The first full length novel I remember reading was Watership Down. I was in the third grade and my father bought it for me. The weekend after I’d finished it, we drove out to Elbe to a little greasy spoon restaurant (my dad’s favorite kind) and talked about the book over a french dip sandwich. It was my first experience with a grown-up literary conversation and it went something like this:
Dad: Did you like the book?
Me: The rabbit book?
Dad: Are you sure it was about rabbits?
Me: It said it was about rabbits.
Dad: Do you think rabbits really act like that?
Me: Of course not.
Dad: What does act like that?
Me: Hmm. People act like that.
Dad: So are you sure it was about rabbits?
Me: All the characters were rabbits.
As he led me through the concepts of personification and allegory, he colored his conversation with complaints about “them” and “they” who wanted to stop people from saying what they think or doing what they want or being treated fairly. I didn’t know who “they” were at the time, or why it was relevant to Watership Down, but the experience will be with me forever.
In sixth grade or thereabouts, I read Bridge to Terabithia. The school librarian had recommended it to me. “It’s a Newberry winner,” she whispered as if she were holding something priceless. I didn’t really care about the award, but the cover was beautiful and I needed something to read during silent reading time in English (we didn’t have “Language Arts” back then). I started the book in English, continued reading it sneakily under my desktop during social studies, read some more during math, and finished it an hour after I got home from school. After I finished reading it, I just sat and stared at the front cover for a while. It was the first book that I ever wished I’d written, and I started writing my first novel less than a week later. After Bridge to Terabithia, I read every Newberry winner I could find, but I never found another that touched me so deeply.