This might shock you, but many of us GeekMoms and GeekDads grew up with our noses buried in books. Now, if this was some trashy clickbait site, I would drag that joke out – I know, crazy. Geeks who read? No way! – but here at GeekDad we have class, so I’m only gonna hit you with that lame joke once. Well, twice, but I did it the second time through misdirection and intentional accidental irony, so who’s counting?
Anyways. Some of us got talking, and we realized that we love to share about the books that were important to us when we were younger. The ones that really made an impact on our young lives. These are the book we grew up with, and as fans of geekery and as parents, this is a topic that really matters to us a lot.
A whole bunch of GeekFamily writers jumped in on writing about the books they grew up with. Take a stroll down memory lane with us as we reminisce. There is something magical and beautiful about the stories that wove themselves indelibly into our identity when we were younger, and it is never a bad time to revisit them. Thank you for joining us on this retrospective journey!
There were a lot of books that were really important to me in my formative years. Stuff like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Redwall jump immediately to mind for me, as does Captain Underpants and Gary Paulsen’s The Transall Saga. But when it comes to a story that not only was massively important to my as a kid, but that also grew along with me, it would have to be the ever-ongoing saga of the X-Men.
I jumped into the mutant soap opera towards the end of the Chris Claremont era, as his run with Jim Lee was running down and the second volume of X-Men was being released. The idea that people who looked different, acted different, and felt different from everyone else could find a home was really impactful to me, growing up always feeling different. That this went beyond just finding friends, but also showed these different people could go out and save the world was even cooler.
I learned a lot about embracing differences from Marvel’s merry mutants. These lessons carry over even into my adult life. Claremont’s seeming mutant sci-fi soap opera really allowed him to delve deep into what made the characters who they are, and both acknowledged commonalities and celebrated differences. The stories aren’t perfect, but they passed along exactly the message I needed to hear growing up.
The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
In eighth grade, and I picked up a book called The Elfstones of Shannara at a school book fair. Although I’d previously read The Chronicles of Narnia, I’ve often regarded this Terry Brooks novel as my introduction to sword-and-sorcery fiction, which dominated most of my teenage reading. The first book in the Shannara series, Sword of Shannara, is often regarded as a Lord of the Rings knockoff. But Elfstones is thankfully more original. I read it, and absolutely loved it. There was a certain moment towards the end of the book (yes, I’m avoiding spoilers for a 30-plus-year-old book) which astute readers likely saw coming. I didn’t, and it hit my 14-year-old self so hard that I remember having to stop reading for a minute during which I nearly cried.
I read many sequels in the Shannara series after that, but as the beginning of my voyage, Elfstones will always have a special place in my heart. When I recently saw the MTV series The Shannara Chronicles, my initial take was disdain at seeing that it had been targeted towards a teen audience. But then I remembered – that was the age and the perspective from which I originally experienced the book, so perhaps it’s fitting after all.
Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was its magic system, which is rigidly structured into five “classes”. This very much appeals to the RPG gamer in me. Alchemy: the brewing of potions, Sorcery: mind control, Magic: the creation of enchanted items, Thaumaturgy: an elaborate and well-developed type of magical engineering, and Wizardry: summoning demons. Over the course of the novel, the main character learns each of the disciplines in order to ultimately overcome a challenge at the end.
Bifrost Guardians Series and Renshai Trilogy by Mickey Zucker Reichert
Shadow Climber was the first book by Mickey Zucker Reichert I ever read. In high school, I was very much into Dungeons and Dragons, and this book’s main character was a skilled thief in a city who befriended a barbarian. I had no way to know at the time that the book was drawing so heavily from Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; I loved it, and later on I picked up all the other books in the series.
I was older by the time I read Last of the Renshai, but if anything I loved that book even more than the others. Inspired by Norse mythology, it sees an absurdly skilled swordsman, the last of his race, experience numerous adventures. I’m sure if I read the book now it wouldn’t impact me in the same way. But back then, to me, it was the best book ever written.
Jonathan H. Liu
I got a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth when I was in perhaps fourth grade, and over the years I read it so many times (and then again as an adult, reading it to my daughters) that the pages finally started falling out. I love the clever wordplay (dad jokes galore!) and the way the world of knowledge was portrayed as an exciting place to explore. From mathematical concepts like infinity to literal representations of idioms, The Phantom Tollbooth has kept me enchanted for decades, and although it’s been a few years since I last read through it cover to cover, it still has a special place on my shelf. (Places, really, because I replaced my beat-up paperback with two hardcover anniversary editions several years ago.)
When I was growing up, my family had a set of Childcraft books—it’s sometimes called an encyclopedia set, or the How and Why Library, but it was a set of colorful books, each focusing on a particular topic: the plant world, stories, how things work, animals, and so on. I pored over those books all the time, including a couple of supplemental volumes we had, like Mathemagic (in which I first encountered The Phantom Tollbooth, thanks to an excerpt about Milo’s search for “the biggest number”). In fact, the series had such a profound effect on me that it was the subject of my very first post on GeekDad: “Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Childcraft.” Today, I have two sets of it sitting side by side on my shelf: an old set that I found at a bookstore, and a new(ish) set that World Book sent to me after I wrote that post. The newer ones are, of course, more up to date, but I still miss the colorful spines of the old ones.
When asked about the books that had an impact on me the most as a kid, three particular series came to mind: Diane Duane’s Young Wizards, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence.
Diane Duane’s Young Wizard books were probably the first book series I read where there was a blatant mix of magic and a modern world setting. I read these before Harry Potter reached the US, so it was Nita and Kit who made me want to be a wizard a few years before I could ever long for a Hogwarts letter. I loved how magic was unique to each user, the adapting spell books Nita and Kit had, and the cat wizards. Young adult books were not as big of a genre then as they are now, they were simply a lone dedicated shelf in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble. It was Diane Duane who made me want to write books for young adults before it became the hot genre it was today. One day I may get to realize that dream.
Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet was great for a teenage tomboy like me. She was smart, brave, and determined to break down the rules that told her she couldn’t be a knight because she was a girl. She’s probably a big influence in my joining the SCA when I was in college. Alanna also had her vulnerabilities as she learned to navigate the idea that she could be both female and a knight. While reading her adventures, I also learned that just because Jonathan was a handsome prince, didn’t mean he was the perfect romantic interest. It was King of Thieves George Cooper with a nose “a touch too big for conventional good looks” that always seemed to appreciate Alanna the best for who she actually was. George Cooper is probably the reason I always play rogues in my gaming group, and is probably also responsible for why it always seems to me why many of the best fictional boyfriends are a little rough around the edges.
Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence found me during the summer vacation after my parents had split up. It became one of the books I was obsessed with that summer, going as far as to memorize the song presented in one book that summarized the whole series (I still know it over twenty years later). It was probably my first taste of Arthurian legend just before I discovered T.A. Barron’s Young Merlin series. The blending of Arthurian legend into a modern setting was great, but I really loved how characters from the first stories seemed to be on mostly separate adventures until they all combined together in the third book. No wonder I loved watching how the Marvel Cinematic Universe build up its characters and later brought them together for combined adventured: Susan Cooper had introduced me to the idea first when I was still a kid.
Redwall series by Brian Jacques
The Redwall books were a constant in my life, from about the time I was 9 or 10 when my aunt first started to give them to me for Christmas and birthdays until I caught up with the series. Then I got one every year until I started buying them on my own. In total, Redwall is comprised of 22 novels and several smaller books (www.redwall.org). Redwall started as a story Jacques (pronounced Jakes) told to the children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool, while working as a truck driver with routine deliveries to the school. This is the source of the magic of the series. Jacques made sure to included layers of details to help the visually impaired children imagine the story he was telling. This shines through in vivid descriptions of the lands surrounding Redwall Abbey, the characters, and the food. Jacques is a man who could describe food like no other!
The Redwall books tell the story of the animals of Mossflower country and surrounding lands in a roughly medieval time period. The morality of the world is generally black and white. Mice, squirrels, moles, voles, hedgehogs, hares, badgers, and similar creatures make up the protagonists; while rats, weasels, foxes, lizards, snakes, and other vermin are the antagonists. This leads to a little “a vermin is always bad” attitude in places. Each book focuses on the adventure of a group of good animals as they attempt to defend Redwall or set off on an adventure for the good of the Abbey or to right some wrong. The books do little to define a specific faith for the animals. There are a few references to an afterlife, but the brothers and sisters of Redwall feed the hungry, care for the sick, shelter the homeless, welcome the traveler, protect the weak, rescue the oppressed, and do other works of mercy and charity. Protecting the weak and rescuing the oppressed lead to a fair amount of swashbuckling and derring-do!
The books are very enjoyable for all ages but may seem a little formulaic to older readers. The series is not continuous; each book is a discrete chapter in the history of Redwall. There are a few direct sequels, but even these shouldn’t be too confusing to read out of order. The direct sequels have the same lead characters on a different adventure and minimal call backs to the other books. The books generally were not written chronologically to begin with, so that further relieves pressure to read them in a certain order. I recommend the age I found them as a good age for solo reading. The books are each around 300 pages, and chapter breaks often are suspenseful. If you have a child who has difficulty with characters left in peril, be warned. If you want to read aloud to your child, a first or second grader should be fine.
Jaques also wrote The Castaways of the Flying Dutchman Trilogy and two books of scary tales: The Ribbajack and Seven Strange and Ghostly Tales. I got to meet him three times and have eight of my Redwall books signed and all three of the Castaway Trilogy signed. He was always very kind to the kids at signings. He passed away on February 5, 2011, with the final Redwall book, The Rogue Crew, coming out a few months later. 22 books is a lot but fear not, brave adventurer, this is a series that is easy to dip in and out of whenever you need a good tale of brave heroes.
The Happy Hollisters by Jerry West
The Happy Hollister Mysteries are books that were my mom’s that I found at my grandma’s house. The first book was published in 1953. Each of the 33 books is a standalone mystery adventure. These are in a similar vein as The Three Investigators books (of which I read a few of the later ones), Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys (which I haven’t read), and Scooby-Doo, which likely pulls from these series in some way. The five Hollister kids find something odd and, with the occasional help of their parents and other adults, foil some mysterious plot. They are great fun for those just discovering mysteries and longer chapter books. There may be some questions on vocabulary as certain words have very different meanings now (e.g. I definitely recall “gay” only meaning “happy” in the books and not its modern definition). These are mostly found in used books shops and antique stores, but apparently are back in print in a book club format at https://thehappyhollisters.com/.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
“And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”
This line offered to me an incredible lesson in both friendship and judgement. From the early pages of the novel, Piggy is shown to be an outcast, based on his size, his glasses, and his “ass-mar.” He has patience though, when confronted by taunts, and accepts them in a resigned fashion. It is tragic that Ralph only realizes what he has lost at the end of all things.
Many of us geeks share a commonality with Piggy; we were considered outcasts at some point in our lives. We may have been picked on for our interests, or our dress, or our looks. Perhaps we were on the other side of the coin, and were part of the “in” crowd, and offered taunts as a way of belonging.
Lord of the Flies showed me the importance of looking past a person’s façade and delving into the real being beneath. Patience, wisdom, humility, common sense; these are traits that Piggy possessed but were unseen by the other boys on the island.
As a parent, I try to teach my children to look beyond the immediate view of a person and see what lies beneath. Look for traits that you possess yourself. Friendship is not to be taken for granted; it is to be cherished and carefully tended to.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first ‘real’ book (i.e., with actual chapters) that I read on my own, somewhere around the time I was 6 or 7. I loved the idea of a world hidden away just next door, one that you could get to just by being blown by the wind. Looking back now, I can also see my love of found family and discovering your true self by stepping out of the mundane, but at the time, it was the adventure and excitement and scariness of it all.
It probably would have remained just a footnote in my reading history, though, if the movie hadn’t been the huge thing that it is. As soon as I shared my love for Oz, everyone told me how much I was going to like the movie. Since this was approximately the Stone Age, I had to wait for the next network TV showing so the anticipation grew. And then… I was horrified, because as beautiful and iconic as the movie is, it says Oz isn’t real.
Yeah, no, that was so incredibly wrong. It took years before I was okay with watching the movie again, which caused this giant fuss among my extended family (something about me being too rigid—it’s been more than 40 years so the details are blurred, but the general aura of disapproval lingers still.) I retreated back to the safety of the story that I loved and metaphorically (or possibly literally–I was a pretty dramatic kid) plugged my ears.
Fortunately, after I had checked the book out of the library for about the fourth or fifth time, the librarian mentioned that the author had written more books set in Oz and so at the ripe old age of 8, I filled out my first Interlibrary Loan request to get The Marvelous Land of Oz. My mom had to sign it, and my grandmother paid the ILL fee, but I distinctly remember very, very carefully filling out the paper form in my best Palmerized script. And then I did it again, for Ozma of Oz, and a whole host of others.
Most people don’t realize it, but L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books, with all the excitement a small, proto-geek girl could have wished for–revolutions and wars and hidden princesses and people coming and going by tornado and having been washed overboard, or falling through a crack opened up by an earthquake. Even more exciting: Dorothy and her aunt and uncle move to Emerald City permanently. (I was deeply jealous.) It was fabulous, even the more rambling stories, because it was Oz.
(On a side note, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend turning your kid loose in Oz today: the books were written in the early 20th Century and contain all the casual racism and sexism of the time. You might want to pre-screen or read along, especially with younger kids.)
I read all of the books Baum wrote, thanks to that lovely librarian, and looking back, that’s the true influence Oz played in my life. I still love fantasy and alternate fairy tale type of books (once I left Oz I went straight to Narnia and Pern and Middle Earth and never left), but the thing that changed my life was learning that the library is where all good things come from and if they don’t have it, they can probably borrow it from somewhere else. All you have to do is ask.
Also, Oz is real.
The books that mainly stick with me as “Books I Grew Up With” are Steven Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Forest of Doom changed my life. My dad had read me The Hobbit, bits of The Lord of the Rings, and I’d read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe but these books were pitched at exactly the right reading level for me.