Before We’re Writers, We’re Readers

Fifteen contemporary nonfiction writers recall the formative nonfiction (and not-quite-nonfiction) books of their childhoods

For children, the world of fact is riveting. Whether they are looking at a book about polar bears in the Arctic or watching worms wriggle on the sidewalk, whether they are learning about faraway galaxies or stargazing in the backyard, whether they are reading a biography of Newton or noticing the way a penny sinks in a fountain, children are fascinated by the way the world works, both in life and on the page. And sometimes their early reading has far-reaching effects.

For me, it was The Young Detective’s Handbook, by William Vivian Butler, which had the intoxicating subtitle Learn How to Be a Super Sleuth: Send Secret Messages, Lift Fingerprints, Create Disguises, and More . . . . This book taught essential detecting skills, encouraged the formation of young-detective clubs to pool knowledge and maximize crime-solving success, and combined playful exercises with real-life tales of kids who cracked cases with little more than a pencil and their wits. It taught me, an only child with an overreaching sense of curiosity, to be observant, to pay attention, to remember, to investigate, and to write it all down. I never forgot. And these are the same tools I use to write creative nonfiction today.

—Randon Billings Noble
Barrie Jean Borich
author, most recently, of Body Geographic

The young up-and-coming nonfiction writer, back when I was a teenager in Chicago, was daily news columnist Bob Greene, who seemed so with-it and counterculture compared to the old-timey, hard-knock newspaper and radio guys who’d defined the game before him. Later, Greene would be pegged a sensational sentimentalist, even ridiculed in the even younger, even hipper alternative culture weeklies, and later still, he’d be run out of newspaper writing altogether due to allegations pulling open the curtain on his years of sneaky dalliances with young women—some of them aspiring journalists, at least one still a teenager. But before all that, when I was even younger and more naïve than the girls he pursued, Greene’s columnist rock-star status must have been what led me, an editor of my high school paper and an aspiring writer myself, to Billion Dollar Baby: A Provocative Young Journalist Chronicles His Adventures on Tour as a Performing Member of the Alice Cooper Rock-and-Roll Band, his 1974 participatory account of a turbulent rock band’s road show. Alice Cooper, with his stylized violence, shock-rock drag, and snake-and-guillotine show, was too commercial, and too fake-blood creepy, for my painterly progressive radio formations, but I read Greene’s narrative anyway, not noticing what I might find unreadable today. (Did the author really call himself, in the title even, “provocative” and “young”?) I was held rapt by the creative nerve of what I know now to call immersion reporting, as well as by the interpretations of actual life he brought to the page, namely that “Alice Cooper” was not a real person but a performance. This was one of the first times I understood how much of popular culture is not, underneath, anything like what it seems—still news to me at seventeen—which, disappointingly, turned out to be the story of Bob Greene himself.

Steven Church
author, most recently, of the forthcoming One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Man and Animal

At the age of ten or eleven, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve probably answered, “A river raft guide or maybe a hermit in the woods.” And if you’d asked what my favorite book was, I might have mentioned the current biography I was reading or the novel My Side of the Mountain. Jean Craighead George’s 1959 story of Sam Gribley, who willingly chooses to leave his large family and the hectic New York City life to live off the land in the Catskill Mountains, ignited much of my fascination with a solitary life in the woods. To a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, such hermit dreams seemed like a perfectly reasonable response to Vietnam, Reagan, and the nuclear arms race. Sam leaves it all behind, runs away from home and his family, carves out a hovel in a hollowed tree, and keeps a trained peregrine falcon named “Frightful.” He eats only what he can harvest or grow or hunt, and this seemed like a pretty good plan to me. Tree hovel in the woods? Check. Animal for a best friend? Check. Safe from the inevitable nuclear oblivion that will strike our major cities? Check. As I’ve since foisted the book on each of my children, I’ve found that it holds up remarkably well and even seems ahead of its time in many ways. It’s also kind of a collage of different forms and styles, combining fictional narration with natural history, biology, and ecology, while also mixing in occasional first-person journal entries and field notes, even drawings and diagrams. It reads like a lyrical utopian memoir of survival and “back-to-the-woods” philosophy, and it seems so different from the more polished, plot-heavy apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels of today; it’s more messy and inconclusive and, dare I say, more essayistic.

Sarah Einstein
author, most recently, of Mot: A Memoir

I remember reading I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a memoir about a young woman’s early experience with schizophrenia, in junior high school. In fact, the memory is so strong that, before I remember the story, the first thing that comes rushing back to me when I recall the title is the sense memory of sitting in the molded plastic chairs of our study hall. It’s an overwrought work, which was exactly what I—as an overwrought adolescent—wanted from it, but what lingered for me after the reading was the sense of connection I had with the author. Even at thirteen, I understood that, as a roman à clef, the book was only based on, rather than entirely taken from, life. (I wish we would revive this generic category, because I think that if we did, we could end much of the arguing over the boundaries of nonfiction.) Still, there was power in the knowledge that the work was largely informed by lived experience; it created a frisson of recognition in me. I imagine it’s this same frisson of recognition that drove the LiveJournal era, which was largely populated by other adolescent girls. In truth, when I try to recall the book, I remember almost nothing but that electric moment of connection—I can’t really remember the story at all—but that was enough. It sparked thirty years of reading nonfiction and then, finally, of starting to write my own. For me, that spark, that connection, is the power of the genre.

Allen Gee
author of My Chinese-America

I was a jock as a kid, so I didn’t read much; I read a lot of Marvel comic books (I had almost a complete set of The Avengers), which I’d buy at a newsstand not far from my grandfather’s restaurant in the Bronx, and I can remember reading some of the Encyclopedia Brown series as well as The Hardy Boys later on. But the first real literary book I ever sank into, got completely immersed in, was a hardback of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild that I found in a bookcase at a rented cabin on Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks. I was twelve and couldn’t sleep because my Uncle Dave was taking me fishing the next morning, so I ended up reading the whole short novel—about seventy pages—in one sitting. I felt really smart, as if I’d accomplished something beyond what was expected of me, because I didn’t have to read the book. In high school, I was put in classes called “school level,” which meant you weren’t college bound material, so I took metal shop and considered becoming a welder. I went to college somehow, though, and as a freshman, I read a collection of John McPhee’s writing, which was my first real literary nonfiction book, and then I read Joan Didion’s The White Album. In my mid-twenties, when I found Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, I discovered the kind of protest writing I’ll always aspire to. Now I can’t live without having nonfiction books to read around me all the time.

Penny Guisinger
author of Postcards from Here

I don’t know how old I was, but one year for Christmas, my parents gave me a boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. My family members were all readers: one summer, we read Where the Red Fern Grows out loud to each other. But that boxed set stands out as this chunk of literature that was really mine. (I still have it. It’s on my daughter’s bookcase.) I have a memory of spending an entire Saturday in my room reading Farmer Boy, which was the longest book in the Little House series. It was the first long book I read from cover to cover in one sitting, and I remember that joyous, sated feeling of reaching the last page: that bleary, intoxicated feeling that only a reading binge can bring on. I don’t know if those books influence me as a writer today, but that was certainly the day I knew I was a reader. I feel that writers are not often asked about our lives as readers, but of course, we were all readers long before we became writers. That feeling of completely falling into someone else’s true story is what we’re working to create for our own readers: I’m always trying to write some other person’s Farmer Boy. I want to build that space where readers can lose themselves for a whole Saturday.

Leslie Jamison
author, most recently, of The Empathy Exams

I loved Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth from its very first page: a map that showed “the lands beyond,” the enchanted realm that a very bored boy named Milo would get to visit in his mysteriously gifted toy car. It showed Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, separated by the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound, as well as the Foothills of Confusion and the Island of Conclusions, which could be reached only by jumping. It was a world that made its magic from humdrum things reimagined in impossibly surprising ways: numbers were mined from mountains of rock; meals were made from edible words sold in a bustling marketplace; the Doldrums were a place you could drive through and then (hopefully) find your way out of; time was a dog with a clock on his side; dawn was a symphony conducted by an elaborate orchestra. It was as if the skin of the ordinary had been peeled away to show an extraordinary machinery underneath—which is no small part of what I’ve always wanted my own writing to do, in all the years since.

Sandra Gail Lambert
author of The River’s Memory

When I was nine, it was my job to work in the school library. They had to do something with me when the rest of my class went to PE, and I’d already finished the correspondence typing course they’d made me take. For that, I’d been put alone in the science room at a table that smelled of vinegar. It had felt like punishment for using braces and crutches. Getting to hang out with the librarian didn’t. One day, she gave me a stack of biographies to shelve. They were all bound in navy blue, and each featured a black-and-white photo of the subject as the frontispiece. I was diligent about shelving them in the correct Dewey Decimal order until I saw the photo of Amelia Earhart.

She wore a flapped hat, with goggles strapped over her forehead, and her eyes looked at me. They saw me. Even before I read the book, they told me about looking down on the world from above and how the muscles around the eyes relaxed so they could see to far horizons. I neglected my library duties in order to read about her being a tomboy and having a sled, about how a plane spoke to her and told her to be a pilot. I read until the librarian made me rejoin my classmates, loud and large in their bodies from jumping jacks and tetherball. I sat among them and listened for something to speak to me. That winter, I begged for a sled. It arrived with a red bow and my name burnt into the wood of the crossbar.

Since then, whenever Amelia Earhart is mentioned, there’s a quiet smile I make. It’s like hearing someone talk about, unbeknown to them, your best friend. But despite Amelia, the effects of being made to sit alone in quiet rooms, separate from the world, lingered. Thirty years passed before writing spoke to me. Amelia and I celebrated. She told me to be large and loud.

Eric LeMay
author, most recently, of the forthcoming In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments

Today, our mail carrier dropped off a tattered copy of Cats: Little Tigers in Your House. I hadn’t seen it since I was six, maybe seven. It recounts the birth and early development of two kittens, Toddly and Paddy Paws, from their first moments—“Newborn kittens cannot see or hear, but they can cry and purr”—to their eventual adoption by Sam and Dana, who pull them away in a red wagon. In between, Toddly and Paddy Paws grow, play, and watch their Uncle Skeezix hump a scratching post. (This is not in the official narrative, but one photograph is highly suggestive.) As a child, I must have read the story a hundred times. I can recall gazing at the shot of Paddy Paws pouncing on string or Toddly hissing at the family dog. What drew me to their story? And why, in the nearly forty years since, has the title stuck in my head? I recall it every time I see a cat. Walking past Petland—Cats: Little Tigers in Your House. Watching a Purina Cat Chow commercial—Cats: Little Tigers in Your House. Spotting a mangled tabby on the roadside—Cats . . . Cats . . . Cats . . . . Perhaps the title was my first experience with metaphor. I can remember thinking something like, “These are tigers! In your house!” Admittedly, going from kittens to tigers is not a big metaphoric leap, but for a child, tigers are in zoos while cats are, well, in your house. Not that our house had any cats. Or dogs. Nope, no pets, not until I left for college and my parents replaced me with a sickly black Lab. So, maybe Toddly and Paddy Paws helped me develop my imaginative life. In the absence of actual cats, my book-bound pets drew me toward an adult existence where I’d come to live primarily in and through books. Which, as I write this, sounds sad. I mean, is it so hard to let a kid have a kitten? And now I see that Cats was published in 1974, which means that Toddly and Paddy Paws are surely dead. Which means that, at forty-five, I am experiencing the simultaneous deaths of my first pets.

Dinty W. Moore
author, most recently, of The Mindful Writer

I lasted only twelve months in the Boy Scouts, not because I did anything wrong but because I didn’t do anything. Didn’t tie knots, didn’t carve wood, didn’t earn a single merit badge. I was just there for the snacks. But the book they gave me, the Boy Scout Handbook, was filled with amazing facts, like how to make a tourniquet, how to start a fire in the woods, and how to react if a bear showed up on the trail. I never did any of these things, but I would read about them, over and over, and imagine in my mind that I was doing them. It was one thing to imagine myself as a Hardy boy, but I knew Frank and Joe weren’t real. This Handbook stuff was as real as real could be. I wasn’t very trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, or obedient at that age, but I was hooked. Give me facts, not fiction.

Lia Purpura
author, most recently, of It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful

Though I grew up on Long Island near New York City, I very much wanted to be a farm kid, and one way I got to be was by way of my kid-bible, the Good Earth Almanac by Mark Gregory, which is probably out of print now. This was a kind of counterculture, back-to-the-land guide for kids, which showed how to tan hides with acorns, cut holes in frozen lakes for ice fishing, restore health via “natural” foods and remedies, and other useful wilderness knowledge. I loved best the survival tips (how to keep yourself from freezing/drowning should you fall in a raging river) and survival foods (pemmican!). The pictures were hand drawn and allowed for deep imagining into the lives of feral and independent kids (my family was way more interested in indoor pursuits, and except for me, running and generally uncontrollable, no one really spent time outside unless they had to). This book conjured up various dangers and edges that thrilled me, and its stance aligned so closely with the ways I turn to the world now, as a writer, knowing the aliveness of trees, stones, mud, buzzards, and such.

Megan Stielstra
author, most recently, of the forthcoming Come Here, Fear

My mother has given me many gifts. The best? A library card.

She let me pick out anything, everything. I’d show her the books, and she’d read them, too, and we’d talk about them: what I learned, what confused me, what was new enough to sound strange. I didn’t know that some kids didn’t live with their parents until she handed me The Great Gilly Hopkins. I didn’t know that girls weren’t supposed to go hunting until Island of the Blue Dolphins. We read Where the Red Fern Grows, and I cried my face off when the dogs died. “It’s OK if a story makes you sad,” she said. “It’s OK if it makes you angry. Those feelings are real. Let’s live them.” But before that—before I could even read—there was People, by Peter Spier. I grew up in a small, sheltered town in Southeast Michigan, everyone white and mid-middle class. At such a young age—three years old, maybe? four?—the pictures in People cracked open the world. They showed me difference in such beautiful ways: bodies, economics, faith, family, language, culture. I saw how we could be, inclusion as an active practice as opposed to a talking point. It’s us, at our best.

My son is eight years old now, reading on his own. Island of the Blue Dolphins. Where the Red Fern Grows. But before that, he had Spier’s People and picture books like it: People by Blexbolex and Joelle Jolivet’s Almost Everything. I hope they helped the world crack open.

Sue William Silverman
author, most recently, of The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

My favorite (and the only) nonfiction book I read growing up was The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. The theme that most profoundly affected me was her belief in the inherent goodness of people—this at the time when she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis. When I read the book (I must have been in sixth or seventh grade), my Jewish father was sexually molesting me. In my young mind, I felt enormous confusion about how and where Jewish girls could find safety. Still, I held tight to her belief, which helped me survive emotionally. Years later, when I became a writer, her diary influenced me in a different way. I realized that it’s enormously important to tell one’s truths, even—especially—dark truths, or truths told in dark times. As such, writing from my own place of darkness didn’t scare me as much. From Anne Frank, I also learned that all voices are important. She was an “ordinary” girl but an extraordinary writer whose story shows the power of personal narrative. Many important political figures wrote about the Holocaust, but Anne Frank’s voice is the one that stays with me, as it has stayed with so many others.

Ira Sukrungruang
author, most recently, of The Melting Season

I was a boy who clung to his mother’s leg, who did not stray far from the safety and comfort of her body for fear the world would come crashing down. I was a boy who barely spoke a word of English, who barely said a word. I was a boy born to two Thai immigrants, who raised me to be nothing else but Thai in post-industry Chicago, where the gray of concrete was as oppressive as the winter clouds. I was a boy without siblings, and so I found companionship in books and authors—Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein. Then I met E. B. White—in the metaphorical sense, of course, but it was a meeting. I like to imagine E. B.—that’s what he told me to call him—coming through the front door and parking himself in my mother’s oversized chair, which she stole from the nurses’ dormitory she used to live in. Here was this man, out of time and place, in a thin suit and wide tie, with a thin mustache, legs crossed, in a house with Buddha presiding above him. “Ira,” he said, “let me tell you about a mouse.” E. B. came often, always preferring that chair. “Ira, let me tell you about a swan.” “Ira, let me tell you about a pig and spider.” And how I listened. How I hung on every word. How every animal seemed a form of me—who I was or what I wanted to become. E. B. knew what I needed. It was simple: a friend.

Wendy S. Walters
author, most recently, of Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal

Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petry.

I checked this book out from the library in elementary school several times, starting in the third or fourth grade. I don’t think I comprehended the story in its entirety the first few times I read it, but I kept coming back to it until the details became completely clear in my mind. Petry’s portrayal of Tubman was based on fact, but the conditions surrounding her life and journey seemed unreal—both for the magnitude of distance she crossed, mostly on foot, from Maryland to St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada, and for the hundreds of “passengers” she brought with her to freedom. I remember wondering how anyone could be so brave. Petry’s opening, a description of Tidewater Maryland, left me with the sense that every geography holds a complicated history no matter how untouched and natural it may look.

Zoe Zolbrod
author, most recently, of The Telling

I still remember how excited I was on the first day we were allowed to check out a book from the school library. When it was time to choose, I headed to the biography shelf, as my mom had suggested I do when I was planning my strategy the night before. I’d already read so many novels, she noted. Why not use this opportunity to try a new form? But when the librarian made last call, I was still in the stacks, feeling confused and let down. A voracious reader of cereal boxes when there was nothing else on hand, I’d thought anything in print would provide fodder for me, but none of these books looked very good. They appeared to be a set, all clothbound with black silhouettes of their subjects screened onto the covers—and all, apparently, about men. I grabbed the only tome that looked like it had potential. The figure squinting off toward a distant shore had an undeniably masculine profile, but the fancy hat and poufy costume allowed me to convince myself that the person’s gender was indeterminate. Maybe I was holding a book about a strong-jawed, sea-faring lady.

I wasn’t. Standing in line to get my book thumped, I turned to the title page and saw I had chosen a volume about William Penn. (In that author’s telling, not an interesting character.) The next week, not giving up on biographies, I again followed my mom’s suggestion and told the librarian what I was looking for: something about a girl. She showed me the three biographies of women in the library’s collection: Betsy Ross, Florence Nightingale, and Molly Pitcher. In a few weeks, I read them all. Molly Pitcher was my favorite. By the time I graduated from that school, I’d read her biography several times. How did it influence my writing? It’s hard to be sure, but I still like to read and write about women doing things.

* Illustration from the Internet Archive Book Image Flickr

About the Author

Randon Billings Noble author photo
Randon Billings Noble

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019, and her anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, is forthcoming from Nebraska in 2021.

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