Books that Made You a Reader

In the "Books that Made You" series, we're taking a look at the books that made us who we are. To kick off the series, we asked you what book made you a reader. After scrutinizing our highly scientific social media poll, we present to you this non-exhaustive list of Grubbie-approved gateway reads.


Because nobody can resist a listicle, we've listed the most popular titles in a crowd-pleasing top five countdown. But let's first pause to pay tribute to the outliers. The book that made Muse volunteer Frédérique Rigoulot a reader was the first one she read by herself. "I don’t think it will be remembered by anyone as it was in French a very long time ago," she says. Its translated title would be "meanwhile Charlotte waits." It was a story of a little mouse, second child in a three-child family who always waits for her parents to be available. Grubbie Elizabeth Hammond Morrill nominated Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls because "that was the first book to have an emotional impact, and it opened my eyes to the way a book could really get under your skin." Author and Grub Instructor Kelly Ford gave a shout out to Go, Dog. Go! by P. D. Eastman, which she also credits as having made her a project manager. Grubbie Dharani Persaud came out for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Development Manager Alyssa Mazzarella pledges allegiance to "so many Goosebumps books" and she is #notashamed, and Emerging Writer Fellow Jéssica Oliveira is here for The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.


Others chose classics like the Harry Potter series, Charlotte's Web, Winnie the Poohand The HobbitMadeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time made readers of Grubbie Alveenah Shah and Muse & Events Coordinator Hanna Katz. Alice Walker's The Color Purple was the first book that made Grub's Development Assistant Serina Gousby cry. She fell in love with the novel's epistolary form, and she's been stuck on Alice Walker's work ever since. For Director of Core Programs & Faculty Dariel, it was Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. It was the first book he read as a child that made him feel he could magically be transported to other places and times in his own head, which led to the realization that he loved the feeling and thus would continue to consume books.


Now for the thing we all scrolled here to see: the listicle-licious top-five list.


5. The Secret Garden

For many young readers, including Grubbie Ella Alkiewicz, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett opened a door to more than just the lush greenery of the Yorkshire countryside.


4. Little Women

First published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women gave many young girls the hero they needed: Jo March. Grubbie Susan Schirl Smith wanted to be Jo, and Blog Editor Sarah Colwill-Brown is not ashamed to admit that, when it came time to choose a pseudonym for those uncomfortable encounters with creepy and persistent drunk dudes, there was only ever one choice.


3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is a clear Grubbie fave, coming in third. Author and Grub Instructor Randy Susan Meyers told us what the book meant to her:

Some books etch themselves on your soul. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Perhaps eleven? (Francie’s age when the book begins.) How many times did I read it after that? Ten? Twenty? Enough so that every scene, every character indelibly marked me. I never visited a church or synagogue while growing up in Brooklyn, but like Francie Nolan, I worshipped at the altar of the library. From Francie, the protagonist in this coming-of-age novel, I learned that I wasn’t the only frightened, confused, and unhappy little girl in the world.


A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith was the only bible I ever owned, my personal talisman of hopefulness—perhaps because I was similar to bookish Francie (though in different times; published in 1943, the story opens in 1912.) I grew up confused by my always-working mother and missing my father. He, like Francie’s, ran from life by what we now call self-medicating (and what Francie’s mother, and mine, called nothing, because who talked about it in Brooklyn?) And then he, like Francie’s escaped forever by dying as a young man.


Like Francie, I’d experienced the horror of old men preying on young girls, the joy of having an aunt I’d worshipped, and suffered in a school I hated. Each time I read Francie’s story I was struck anew by how the author knew so much and dared to write it. That’s the beauty of books. They don’t just transport, they heal, teach, and soothe. On the loneliest of days, they ask no more than to be opened. They promise you’re not alone and provide you with the hope of a way out. The best ones don’t guarantee the happiest ending in the world (for who has that?) but show that you have the possibility of enduring (and maybe even thriving) and becoming strong at the broken places.


Perhaps all insatiable readers become imprinted by one special book at a vulnerable age, providing that reader with characters who forever become family of the heart. Because of brave Francie Nolan, I believed I could and would survive. She gave me faith in the future. Bless you, Betty Smith. You are forever my favorite author.


2. Anne of Green Gables

A very close runner-up is Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, loved by Grub's Director of the Muse & Advocacy Sonya, Neighborhood Program Fellow Denise, and several others. Grubbie Colleen Sullivan says, "my great-uncle gave me my very own copy for my seventh birthday, with a map of Prince Edward Island tucked into the dust jacket. He passed away when I was sixteen, and that year my mom took me on a trip to PEI in his memory."


1. The Phantom Tollbooth

But the book that turned the most Grubbies into readers was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. Director of Online & Special Programs Alison says, "it's the book that taught me never to be bored," and many Grubbies agreed!



Missed an edition of Lit Hits? Fear not! Find the entire back catalogue of Grubbie-recommended titles right here.

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About the Author

Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review,  Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the  Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit

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by Colwill Brown