A story: You’re a little girl growing up in a small farming community in New York State in the late 1930s. For your ninth birthday, your grandmother gives you a magical gift: A beautifully bound, slightly oversize book. Published by Grosset & Dunlap, it’s a volume of Lewis Carroll’s two classics, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with gorgeous illustrations by John Tenniel. And this gift turns you into a writer.
This is exactly what happened to the prolific and ever-inventive novelist, Joyce Carol Oates. When she was asked to write about “the book that changed My life,” she wrote about the birthday book she received more than 60 years before. To this day, she treasures this life-changing gift and it holds a place of honor on her bookshelf.
Why was the book so transformative? Quite simply, it made Joyce “yearn to be a writer” — a spinner of tales like Lewis. How did the book weave such a spell?
It carried her to a different world: Like any kid with a beloved book, Joyce wanted to be Alice. And yet reading about her plunged Joyce into a foreign world — one of teatime, crumpets, queens and kings.
It changed her: As Joyce put it, “I think I learned from Alice to be just slightly bolder than I might have been, to question authority — that is, adults — and to look upon life as an adventure.”
It gave her a role model for confronting life: Having Alice as a model, “I was prepared to recognize fear, even terror, without succumbing to it. There are scenes of nightmare illogic in the Alice books — dramatizations of the anxiety of being eaten, for instance, yet Alice never becomes panicked or loses her common sense and dignity.”
It showed her the joy of writing: The name Lewis Carroll in gilt letters on the spine of her book inspired Joyce to begin drawing and creating her own “novels” on lined paper for hours on end. As she describes its life-changing influence: “Out of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have sprung not only much of my enthusiasm for writing but my sense of the world as an indecipherable, essentially absurd but fascinating spectacle.”
What a treasure a book given to a child can be! And what magical worlds they can transport us to. Write on.