Notes for my daughter: books to read

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Dear Orla,

You might not enjoy them or even finish them, but the following books are all worth trying. These are the books that helped me understand the world – and possibly even myself – a little bit better. 

If I get hit by a bus and turn into a tragic absent-mother-figure, I hope you can read your way down this list, and feel like you got to know me some more.

  • Stargirl – Jerry Spinelli. Despite being far too old for the target demographic, I loved this book for its gentle handling of difference, belonging and exclusion in early teens. Although there are shades of manic pixie dream girl about Stargirl, it ends realistically, honestly, and with just the right amount of sadness and joy.
  • Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion  – this textbook for marketing students in the 90’s works as a perfect how-to to avoid being sold to, manipulated and marketed at against your will. Part pop-psychology book, part sales manual, it leaves you with a better understanding of yourself and of the retail industry as a whole. I spent a lot of my teens and early 20s feeling like a puppet being yanked about by the strings of magazines and fashion stores, and books like this go a long way to snipping through those ties.
  • So You’ve been Publicly Shamed – In this honest account of Jon Ronson’s time on twitter and social media, he meets victims of social media witchhunts – some seemingly justified, others less so – and considers what drives us to destroy those who misspeak or misbehave in the public eye. This look into the real lives of these individuals will change the way you feel about public shamings, and make you more than a little cautious about what you say online in future.
  • After You’d Gone – Maggie O’Farell’s debut, and in my opinion still her best. I read this to remember how much I love the people in my life. I read this to sob uncontrollably for half an hour. I read this to remind myself that sometimes a first effort, without the years of experience and understanding that must come from subsequent publishing deals, can still be raw and beautiful and perfect.
  • Free Will – it’s no exaggeration to say that neurologist Sam Harris’ words on free will and human nature have changed my life. He speaks compellingly, logically and entirely sensibly on how neuroscience clearly rules out free will, and how every choice we make is simply a product of our experiences, brain chemistry, circumstance and genes. Understanding his stance gave me perspective to better understand why we sometimes don’t do all the things we want, and forgive myself for a lot of that conflict. I’d really like to live in a world where everyone – especially mental health practitioners – was familiar with this theory.
  • Lolita – seems to be one of the most misunderstood books in popular culture. That there are people who still buy this purely for the illicit sexual references, and that it has birthed a cutesy fashion trend is entirely unfathomable to me. But in a society where women are prized for being hairless and nubile, this uncomfortably close inspection of paedophilia, lust and abuse is thought provoking and compelling.
  • Be Awesome – A feminist call to action in disguise, this by Hadley Freeman succinctly, articulately and at times hilariously explains everything that is ridiculous about modern society’s rules for women. I found myself scribbling endless streams of quotations into my journal from this, because it was so jam-packed with logic and brilliant revelations. Some chapters are skippable – I’m just not as passionate about 80’s movies as Hadley – but I wholeheartedly wish this book had existed when I was an impressionable teenager searching for a guidebook for life.
  • We are all Completely Beside Ourselves – A recent addition to my mental list, but I loved this. It’s hard to describe why without moving dangerously close to spoiler territory, so just read it and love it and then we’ll talk.
  • The Summer Book – a quiet, gentle, slow book by Tove Jansson – like a long lazy summer in itself, full of magic and wisdom and that special kind of maturity only children possess.
  • Bridget Jones’ Diary – It seems a shame that this is now so casually dismissed as ‘chic lit’, when in fact it is funny and clever and oh so true. The sequels are trash, disappointingly, but the original stands strong and proud, head and shoulders above the stream of mindless mush it inspired.
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady – Remarkably similar to the above, but dating back to the 1930s. Good for realising that problems with money, children & society are timeless – and still quite funny.
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Painful, anguished, difficult, and inspiring. A reminder that it’s never too late, but perhaps it is worth getting started today all the same.
  • A Year of Style. Better than a thousand glossy magazines, French hair stylist Frederic Fekkai shares his timeless hair & beauty tips & generally makes you feel happy to be alive.
  • Maiden Speech – My favourite ever book of poetry, this skinny, insignificant looking book houses gems from Scottish poet Eleanor Brown on all the heartache and dopamine-rushing glee of love and lust. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel less alone. The kind of book you might want to keep under your pillow sometimes, just in case. She wrote it in 1997 and then promptly disappeared from the googlable world. Eleanor, if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting for more.

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What books would you recommend to your daughter – or to any girl growing up in the 21st Century? Are there books you credit with helping you become who you are?

  • Rachael Smith

    I have read none of these! Shame on me 🙊 I’m about to start reading Anne of green gables with my daughter, a key part of my youth, excited to share my love of it with her. Here’s hoping she likes it!!

    • Ha! No shame – I always feel guilty when I see those competitive lists on Facebook of ‘100 books to read before you die’, or ‘100 books to prove you’re intellectual and clever’ as they really ought to be called. Each to their own library, I say!
      That said, I am slightly ashamed to confess I’ve never read Anne of Green Gables! Will I love it? Do I need to buy it? 😀 x

      • Rachael Smith

        I can’t imagine anyone not loving it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’s wonderful!

      • Sheona

        Anne of Green Gables is amazing! She’s the first person I wanted to be instead of myself!

      • CaliMel

        Anne of Green Gables books are really really great books. I read mine over and over and over again. Rilla of Ingleside is great as well. Now I want to re-read them.

  • Sheona

    I read ‘we are all completely beside ourselves’ when I was in hospital!

    I feel I need to reread some of those now 🙂

    • Oh! Did you think you had gone properly loopy at the middle bit? I ‘read’ it as an Audiobook and was properly aghast and gaping. Didn’t see it coming at all! x

  • (Mostly) Yummy Mummy

    I love this so much! I’ve just passed on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to one of my daughters which was one of my favourites when I was her age. You’ve made me really think about what other books I need to pass on now!

    • Thank you! I didn’t read Alice as a child – what age did you first read it at? You’ve got me thinking I might need to buy a copy now! x

  • What a lovely idea for a post. I have spent quite a bit of time gazing at our bookshelves and wondering which books Matilda will pick out to read when she’s older (and which need to be put out of her reach for a while!); I love my Kindle but it saddens me that my favourite e-books aren’t available to her.

    • Thanks Sarah! It’s been in my mind to write this for a little while – I always think books shape us almost as much as our life experiences in the end.
      It is sort of a sad loss that you won’t be able to directly pass on your worn and loved copies to Matilda. But perhaps in another decade or two paper books will become purely decorative, and she’ll have to buy everything as an e-book anyway! 😉 xx

  • niki thomas

    Fabulous idea Sara for your daughter!
    Immersing myself in Persephone books right now, so Diary of a Provincial Lady was right up there as a must and I loved It.
    If you like Maggie O’Farrell then read her – The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – thought provoking, sad and compelling, and on the look out now after your thoughts on After You’d Gone.
    If you come across The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, give it a go, sounds like your sort of book, maybe.
    (whispers, I’ve taken the plunge, finally, into IG : niki_atthecottage) so your posts on instagram tips I’ll be re reading!)

  • I agree with you so much with your thoughts on Lolita – it’s really not the romantic love story so many think it is. I also agree with Stargirl, that is such a beautiful book, and opens up so many conversations.

    Despite not wanting children, I do love books and I think I’d have to list must reads as: Fragile Things (Neil Gaiman), The Book Thief (Markus Zusak), Rules of Attraction (Brett Easton Elis), The Dice Man (Luke Rhineheart), Silence of the Lambs (Thomas H) and actually many many more. I do love a good book.

    Erin | CD

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  • Michelle Moss

    I love that you had After You’d Gone on that list. I still have my copy and I remember the days before marriage, before kids, just reading it all day and all night. I cried and cried. It is beautiful. I have read other Maggie O’Farrell – all good, but this is my favourite.