'Once I opened the book and turned to the first page, I was hooked': Kristin Hannah on the books that shaped her

We all have a list of books that have moved our world and shaped our thinking. Here Kristin Hannah, bestselling author of over twenty novels including The Nightingale and Firefly Lane, shares her list.

29/06/2021
3 minutes to read

Books can mean so much to us at different stages of life, but childhood reading in particular can offer support and protection from the outside world. Here author Kristin Hannah describes how key novels helped her deal with a peripatetic childhood, and inspired her to become the successful writer she is today.

Like most writers, I have always been a voracious reader. I was the kid on the family vacation who had to be told to look up from my book to see the Grand Canyon, or the Pacific Ocean, or whatever location my camping-obsessed family had ventured down some nameless road to find. I was always reading, always walking around with my nose buried in a book. 

Between the pages, I discovered endless worlds and became a different version of myself – a warrior princess, a wandering poet, a mad scientist. I lived a multitude of lives, all the while growing up in some small American town or another. Books were especially comforting to me because of the peripatetic nature of my family. We were always on the move, looking for adventures, and I was often the new girl in school. Books were the friends I took with me from place to place. 

Unlike many of my peers, I did not grow up imagining my future writing career. Writing a novel to me seemed to be a magical thing; not something for an ordinary girl from an ordinary town. Surely, I thought, the beginning of such a venture would be pre-dated by an unquenchable desire to write and a basic belief in one’s talent. Or so I thought. And I had nothing beyond a deep and abiding love for stories and words and characters.

Although the list of books that helped to create and define my character and push me towards my future is long and varied, here are a few of the truly memorable reads that have influenced me along the way…


The Wizard of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

Book cover for 9781509881963

The Oz books were the first novels that I collected for myself. I remember receiving The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for my seventh birthday, in hardcover and with illustrations, from my grandmother Noreen. After that, every year on my birthday I received the next book in the series. As a kid, all I saw was the magical, wonderful world that the author had created, a series of adventures – all being driven by a girl, who was trying to get home – and I was swept away by Dorothy and her exploits.

I loved the deeper messages of friendship and caring and honesty. The hard-won courage of the Cowardly Lion, the brain of the straw-stuffed Scarecrow, the heart of the Tin Man. For a girl who moved from school to school, the idea of these lasting friendships was powerful stuff. Later on, as an adult, I learned of the political underpinnings of the novel and I was moved once again. It became an important part of The Four Winds to me as I was writing: this idea of a young girl, caught up in a terrible windstorm and being swept to another world. I still have the whole collection.

‘As a kid, all I saw was the magical, wonderful world that the author had created, a series of adventures – all being driven by a girl . . .’

Room

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for 9780330519021

This is, quite simply, one of the most powerful portraits of motherhood I have ever read. I was absolutely blown away by the originality and emotion of this novel, even though, initially I was repelled by the subject matter and afraid to read it. I remember circling it for months, looking at it on my bookshelf repeatedly before I dared to pick it up. But once I opened the book and turned to the first page, I was hooked. I still remember the way young Jack talked about Room, the small prison which was his whole world, and the pain of losing meltedy spoon. And the way his mother framed and defined that world and kept him as safe in a dangerous place as she could. A brilliant, sad, beautiful, ultimately hopeful novel. 

The Pillars of the Earth

by Ken Follett

Book cover for 9781509848492

There was a moment that everyone in the world seemed to be talking about this novel. It was a doorstopper of a book, but no one minded the length because the story was mesmerizing from the get-go. I am certain that the depth of the historical story and the power of the world-building was part of what set me on the path to choosing to write historical fiction. 

‘I am certain that the depth of the historical story and the power of the world-building was part of what set me on the path to choosing to write historical fiction. ’

The Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book cover for The Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit

The Lord of the Rings is probably the single most influential novel in my life. It is the one I’d take with me on a desert island, the one I re-read most often, the one that still brings me to tears. The memory of reading it, and finally learning to love it, is inextricably bound with memories of my mother, which are still precious. She first gave me her worn, dog-eared copy of The Hobbit when I was twelve years old. This was 1972, in the midst of the Vietnam war and at a time of chaos in America, and the days were strange indeed for an adolescent girl. I tried several times to read The Hobbit and always put it aside. Who wanted to read about strange creatures who lived in holes in the ground? This was, of course, in exactly the years that I wanted least to listen to my mother about anything. 

Finally, when I was thirteen, I caught the flu and had to stay home from school for a few days and I read the entire series in a fevered rush. I didn't just fall, I tumbled into love with Middle Earth and the story of the One Ring. Again, this was a book about friendship, about courage, about ordinary people battling extraordinary odds. Overcoming fear and being bold. It became almost family lore; our house was named Lothlorien. We embraced this story, each of us, and it shaped and defined us. It still represents my very favorite kind of novel – a sweeping story peopled by characters you love, set in a world that feels so real you can almost touch it. 


To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Book cover for To Kill a Mockingbird

This is another of the books that I re-read every few years and find something new with each read. It is, in my opinion, a nearly perfect novel. Relevant, beautifully written, important and deeply emotional. Scout is one of those characters that stay with the reader for life.

The Prince of Tides

by Pat Conroy

Book cover for The Prince of Tides

The Prince of Tides is one of the novels that most influenced the kind of writer I wanted to become. I will never forget reading Pat Conroy for the first time. His prose is stunningly lyrical and powerful and he offers deep insights into human nature and the human condition.

Read our guide to Kristin Hannah's books.