The guidance counselor came into our class and asked us all, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Basic question, right? We were assigned a writing project to explain our future ambitions, and then “guidance guy” took us aside one by one to talk with us about our career plans.
I was nine. I had no clue what kind of career path I wanted! So by the time the guy got around to me I was really anxious, knowing that what I’d written wasn’t at all applicable to the exercise, but hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble. Here’s what I wrote down that day:
“I’m only nine years old. I’m in the GATE program, and I know I’m at the top of my class for grades. I make sure to do that because I want every possible opportunity to be open to me when I get to High School and start looking at colleges and careers. But right now, all I know about what I want out of life, is that no matter what I might choose to do, I want my mother to be proud of me every day of my life no matter what I choose to do for a career.”
That, written down, didn’t fill my page, which was the chief requirement of the exercise. I t also didn’t say a single word about any potential future career path ideas I didn’t have at age nine. So because of those failings, I was afraid of getting in trouble. Everyone was supposed to have written a page full about our future career goals. Some kids, I saw, had filled their page front and back. I couldn’t think of anything else to write. I was having a mild panic attack, because I was just that anxious as a child.
Then it was my turn to sit down with the guidance councilor.
He was not impressed with what I’d written. He told me, I kid you not, that I needed direction. That if I didn’t have some idea of the kind of career I wanted right then, I was probably going to have a less successful life and I was probably going to end up in a menial job like working at McDonald’s because I didn’t have the ambition to strive for anything greater. He said I lacked motivation, I lacked ambition, I lacked direction and drive and maybe I didn’t deserve to be in the GATE program at all.
Now that I’m an adult, I can look back at this and say, “Seriously? I was placed in GATE and then I was at the top of my class and this guy said such a thing to me as a nine-year old child? What was wrong with that guy?!?”
But back to the day in question:
I started crying. The guidance councilor and my GATE teacher marked my paper with an “F”, which required me to take it home so my parents could sign off on my failure.
I cried off and on for the rest of that day at school because I’d never failed anything before, because I was at the top of my class and to get an “F” was really humiliating, because I was going to have to explain to my mother what had happened. I was really ashamed. I was afraid of being punished at home.
Thankfully, my mother is a wonderful person. She gathered me up and hugged me, and told me I had been exactly right to write what I did. She said it wasn’t reasonable to ask nine-year-old children to determine their lifelong career path at such a young age, and that all that would do would be to end up leading all us kids to disappointment, because of course most of my classmates had picked highly idealistic futures like being a rock star or a pro basketball player – things that they were highly unlikely to be capable of achieving when reality was taken into consideration.
My mom took a totally different approach compared to my school’s guidance councilor and my teacher.
She said, “The question is not what kind of career you want to have when you grow up. I’d rather have you start to think about what kind of person you want to be when you grow up. You’re old enough now to start thinking about the direction of your inner character – will you be a good person? Will you be accomplished? Will you be well-read and well-rounded? Will you be kind? Will you be genuine, honest, caring, personable? It’s essential that you get good grades in school, because that will provide you with open doors of opportunity down the line, exactly like you wrote today. But it’s later on, during college, trade school, an apprenticeship or internship, that’s when you’ll get job training or career training. So those open doors are necessary, and good grades will provide the open doors. But right now, let’s focus on your character, and your general knowledge.”
Needless to say, I felt a lot better after talking with my mother.
The next day she handed me a list of books very similar to the one that circulates widely today, which I provide below. I don’t know where she got her version of the list, or how she came up with it, since the internationally recognized list of the best books ever written wasn’t yet established at that time.
I had a great time, first of all, going through the list and marking off the books I’d already read, which was about twenty or so. I felt accomplished already! Then she helped me pick out the books that were the most suitable for my age, and I started checking them out from the library one by one.
As I went on, I realized I was reading great books from a wide variety of very famous authors in a wide range of subjects, and that my views were being greatly expanded by varying my reading material so much. Reading books on the same type of subject or genre is less enlightening than reading more widely. Reading books on lots of different things, written at lots of different times and by lots of different authors makes for lots of different opinions, points of view and subjects of knowledge.
Later on, a few of the books on my list were required reading in High School, such as To Kill a Mockingbird. And because I’d already read the book, my homework load was lighter and easier, and I had more time to devote to extracurricular activities and less stress and anxiety when I was an angsty hormonal teenager. Bonus!
So; when a friend of mine and her daughter started talking about how they recommend books to each other, I immediately thought of that day when I was nine, and what my mother did for me, and how it has affected me throughout my life. And because of my wonderful mother, and because of everything she has done for me, I’m now sharing the list with all my readers!
- Mark off the books you’ve already read
- Discuss which books are appropriate to be read now, for whatever age or level of reading skill you are currently at
- One by one, check the books out from the library, read them, and mark them off the list
- See how many books on the list you can read before you turn 18, or before you turn 40, or before you die; whichever comes soonest.
I really think that’s everything I have to say about this. Now I need to go call my mom and tell her, again, how wonderful she is!
If you have an amazing story of how a traumatic or otherwise terrible event in your childhood has actually turned out for the good, Contact ThaliaBrandon.com with your story, and you may see it featured on the site! (Also, free high-fives are always offered for good submissions.)
1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
14 The Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
19 The Time-Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Graeme
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgommery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine St. Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo