Books I Love is a series where writers talk about the books that inspired them, the books they keep coming back to, and the books they'll always remember.
More than anything—war, raisins, people who say “supposably”—I hate writing “favorite books” lists. My new book, Because I Said So!, is about the scientific debunking of deathless parental clichés (don’t swim after you eat, swallowed gum sits in your colon for seven years, etc.), and so I sneakily asked Publishers Weekly if I could limit this list to books about parents and kids. How hard could that be? I thought. In children’s books, the parents are always dead. And in classic novels, the iconic parents are all impossibly saintly creations like Atticus Finch and Marmee March that no one really likes much. (Also, they have terrible names like “Atticus” and “Marmee.”) But even that didn’t narrow my list down enough: I found I still had no room for so many favorites: for Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (about a grandmother, not a mother, but still), for any of Jonathan Franzen’s moms or Richard Russo’s dads. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry to all of you.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy - How do you write like the magician Cormac McCarthy? Please, someone, tell me, I want to know. I will do whatever it takes. I will grind up fiery eighteenth-century Congregationalist church sermons into a fine paste and inject it into my veins. I will abandon my home and live for ten years with a family of coyotes in the hills of West Texas. This book says every single important thing about being a father, the love but mostly the fear.
Home by Marilynne Robinson - After The Road, where else would you turn but Home? This novel actually retells the events of Robinson’s more celebrated (and Pulitzer-winning) novel Gilead from a different character’s point of view—an engagingly po-mo twist for such a simple, uncluttered take on 1950s rural America. One is a book about how endlessly children can disappoint their parents, and the other is a book about what it feels like to be the disappointment. Read both.
Cautionary Tales for Children by Hilaire Belloc - The French-born Belloc was one of the most prolific men of letters in Edwardian England, chilling with Chesterton and weekending with Wells. But today’s he’s best remembered for these still-sharp parodies of Victorian “moral verse” for children. Sample titles include “Matilda, Who told lies, and was Burned to Death” and “Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father.” My edition is illustrated by the late great Edward Gorey—which is appropriate, as Belloc’s light touch and pitch-black sense of humor are obvious influences on Gorey classics like “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan - I believe that children are our future. Ian McEwan believes that children are a mystical, life-saving link between the future and the past in a grim, dystopian, endless-Thatcher-type future England. Warning to easily unnerved moms and dads: this is the story of a man laid low by every parents’ nightmare: the disappearance of a tiny child in a crowded supermarket. On the plus side, that’s probably better than what happens to the baby in The Road. Nobody writes a sentence like Ian McEwan.
The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald - Aha, I finally remembered one of my formative children’s books where the parents are actually breathing. In this seven-book series (not counting one posthumous pastiche) Fitzgerald recalls his childhood in turn-of-the-century frontier Utah, particularly the Tom Sawyer-like exploits of his titular older brother, the town’s brainy eleven-year-old con artist. As a kid, I loved reading about “Tom D.” scamming all his endlessly gullible Mormon pals out of their Bowie knives and coonskin caps. As a parent, I’m more impressed by Tom’s longsuffering parents. Ahead of their time, the Fitzgeralds never spank. They have an even worse weapon in their arsenal, called the “silent treatment”—which still works pretty well on my own 21st-century kids, incidentally.
You’ll Never Know by Carol Tyler - There are a few great parent-and-child memoirs in comics form, but I skipped the obvious Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel entries in favor of this lesser-known three-volume masterpiece, about Tyler’s complicated relationship with her distant dad, a World War II vet. With her playful, fluid brush line and busy patchwork of watercolor woodgrain, Tyler’s art looks like the past feels.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole - I just realized this list doesn’t have enough moms on it, probably because I don’t read enough of those books with teacups and gabled windows on the covers. I think they usually have ladies who team up to form some kind of club or sisterhood? Anyway, my favorite literary mom is either Sophie Portnoy or Ignatius J. Reilly’s mother in A Confederacy of Dunces. Give him hell, Irene.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Okay, fine: Atticus. But here’s what I like about Atticus Finch: yes, he’s a loving, hands-on dad, but he doesn’t hover or sugar-coat. He lets the kids run and be kids, even though his Maycomb neighborhood is (apparently) packed with rabid dogs, senile and sadistic Confederate widows, murderous shut-ins, racist lynch mobs, knife-wielding pedophile rednecks, and a “fun size” version of Truman Capote. Everybody forgets that the first part of the “to kill a mockingbird” line is Atticus telling his son it’s okay to shoot all the bluejays he wants with his new air rifle. Our helicopter-parent age needs more dads like Atticus Finch.