I was eleven when I finished all of the children’s books in my house. It wasn’t easy – my mom is a teacher and there were always tons of picture books lying around. But I just couldn’t stop reading. Left with little alternative, I started in on the adult novels. For a month, I told everyone my new favorite book was The Sun Also Rises, despite the fact that I barely understood the plot, and had no idea what greater meaning or…ailments Hemingway was hinting at. At that point, my mother took pity on me and dropped me off at the library for hours at a time.
It was there that I discovered YA novels. Or the closest things we had to them in the 1990s. This usually meant series like The Babysitters Club, and a few stand-alone novels that stood out like beacons in the children’s section. To me, these books might as well have been chocolate cake with buttercream icing. I devoured them.
Some of them turned into the books that I checked out over and over, that I begged my parents to buy for me, that I carried around until the pages started falling out of their bindings. I couldn’t get enough, and not just because I liked the stories. Even then, I knew they were teaching me things about writing that I would always remember.
Here they are, the top five YA novels that influenced me when I was a teenager – specifically my relationship to writing.
1. Out of Time, by Caroline B. Cooney
It is not a coincidence that my debut novel is about time travel. I can trace my fascination with fate to one distinct source: Cooney’s Out of Time, which follows Strat and Anna as they fall in love after a freak moment of time travel allows them to meet.
This book taught me about yearning. About how you could want a couple to get together so badly that the anticipation almost kills you as you fly through the pages. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me through the rest of my writing life: I need to make people care as much about my characters as I cared about Strat and Anna.
2. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
We must! We must! We must increase our bust! Ten years later, and I still remember that chant. I still remember everything about this book, actually. My copy literally fell apart because I read it so much. Blume is the queen of preteens. She just gets it – all those awkward moments, those new and scary friendships, the tentative way you approach your crushes. I felt like this book was the perfect reflection of what I was going through in Junior High, including all the messy parts. I knew I wanted to be able to capture character as well as she did, and to be honest in my writing. To take risks, even when it’s not always pretty.
3. Zel, by Donna Jo Napoli
Zel is an alternate telling of Rapunzel that dives into the psychological effects of a teenage girl being locked in a tower for years. The main character, Zel, actually starts to go insane, and her relationship with her mother is complicated and not easily resolved. I completely related to this – though my mother never locked me in a tower (my teen self would probably disagree with that, at least metaphorically), I felt alienated and misunderstood. Nothing seemed simple anymore.
I had never read anything like this book. The idea that you could take a standard fairy tale and turn it into such a truly romantic and creepy story was completely foreign. But it’s an idea that stuck with me ever since – inspiration can, and should, come from anywhere.
4. The Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Whoa man. This book destroyed me when I was in middle school. The Bridge to Terabithia was the first YA-type novel I’d ever read. It was about kids like me! There weren’t pictures! I understood what was happening! And – oh god! – then came the crying. I cared so much about these characters, more than I’d ever cared about any characters in a book before. This novel taught me that a book can move you. That it can crawl under your skin and burrow down and you cannot get it out no matter what you do.
5. The Fearless Series, by Francine Pascal
I am the queen of guilty pleasures. I doubt I can name all of the presidents, but I can definitely tell you who the last five Bachelorettes were. So I used to love all of the cheesy teen series, where the characters would constantly fall in and out of love with each other. Fearless was the best example of this. The series is about a girl named Gaia who genetically can’t feel fear. She travels through the underbelly of Manhattan, alternatively fighting crime and fighting her attraction to Sam, a hot local college student. This was like Alias for teens. I was addicted to the quickly moving plot and the never-ending action.
This series helped me understand how story was constructed. How a plotline could fit together like a puzzle, even though it was broken up over multiple novels. It’s one of the hardest things to do with a narrative, but Fearless pulled it off perfectly.
Even as a kid, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I wanted to grow up to be a writer. These were the books that helped me learn how to vocalize that dream. Not only did I want to write, I wanted to write books like this – stories that could speak to someone so intensely that they can still recite parts of them fifteen years later.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go hunt up a copy of Out of Time. It’s been way too long since I last read it.
Rachel Carter is a writer, a reader, and a lover of all things pop culture. She grew up in the woods of Vermont, and recently graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in nonfiction writing. Her debut novel, So Close to You, was released from HarperTeen on July 10th, 2012. You can find her online at http://rachel-carter.com/ and on Twitter as @RachelCarterYA.