I have a confession to make: I was nominated on Facebook to list ten books that ‘changed my life’, and I couldn’t do it.
I know. I’m sorry. I’ve read the lists making their rounds on my news feed, and I feel a little confused. I love books. When I was younger, I loved books even more: I’ve joked before that I used to go to the library at school discos, but I actually did that. Apparently, when I was very young (I’ve heard I was three. That would be awesome, but I think it’s probably hyperbole), an aunt had to take me on a long car ride. I asked her “auntie Janey, do you have anything to reeeead?”, and when she said no, I read the index of the road map. It makes sense: I have always loved words, and I remember reading shampoo bottles in the bath, reading posters on public transportation, reading, reading, reading, everywhere I went. But I couldn’t even remember what I read back then, let alone think of ten books that changed my life.
But now that I am re-reading and falling in love all over again with Noughts and Crosses (spelled Naughts and Crosses out here in the US, but you won’t find me doing that to one of my old favourites), it’s clear to me that THAT is it; the book that changed my life.
Perhaps, for my American friends, this is where I should point out that Noughts and Crosses is what British people call Tic-Tac-Toe (“nought” means “zero” in Britspeak). If you ask me why, I’ll ask you why you call it Tic-Tac-Toe, when noughts and crosses (“zeros” and crosses) is a much more sensible name for a game where you draw zeroes and crosses on a grid. But on to the novel. Depending on which country you’re reading this from, you may or may not be familiar with Noughts and Crosses. Some of us had to study it in English literature when we were about 11 or 12 years old. Judging by how hard it was to find a copy, and by the way the dustcover describes the author, Malorie Blackman, as a “UK sensation”; I think some of you might not have heard of it at all.
Noughts and Crosses is a children’s book. The writing style is very casual, and, re-reading it now, it does feel much younger than I remembered; it’s certainly not a young adult book, although some of the content is quite dark. In the Noughts and Crosses world, noughts have white skin, and Crosses have dark skin. The Crosses are the superior race. Up until about fifty years ago, we’re told, the noughts were actually slaves to the Crosses. Schools are segregated; noughts are forbidden from attending school past age fourteen; Christmas has even been renamed ‘Crossmas’, and noughts are even taught that God is a ‘Cross God’ who does not hear or care for them. The noughts live under constant persecution, and poverty is rife. Against this racially charged background, you have Callum and Sephy. Callum is a nought; Sephy a Cross. Years ago, Callum’s mother worked for Sephy’s mother, and the two were actually friends, until her employment was terminated on a whim. Callum and Sephy grew up together, and remained best friends. We watch this friendship turn into love over the course of the novel. But noughts and Crosses just don’t mix, let alone fall in love. It is far less of a Romeo-and-Juliet story than I remember it, despite how I am making it sound. There are so many plot twists and shocking moments throughout that I can’t really tell you any more of the plot without spoiling it, and I don’t want to spoil it, since I think this is a book that people of all ages should read. This is a novel which blends a young romance story with racial persecution, terrorism, differences in class, and family strife.
As I said, this is a book which I am re-reading. I am a chronic re-reader; I don’t know why. But I haven’t read Noughts and Crosses since that first time I read it, when I was eleven or twelve. When I first read it, I was captivated by the love story and the tragedy. It was the first book that ever made me cry, and it taught me that I liked books with that power. But more importantly, it was the first book since Harry Potter whose characters I fell in love with. I thought about Callum and Sephy long after I finished the book. I cried over them. I probably would have written fanfiction about them, had I known that was a thing that some people do. It was Noughts and Crosses that gave me the desire to create my own Callum and Sephy; to build these characters who you could love so much that it felt strange to remember that they weren’t real. I’d been a storyteller for as long as I could remember. Noughts and Crosses inspired me to become a writer.
Noughts and Crosses was the first book to tell me I could break rules with my writing. I could use more than one point of view. I could use flashbacks. Chapters didn’t all have to be the same length. It was okay to write something dark. My very first novel was – I’m cringing at the thought of this – called Flirtxx, and it was the story of Chrissie, who was really just a Mary-Sue-ified me (I had poker-straight blonde hair and big blue eyes. I was so beautifully slim that people made comments like “where do you put it all?”. No one ever bullied me. I was the most popular girl in school). Every boy in the school was in love with Chrissie, naturally, but she only had eyes for Sam, who happened to be the most popular boy in school and also happened to be madly in love with her. That… Was it. The whole plot. Except also, Chrissie and Sam met Red Hot Chili Peppers and became BFFs 4 LYFE with them. Chrissie even sings backup vocals on their new album. Anthony Kiedis has her on speed dial, and sometimes he calls her to ask about school or to reminisce about Hillel Slovak. She suspects that the gorgeous John Frusciante might be a little in love with her. Oh, what a hard life it is to be thin and blonde and beautiful.
(Now you might see why I’m cringing.)
After I read Noughts and Crosses, I completely revamped Flirtxx into a young adult novel that was much darker; much more intense. My characters were no longer Mary-Sues: they had flaws, and not “adorable little quirks” but real flaws that interfered with their lives and at times made them downright unlikeable. In addition to these flaws, Chrissie suffered from an eating disorder, a secret which she hid from everyone, including Sam. Sam self-harmed to cope with his parents’ failing marriage, and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. Noughts and Crosses was the book that promised me I could write about these morbid things and still create something beautiful; that I could make people cry and they would still want to read more.
I very strongly urge you all to read Noughts and Crosses. Yes, it is a children’s book; yes, at times all the exclamation points and careful substitutes for obscenities (‘ruddy’, I’m looking at you) feel juvenile; but it is well-written and powerful. Even though I have read it before, I have audibly gasped (or worse, muttered “oh no. Ohhhhh no….” out loud) at the plot twists, and I have cried, again, for Callum and Sephy. I’m close to the end, but I know what awaits me and can’t bring myself to finish until I get hold of Knife Edge, the sequel. You should read it, most of all, because it is a careful blend of a lesson in racism and a story of doomed love. Malorie Blackman never thrusts her agenda at you, but she does give you pause to think of your own privilege when she writes about noughts who can’t find band aids in their skin colour; or news reports that always mention a criminal’s race when they happen to be nought, but overlook it when they are a Cross; or noughts being accused of crimes they did not commit. If you have young children, the scenes where noughts are finally allowed into Cross schools, only to be met with riots and violence, could open up a discussion about history. If you have slightly older children, the privilege of the Crosses which runs throughout should be talked about. I read it now, now that I know racism isn’t just a forgotten part of history, and I appreciate the message that much more.
But I suppose that’s enough of my fangirling. Some people are so moved by a beautiful face or beautiful scenery that they write poetry, or paint, or sculpt, or weep. I read a book that touches me and I write an essay. What I actually wanted to do, since I was nominated on Facebook weeks ago but overlooked it, was list the books that, if they haven’t “changed by life”, have certainly touched me. In no particular order, the others are:
Matilda (Roald Dahl).
Roald Dahl was my childhood favourite. Oh, Matilda. Here was a nerd – a bookish nerd, who was intelligent beyond her years but completely overlooked by her family and bullied by the school’s headmistress, Ms. Trunchbull. But Matilda develops special powers, which she uses to get back at Ms. Trunchbull. My own family may not have overlooked me, but my peers did; and as a child who was bullied, it goes without saying that Matilda’s character resonated with me. Her mother, who says “[Miss Honey] chose books; I chose looks” is intolerable and air-headed. From a young age, I felt like I was different; like the other girls at school were prettier, and therefore better; like I was missing something in my life because a crimping iron and lipgloss didn’t hold any joy for me. Roald Dahl taught me that it was okay to be nerdy; that a kind heart and a fierce spirit triumph over good looks every time.
The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling).
If Matilda made me feel that it was okay to be a little weird and nerdy, Hermione Granger taught me that I could revel in it. Suddenly, there was a nerdy character who everyone wanted to be at Halloween, or while playing games. Of course, I also loved the story itself. I have never been a fan of fantasy, but I was captivated by Harry’s world. As the series progressed, I began to appreciate the writing even more than the story. From the way the series matured as my generation of readers matured, to the countless tiny details early on which become huge plot points later in the series, J.K. Rowling truly is an exceptional writer.
Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare).
Yes, I know they’re plays, but I can’t make a list like this and not mention them. AMSND’s Titania was my literary girlcrush. I saw her fight Oberon over her changeling boy and thought “you GO, girl”. AMSND also gives us “though she be but little, she is fierce”, which has become somewhat of a personal motto (I even have it inked into my skin). It was also the first Shakespeare play that I ever really liked. A few years later, Hamlet was the first Shakespeare play that I actually loved, and would read for pleasure as well as study. The imagery. The motifs that run throughout. The beautiful language; the tragedy of Ophelia’s madness; the humour scattered around (“did you think I meant country matters?” still makes me giggle)… I had never disliked Shakespeare, but had only read him because we’re required to in jolly old England. Hamlet was the play that changed that. I won’t comment on whether I’ve written essays about Hamlet in my spare time (I have. Come at me, bro).
Let’s Get Lost (Sarra Manning).
When I first read Let’s Get Lost – a story about a teenage girl coping with her mother’s death, among other things – I was dealing with a pretty severe bout of depression. This was before I really knew what was going on with me, and long before I even considered any sort of help. I identified with Isabel’s brooding rage and feelings of isolation, even if I didn’t know why. I watched her shut the whole world away. She is a self-destructive mess, just like I was. I was hooked.
How I Live Now (Meg Rossoff).
I read How I Live Now at around the same time as Let’s Get Lost, so much of the love I feel for How I Live Now is, again, because of what I was going through when I read it. Rossoff gives us an American teenager, Daisy, who is spending the summer in England with her cousins when war breaks out and she is stranded there. She has an eating disorder, some sort of unspecified anxiety disorder, and OCD. The horrors of war are littered throughout, Daisy’s matter-of-fact tone only making them more instense. And that ending! I have re-read HILN many, many times, and the ending still makes me ugly-cry every time. How I Live Now very heavily influenced War Wounds, which originally began as “a How-I-Live-Now-cum-V-for-Vendetta dystopian YA”. The idea of the enemy not being some foreign nation somewhere but a mysterious group living on your own soil was new to me, and terrifying. It formed the idea of the terrorist force in War Wounds that rages war against the UK. How I Live Now also taught me that sometimes, being matter-of fact about horrific things was the most powerful way to do it. I have tried to desensitize my main characters to war, and particularly to death, as the novel goes on. Kate – my main character in War Wounds – can handle anything at all, until she loses the love of her life; much like Daisy.
Persuasion (Jane Austen).
Another one that influenced War Wounds. I’ve got allusions to Persuasion dotted throughout, because the novel struck a chord with me when I read it at A-level. Persuasion was my first introduction to Austen, and I fell in love with her lovely way of putting things. That is really the only way I can describe Persuasion: it is just ‘lovely’, with fanciful language and Georgian customs. The protagonists of War Wounds, Kate and Will (no, not named after that Kate and that Will; but it’s far too late to change their names now), share a love that is much like that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth: it’s flawed, it’s complicated, it does make you want to smash their damn heads together at times.
The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison).
I also studied The Bluest Eye at A-level, and the words of one critic (name forgotten) come to mind whenever I think of it: “so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry”. I have never read a more disgusting or a more beautiful book. Disgusting, because of the graphic incest/rape scene, and more. Beautiful, because Morrison is such a poetic writer. She states in the foreword that she wanted to “hold the despising glance while destructing it”, and holy shit, does she ever. She will present a character to you in such a way that you recoil in disgust, only to change the perspective and make you realise it is your own view of the world that makes you see the characters that way. The Bluest Eye is set in post-depression Ohio, and features an all African-American cast of main characters. These characters live in poverty, often resenting their blackness rather than the hatred that causes them to be outcast. Through the characters’ (particularly Pecola’s) self-loathing, we see the way that hateful ideas become ingrained in the psyche.
Loving Danny (Hillary Freeman).
Although speaking about it will confirm suspicions some of you have probably been harbouring, there isn’t a delicate way to put this: when you self-harm, you can feel very isolated. You are at war with yourself: on the one hand you want to quit, like you would any addiction; but on the other, it can be the only thing that makes the pain of depression or anxiety or anger go away. You are not on your own side, and you know that no one can ever understand unless they struggle with it themselves; but it is such an easily triggered problem that you cannot talk to others who do it for fear of setting them off into a spiral. In Loving Danny, I saw myself in both Danny and Naomi. Danny was the cutter. Naomi was the girlfriend who just could not understand. I could not understand myself, and Hillary Freeman took that feeling and so perfectly captured it with Naomi. She took everything that cutting was all about and put it into Danny. I was so moved by Loving Danny that I actually wrote to Hillary Freeman about Demons, the novel that Flirtxx became. I also told her about my own problem with self-injury. She was the first author I ever wrote to, the first person I told my secret to, and she wrote back. I can’t tell you what that felt like. Imagine carrying a secret so dark, and finally confessing it to one of your idols; only to have that person reach out to you. She told me that my novel sounded wonderful, and she could tell just from my letter that I was already a talented writer. She offered me words of comfort about my (thankfully, now long, long ago slain) real-life demons, as well as the novel I was writing of the same name. Hillary Freeman was the first to make me believe that I could do this ‘writing’ thing.
Writing fiction is such a funny thing. It is an illusion. You devote hours or weeks or even years to stringing together words in a way that creates meaning, and in the end, it is sort of meaningless. The characters that you carefully develop, the imagery that you build, the scenes which make you laugh or make you cry – at the end of the day, none of it is real. If The Thread That Binds is published, the world will not shift on its axis. I like to dream that one day readers will say “I am SUCH a Joanne!”, or “you’re totally a Sylvie”, but it won’t make the characters come to life. Yet still, I pour my soul into them. I stay up late at night worrying about whether something Payton said is out of character, or whether Sherice’s mother will be okay, or whether Gloria has made the right decision. Writing has always been how I have processed everything: everything from my lowest of my lows to my highest of highs, or even just strong feelings (hell, I just almost wrote an essay on Noughts and Crosses). It was hard to think of books that “changed my life” until I thought of them in terms of how they have influenced my writing style, and to these nine authors, I owe my craft; my passion; my coping mechanism in good times or bad.
To Roald Dahl, I say thank you, for teaching me that my imagination could do wonderful things.
To J.K. Rowling, I say thank you, for giving me Hermione, and for making this outcast feel a little more accepted.
To Mallorie Blackman, I say thank you, for showing me how to break the rules; and for Callum and Sephy.
To Sarra Manning and Meg Rossoff, I say thank you, for giving me female leads who were flawed and imperfect, at a time when I was at my most flawed.
To William Shakespeare, I say thank you, for your fairy queen and your Danish prince; for inspiring me to be fierce.
To Jane Austen, I say thank you, for teaching me how beautiful formal language can be, and how even strong characters sometimes make terrible decisions.
To Toni Morrison, I say thank you, for inspiring me to be a little more poetic; for teaching me how to capture setting.
To Hillary Freeman, how can I ever thank you for reaching out to me? For telling a lost and depressed young girl “you have talent; but more importantly, your life has worth”?
To every writer of every book I have ever loved, thank you for the words.