Judith Ridge’s charming collection celebrates the indisputable connection between reading and writing and the transformative power of books. Her foreword cites Jeanette Winterson’s memoir and its suggestion that ‘books, and reading, can not only make a life, they can save it’. And save it they do; the 32 personal stories shared within The Book That Made Me are certainly testament to that fact.
Tales of survival – surviving adolescence, parenthood, alienation and break-ups - and of power – the influence of storytelling, shared experiences, voice and agency – feature within this compilation. However, the overwhelming theme present within these stories is that the books that ‘make us’ are the ones that serve as a source of validation or a realisation that we are never truly alone. To reference but one of the wonderful vignettes of this collection, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s entry illustrates this well. As an Australian-born Muslim, Abdel-Fattah felt isolated by the Anglo-centric fiction that left minorities largely unrepresented in children’s fiction. She talks of being ‘socialised…into subconsciously discounting’ her own story. That was until she read Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi, a book that spoke to her own life. Many other writers here share similar sentiments, of finally experiencing an affinity or comfort within the pages of their chosen book.
As writers, most of the contributors also sought inspiration and discovered their own voices through their selected works. Humorously, Will Kostakis reveals his initiation into storytelling as being through the disappointing predictability of Gary Paulsen’s The Hatchet. Others, like Brigid Lowry, share more sentimental motivations.
Despite Australian titles being in the minority, to Ridge’s (and her selected contributors’) credit, these titles take on impressively diverse forms. Recommendations include picture books, poems, plays, magazines, novels and manga, each celebrated as significant sources of validation and hope for their readers.
Ridge’s The Book That Made Me serves best as a teacher resource and guide for recommending reading for students, or for aspiring writers. As teachers, we may recognise versions of these young writers in our classrooms – young people who are desperate to find some sort of affirmation, validation or mirror to their own experiences. Books can serve as a significant contributor to identity and self-conceptualisation, and today, more than ever, young people need to read about ‘themselves’. Thus, they must feel encouraged to write about themselves, too. Inspired by The Books That Made Me, young people need not discount their own stories, like Abdel-Fattah once did, and can instead write tales of inclusion with confidence and pride.
All royalties from the sale of this book will go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
Reviewed by Melanie Van Langenberg, Sacré Cœur