural story, the stories were crazy and expansive and wild and they made the world just feel more. If I'm honest, I still look for some of that in fiction.
Not to be a hog for space, but Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein was very powerful for me when I was young too.