Five Books that Changed My Life by Amy Gail Hansen
Has a book ever beckoned you to read it? Whispered your name from the shelf? Stolen your heart by its title alone? Mesmerized you with one glance at its cover art?
Sometimes I find books and other times, they seem to find me. But no matter how a book landed in my hands–whether my teacher assigned it as part of the curriculum, it was my book club’s latest pick, or it called my name from the shelf—it always seemed to come into my life just when I needed it most, like an Rx prescribed by a fairy book doctor. Looking back on all the books I’ve read in my life, there are five that made a significant life-changing impact on me. (And probably more, but don’t we all agree that five is a good number?)
I was in eighth grade, age 13, when I first read Harper Lee’s classic tale about precocious Scout Finch, who witnesses the devastating impact of prejudice in the Deep South. My language arts teacher, Mrs. Kennelly, assigned chapter one for homework, and I came home from school and started immediately. I finished the chapter so quickly, I went on to chapter two, and then three, and before I knew it, I was in the thick of it and couldn’t stop. I broke only to eat dinner—and only because my mother made me—and stayed up late to finish it. It was the first time I ever read a book in one day, and it was exhilarating, a natural high, a thrill better than any television show I could have watched that night. I was hooked. That book sealed the deal; I was a reader for life.
Many years later, as a high school English teacher, I taught To Kill a Mockingbird as part of the required curriculum and grew to appreciate the book even more for its literary quality, its morals and themes, and Lee’s clever use of mystery—what is up with that Boo Radley guy?—to lure readers young and old.
The summer I graduated from high school was an emotionally turbulent one, as I transitioned to the unfamiliar world of adulthood and college. And there was no better time in my life to read She’s Come Undone, a coming of age story about the flawed and inherently loveable Dolores Price. Wally Lamb’s first novel is a decade-spanning saga—you’re with Dolores from childhood to middle age—and I found comfort in the fact that despite the trials and tribulations of soul-searching, Dolores finds herself in the end. And that gave me hope that I might one day be comfortable in my own skin. She’s Come Undone is the kind of book that sticks to your bones. I lived vicariously through Dolores, and through her, I worked through the struggles of my own life. She’s Come Undone proves that books have the power to heal us, if we only read, if we only listen.
Years later, working as a journalist, I met Wally Lamb at a signing after I interviewed him for his book, Wishin’ and Hopin’. He not only signed my tattered copy of She’s Come Undone that night, but also inspired and encouraged me to follow my dreams as a writer. Needless to say, I’ll never part with it.
Being an English major in college, I was fortunate to read a wide variety of authors and genres, but when it came time to write my senior thesis, I picked Jane Eyre, another coming of age book (I just love those!) about a plain-looking governess who overcomes the odds of her abused and lonely childhood and ultimately finds love and redemption. Writing a thesis is a semester long project full of reading and note-taking and writing and rewriting, and I took the task to heart. At almost 40 pages, it was the longest piece of non-fiction I had ever written in my life up to that point. But it was more than that. The synthesis of information—turning raw material into a new and complex ideology— transformed me as a writer. It was the ultimate test of my skills, the proof that I was worthy of a degree in English, that I belonged in the world of academia.
The book also inspired my love of classic literature by other women novelists, like Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and Edith Wharton, to name a few. And the madwoman in the attic? I think she’s one of the most unforgettable literary characters of all time!
In 2006, two high school friends and I created a book club called Read Between the Wines, and The Devil Wears Prada was our first pick, mainly because the movie was set to come out and we thought seeing the movie together could be our first field trip. Laura Weisberger’s tale of a young woman working as a personal assistant for a high-powered and unreasonably demanding fashion executive was a quick, fun and satisfying read and the perfect start to our club. But for me, it was also an epiphany.
I remember reading the last page and thinking, I could have written this book, and I meant that in a very pragmatic way. Up to that point, I had not produced a full-length novel—only short stories—but I realized during my reading that I was capable of writing a story of that kind, that my brain could have created something like it, if I only tried. So the day after I finished reading the book, I finally sat down and start writing The Butterfly Sister, my debut novel published by William Morrow/HarperCollins, coming out August 6. Thus, The Devil Wears Prada was the book that incited my journey from aspiring writer to published author.
This one was magical for me. In 2010, I was hard at work revising The Butterfly Sister and purposely reading books in my genre—namely blends of literary women’s fiction and suspense—in search of inspiration and knowledge. I often roamed through bookstores seeking novels that reminded me of my own. The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh actually beckoned me from the shelf by its book cover alone. The title and the book description only attracted me more, and I read it in 2-3 days, loving it so much, I clutched the book to my chest when I finished (seriously, I am that dramatic). I don’t want to ruin it, so I’ll just say it’s about the power of sisterhood and twins, and a literary delight. I remember reading the author’s acknowledgments and seeing the name Elisabeth Weed listed as Walsh’s literary agent. Elisabeth Weed, I thought. I’ll contact you when I’m done revising my novel, and I tucked her name away for that future day I hoped would come.
And then one Friday in January 2012, that little voice in my gut said, “It’s time.” I sent e-mail queries about The Butterfly Sister to two literary agents that day, figuring I would contact two agents a week and see how things went. But I never had to query more agents, because Elisabeth Weed requested the manuscript almost immediately and soon after, offered representation. And then she sold the book to William Morrow/Harper Collins, making my dreams come true. Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened had I not found The Last Will of Moira Leahy, or if it had not found me. But fortunately, I did. I’d like to think it was destiny.
So my advice to readers and writers alike is this: if a book ever calls to you from the bookshelf or serendipitously lands in your lap, read it.
It could just change your life.
Born in the Chicago suburbs, Amy Gail Hansen spent her early childhood near New Orleans. She holds a BA in English from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A former English teacher, she works as a freelance writer and journalist in suburban Chicago, where she lives with her husband and three children. The Butterfly Sister
is her debut novel.
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