The bookshelf that has had the most powerful impact on me was a white plank balanced on two brackets that were bolted to the wall of my childhood bedroom. The shelf hung directly above my bed, which was covered by a shiny purple polyester bedspread. Bouncing too exuberantly on that slippery spread could (and did) lead to occasional bookshelf-related head injuries. But that’s not the kind of impact I mean.
As a child, I did not believe that I would grow up to be a writer, let alone a writer who wrote for other children. I’d never met a real writer, and most of the authors whose work I loved lived far away or had died long ago, which made them seem almost like literary characters themselves. Besides, I loved stories with such unquestioning devotion that I wouldn’t have believed a real, human person—one with an occasionally runny nose, and clothes that sometimes got smelly, and all the ordinary self-doubt and fears and tendencies to misspell certain words that plague most of us—had actually sat down and written them.
On that shelf above my bed, I kept the collection of books that were my very own. Most of them were gifts, but some were purchased with my own three-dollar allowance, ordered from those Scholastic book fliers they passed out to grade-schoolers once a month. I read—and reread and reread—these books with the kind of love that might only belong to young readers. I can still remember almost every book that stood on that shelf, interspersed with my most precious souvenirs and knickknacks (many of which were also shiny and purple).
All of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. The Paddington Bear collection. The Bunnicula series by James Howe. Illustrated fairy tales. The Wind in the Willows. Matilda. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Several volumes of Trixie Belden. The Secret Garden. Everything by Bill Watterson that I could get my hands on (or that I could sneak away from my brothers). Anne of Green Gables. My garage-sale copy of Little Women, which I read so many times (often starting over the moment I got to the end) that the page corners were worn as soft as velvet.
I read these books unjudgmentally, with complete faith in the characters and their stories. I paid no attention to style or technique…but I think I absorbed it subconsciously, or even subcutaneously. These books became a part of my writing DNA. Now, as a grown-up writer, I hear their voices in my own voice, just like I sometimes hear my dad’s phrasing or my mom’s laugh coming out of my mouth. The white plank shelf is long gone, but I still own many of those books—and even if I’d lost every volume, their influence would still be permanent.
Jacqueline West is the author of The Books of Elsewhere (www.thebooksofelsewhere.com), a fantasy series for young readers that debuted from Dial/Penguin in 2010. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in journals including ChiZine, Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, The Reflection's Edge, and The Pedestal Magazine. Visit her at www.jacquelinewest.com.