The Books That Made Me: 8 Writers on Their Literary Inspirations

When I was in third and fourth grades, my family lived in the Cherry Grove apartment complex in Jackson, Tenn., above a woman whom I called Miss Mary. Most weekends, when the weather was warm, I would take a book out to the man-made lake in the middle of the grounds and read. Miss Mary must have seen me do this a hundred times or more, so when her daughter moved out, leaving behind several boxes of her childhood books, Miss Mary offered them to me.

I was a library kid, unused to the decadence of books you could write in or read at your leisure without the two-week clock winding down, so the gesture was unspeakably meaningful. Included in the boxes were the Sweet Valley High series, which I liked fine, the Baby-Sitters Club series, which I loved, and the Anne of Green Gables series, which, to borrow from Anne herself, became a kind of bosom friend.

I read them over and over and over again, and, to my surprise, never tired of them. In fact, each reading brought me a little more joy, helped me to see the characters a little more clearly. There was Diana, who was gentle and easy to love, and Gilbert who was smart, but frankly, a bit dull in his devotion to Anne, and there was Anne herself, defiant and assertive and loyal, a young woman who insisted her name be spelled with an “e” because she knew she deserved a little opulence in her life. I wonder how many young girls learned to claim space for themselves, value their intelligence and honor their desires because of L. M. Montgomery’s books.

While I was hardly thinking about craft lessons back when I reread the books to tatters, I can see their influence now simply in the fact that I chose this career at all, despite plenty of resistance. Anne taught me to insist on the “e.”

Yaa Gyasi’s most recent novel is “Transcendent Kingdom.