What was your "Best Book"? An absurd question. And yet, in an online class I am taking on children's literature, I had to consider that question.
So...what is a "best book"?
In my mind it is a book which is influential or somehow transformative.
“Best” is a book that resonates, allowing you to forge a connection that will travel with you through life. I could easily mention A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle. Or perhaps The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
But let me instead talk about a book that became my “Best Book” because I knew it wasn’t my “Best Book.”
The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key was one of those titles that the Detroit public schools sold once a year through a Scholastic Reading program. As a ten-year-old, I recall being drawn to the fantasy of it. This wasn’t a fairy tale, nor did it address its fantasy element in a condescending way. It treated its subject with respect and in turn respected its reader.
The story, the journey of a boy from another planet who somehow drops through a dimensional gate to land in our world, fired my imagination. It’s the sort of tale that makes you pause on the front porch as the summer’s evening draws around you, and stare at the stars to consider the possibilities.
But the Forgotten Door was a safe book. It was one of those titles the adult world gives children with a pat on the head. It was predictable and delivered the positive message one expected to find in a school library.
However, I heard something else.
“Keep reading kid,” it said. “If you like this, you should see what’s on some of those shelves you can’t reach. Or they won’t let you reach. Nudge. Nudge.”
You see? The Forgotten Door itself wasn’t a “Best Book”, but instead a guidepost. It pointed me to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It guided me to the works of Heinlein, Bloch, Matheson, Tolkein, and Asimov.
I could mention numerous other titles that were more stimulating, thought-provoking and memorable, but The Forgotten Door , although I felt at the time that it wasn’t anything special, gave me that peek and welcomed me into a community. Bradbury would become my grandfather. Asimov, my uncle. Vonnegut? The next-door neighbor who partied all night long and kept the rest of us awake. Lovecraft lived in the house at the end of the block and warned everyone away with closed blinds and crabgrass lawn.
I didn’t think about sharing that community with friends. Most of them seldom read and anyway, a ten-year-old needs something to claim his own. Books were power.
In the fifth grade, reading The Forgotten Door, joining that community, enjoying the secretiveness and excitement it offered, I decided one more thing. I recall closing the book and thinking: “I can do that.”
I can write. I can tell stories, too. For some reason, The Forgotten Door helped me recognize writing as a person’s creative expression.
I knew I wanted to write, not because the book was special ( I clearly remember feeling it was okay, but not great), but because I suddenly understood what writing represented.
At ten, someone would ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A writer.” I would answer.
Some things don’t change. Or shouldn’t.