I can’t choose just one; here are the 2 books that meant the most to me as a child.
The first selection is actually a series of four books, the original Mary Poppins as written by P.L. Travers. These books are nothing like the Disney movie. The real Mary Poppins was scary; the adventures the Banks’ children had weren’t pleasant outings she concocted for them, they were journeys that were sometimes wonderful and sometimes horrible, and almost always dangerous. This Mary Poppins had her own agenda, and lived her life on her own terms. Travers skewers the class basis of Edwardian England, and the books are as much trenchant social commentary as they are children’s stories.
These books influenced me in two main ways. First, and most important, they taught me to look for layered meanings. I picked up these books as a 9 year old and enjoyed them for the exciting tales they told of the adventures that Jane and Michael had with their nanny. As I read the books, it gradually dawned on me that there was another story being told, about the different levels of British society, and about the people in charge and all the other people who quietly and stealthily lived lives that were very different than what was being promulgated as the right way to live. I’d read other children’s books that had SERIOUS MESSAGES, but this was my first experience with a book that managed to get a point across without driving it like a hammer.
The second way this book influenced me happened when the Mary Poppins movie was released. My parents took us to see it, and I was so excited to see my favorite books on the big screen. I still remember how severely disappointed I was with the sweet, caring figure who was played by Julie Andrews. Over time I came to appreciate the movie, but the lesson I started learning that day was that movies and books are different media, and you can’t expect them to tell stories in the same way. It took me a long time to recognize that, but Mary Poppins started the process.
The second book that affected me was I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. I picked this up when I was 12; it the first science fiction book I’d ever read, and launched me on a life-long love affair with speculative fiction. The I, Robot stories were a revelation; the hero was a woman who broke every convention of what women were supposed to be. She was smart, often smarter than everyone else, and proud of that fact. She spoke the truth as she saw it, even if that upset other people; she didn’t care about how she looked; and she was in charge; and her career was important. Reading those stories in 1967 was my introduction to feminism.