The Art of Mirriam Neal

Books that Created an Awesome Monstrosity, Namely Me

We all have that stack of books that shaped us, the ones we stayed up late reading and re-reading, the ones we took with us on car trips, the ones we were loathed to lend out to anyone, no matter how trustworthy. (Granted, I even hate lending books I don’t particularly like, but that’s a personal flaw and does not reflect itself on every borrower. Ahem.)

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For me these books/stories were, in no exact order:

• The Book of Virtues/The Moral Compass by William Bennett.

I remember reading every story, every poem in these hefty volumes. They were so full of anything and everything that they became my go-to reading material during mandatory nap times (or ‘reading times’) or whenever I wanted to read anything non-specific. This is where I learned of Damon and Pythias, of Damocles, of Aesop and countless other classics.

• A Wrinkle in Time

My mother would read this every autumn, so naturally one autumn as soon as I was old enough, she gave it to me. I devoured the bizarre, touching tale of love, stars, and devoured planets, and I’m pretty sure it lent a large hand to my ‘I KNOW it’s weird, I want to write it anyway’ attitude.

• The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings

I was familiar with these books before I actually read them all at age twelve. (I was sick when I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, with nothing else to do, I knocked all three books out in three days.) They were always sitting around the house because Mom was reading them – the first real scene I read was Gollum attacking Frodo and Sam for the first time. I remember that vividly, because that’s when my interest in the books went from mild, childish curiosity to a Strong Desire to Read This Now.

• Mythology

We had a beautiful, illustrated volume full of mythology – mainly Greek, mingled with some fairy tales and – Jackie Robinson? What is Genre, anyway. Each story featured brave protagonists – from boys who went up against giants to Theseus and the Minotaur and Oedipus (I didn’t KNOW about the complex yet, okay) solving the Sphinx’s riddle.

• Any Horse Book by C. W. Anderson

His books enchanted me, and I read every copy I could get my hands on. I don’t remember the stories as much as the illustrations – illustrations which evoked such great love and feeling in me that not only did he greatly influence my artwork, but he fanned the sparks of an equine obsession into undying flames. Without C. W. Anderson, I might never have learned to ride, or trained my favorite ornery idiot horse, or experienced anything other than a typical little girl’s love of horses.

• I Can’t Remember the Name of This One

I still have it somewhere, but currently it’s packed so I can’t check the title. It was about a young, redheaded girl who was taken by Indians, but it wasn’t the frequent ‘LET’S SIMULTANEOUSLY VILIFY AND ROMANTICIZE NATIVE AMERICANS’ tripe. I read this book countless times and once I find it (if I remember) I’ll be sure and add the title here.

• Pilgrim’s Progress/Christiania

We had tiny, square, illustrated, paperback versions of various classics grown up, and I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by these stories. They had everything I wanted – danger at every turn, man-eating giants, unexpected friends, symbolism out the wazoo, and illustrations both beautiful and grotesque. The illustrations of Apollyon alone inspired dozens of monster designs from my small self.

• A Book of Puzzles

My dad used to keep a large book of puzzles and brain games in his office, and sometimes I would take it out and try to solve something. I was too young at the time, and the puzzles were beyond me, but I remember being vividly caught by one particular page. Illustrated in blue tones was a picture of a beautiful young woman trapped in a large tube of liquid. According to the opposing page, if I couldn’t solve the puzzle within a certain amount of time, the Supervillain who had kidnapped the girl would let her suffocate and die. I remember sitting and not trying to solve the puzzle so much as having the realization that this puzzle was Too Real and had made me feel personally responsible for the life or death of this person. Not only that, but I could only fail her – I never did solve that puzzle. I’m pretty sure this influenced my subconscious and manifests itself in my writing.

• Peter Pan

I read Peter Pan until the cover wore out. This book fascinated me to no end, and I never tired of it – the way they spelled check cheque, Peter so-very-nearly dying from a stab wound but being saved by a nest at the last minute, the pirates and the mermaids and the gleeful otherness of it all.

• Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass

This comes as no surprise to anybody, but Alice was a close childhood companion. From the caucus race to the Hatter and the March Hare to the White Queen pricking her finger in the future, this book is so exactly like reading  a dream that it kept me reading and re-reading. It also lent me an odd sense of humor.

• Betsy-Tacy-Tibb

I swear I thought there was something magical about these books, even when I got older and realized they were historical fiction with no actual magic involved. They had that peculiar quality of seeming to be from Somewhere Else while remaining more-or-less-firmly grounded inn reality.

• Eight Cousins

This was always my favorite Alcott book, by far. Uncle Alec was my girlhood hero, and I wanted to be him when I grew up. (I still might.) Much like Betsy-Tacy-Tibb, it’s a book with no magic that manages to feel almost entirely magical.

• Narnia

I say ‘Narnia’ rather than a single book title because each book influenced me as much as all the rest, although The Silver Chair remains my favorite. I remember the first time Mom brought the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe home and told us she was going to read it aloud, and I vividly recall being miffed when she skipped the battle with the Hag and the Werewolf in Prince Caspian (and naturally I had to find the book and go read it myself).

• Beatrix Potter

While Apollyon illustrations influenced me greatly, so did Beatrix Potter’s enchanting mice, hedgehogs, squirrels, cats, and other various creatures. More than the other books, Mrs. Tiggywinkle stood out as my favorite – I never was sure why, but I think it had something to do with the tiny bucket collecting rainwater.


I could probably carry this post on for several years, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say, books (moreso than any people, with the exception of my parents) were the guiding force in shaping who I was and who I became. Now I’m all nostalgic – maybe I won’t wait until autumn to read A Wrinkle in Time again.

What books influenced your childhood?

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