As educators, we regularly tell our students about the importance of reading and encourage them to read more, and varied, texts. Literature has the power to transport us—to another world, another time, and to see things through the eyes of someone other than ourselves—and even, sometimes, to change the trajectory of our lives.
But there is a difference between telling this fact to our students and actually showing them. That’s why Friends’ Central School’s Head of School Craig Sellers runs This Book Changed My Life, a podcast that explores the way books, and the ideas in them, have transformed members of our Friends’ Central School community.
We explore these books below.
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Contributed by Dwight Dunston, FCS Class of 2006 and current Coordinator of Equity and Justice Education
Dwight remembers reading Tuck Everlasting in sixth grade, after it was recommended to him by a teacher. The plot uses adventure and magic to explore concepts of life, death, and immortality
“I remember being so sad. Reading this book was the first time I ever thought about these big, existential questions around life and death,” says Dwight. “I was thinking bigger thoughts—about mortality, about cycles, about what we do with our lives.”
“My grandmother had actually passed away around the time that I read the book, and reading it gave me some insight and helped me through the healing process and making sense of her passing in a way that I don’t think I could have if I hadn’t read it.”
Contributed by Emily Harnett, FCS Class of 2009 and current Upper School English Teacher
Anna read Anna Karenina when she was 22 and in college, during what she called her “Russian phase.”
“The question ‘What book changed your life?’ can be a hard question, but it’s a fair one. Why read books all the time if they’re not having some sort of effect on you?” she says.
When asked if she had noticed herself changing while reading the book, or if it had come later, she replied: “I think that it happened very fast. I was reading a very long and beautiful sentence, and I was trying to figure out why it was beautiful. What I finally realized was that each sentence had a precise and immediately recognizable psychological insight. I had never before read a book which seemed to understand so fully what it feels like to have a brain.”
When asked to elaborate upon why she believes the book had such an impact on her, she said:
“I think it’s related to adolescence. One of the struggles of adolescence is—and maybe just of being a person—is trying to find out how singular you are and trying to honor the ways in which you’re different from other people, but also the ways in which you’re similar. What was so strange about the book, so life-changing, was in realizing that this old, bearded Russian guy, whose concerns were so different from mine, and who lived so long ago, could represent what I felt, and could speak to parts of human experience which I identified with.”
Contributed by Tanya Muse, FCS Class of 2002 and current Lower School Teacher
While the Harry Potter series is now a piece of staple literature for many children, Tanya didn’t discover the books until she was an adult, after seeing the first movie and noticing that everyone around her was reading the books. It made her wonder: What is it about these books that makes everyone—adults, grandparents, aunts, uncles, kids—so engulfed?
“It’s ironic, because it’s a book about magic. But reading those first two chapters felt like magic. I could put myself into that book, really thinking that I could cast a spell on anybody. As an adult! It’s also had a major impact on the way that I teach.
At the lower school, we teach thematically, and I’ve found so many ways to incorporate Harry Potter into the theme at the Lower School.”
Contributed by Beth Johnson, FCS Class of 1977 and current Upper School Principal
Beth’s choice challenges the way that we think about “good books,” because her choice isn’t tied to the content itself.
“I love this book—but not because I love the content. I don’t love the content,” she says. “I love the fact that sisterhood is celebrated. It’s the first book that I read that was written by a black woman, for black women. But there’s a lot of tragedy, and a lot of sadness in the book.
“As I was reading the book, I was so sad. But I could not get away from the feeling of sisterhood, even though I hadn’t had any of the experiences described in the book. There was something about the sisterhood that resonated with me. It made me feel a sense of belonging, even though I didn’t particularly want to share any of the experiences. It was just so powerful.”
Contributed by Alexa Dunnington Quinn, FCS Class of 1998 and current Middle School Principal
“This isn’t what I would call my ‘favorite book,’” she says. “It’s a book that had a lasting impression on me.”
“I first encountered the book as either a first or second grader, when my mom read it to me at night. I’ll definitely read it to my children at some point, but not just yet. (Some of the themes can be a bit advanced for a child’s book, and there are also some upsetting parts in it.)
One part that stuck with me was the sadness of when the toy is discarded temporarily, and the sadness of the idea of a child growing up and moving beyond a toy or something that was so important to them and that they loved so deeply. A big part of the book is that he loves the rabbit so much that it makes the rabbit real. The depth of that love paired with the idea of this rabbit being discarded—it’s just so sad.
The lasting ideas and the themes of it are all about what it means to be real, and how to become real, and I’ve always thought of it as an undercover coming of age book. It’s not intrinsically a coming of age book. But the idea that over time you’re becoming more authentically yourself, and that that happens through profound love and openness and vulnerability really stuck with me.”
Contributed by Ryan Tozer, FCS Class of 2001 and current Middle School Math Teacher & Varsity Boys Basketball Coach
“When I was a freshman in college, my professor had us read this book,” he says. “It was a memoir about the relationship between a student and a professor, and really about the meaning of life. I read it in one night. I’ve never picked up a book and read it straight through, other than this one.
It just stuck with me, and reminded me about relationships that I had with teachers and coaches in the past that really had a great impact on my life. I’ve carried the lessons that I learned from this book with me ever since I was a freshman in college.
A lot of the life lessons that I took from the story remind me of a lot of the values that we as educators at Friends’ Central are trying to impart in our students. The world we’re living in today is in a desperate shortage of compassion, which is something today’s generation really needs. What really stood out to me about Morrie is that he not only taught his students, but he also taught them how to communicate, how to have compassion, and the importance of community—which are all things that we do really well at Friends’ Central.”
Contributed by Dani Gershkoff, FCS Class of 2006 and current Development Associate
“I think that it was in 11th grade that I first read this book, when I was still at Friends’ Central. But it’s important to note that the most important conversations that happened around the book didn’t happen in the classroom. They happened outside of the classroom, actually with a different teacher from the one who had assigned the reading.
I was at the time developing myself as a poet. I was thinking about writing, and about different kinds of experiments with writing, and we connected about a lot of different artforms. One thing he and I talked about, and that he instilled in all of his students, was getting to care. Getting to be passionate. Getting to express ourselves. In this book, the author was so expressive and poetic—she very much mixes poetry and long-form fiction.
I found myself wanting to reread passages, enjoying being in rhythm of the language. I actually think that I started around that time trying to write in a similar style. The book had a major influence on my poetry and work.”
Contributed by Margaret Somerville, FCS Class of 1983 and current Middle School Language Teacher
“Most children who know The Odyssey have grown up with The Odyssey. Many of our students here already know the book before they come into my Latin class.
But you know what? I didn’t. Earlier Margaret did not grow up with The Odyssey, did not know the stories of Odysseus. The first time that I read the book was actually in Greek, when I was in college as a Greek major. I loved mythology growing up, but I had never read the translation of the book as most people do.
When I became a Latin teacher, and I decided that my signature piece in my teaching would be what I called “Tempus Fabulae”—the time of the story—where I tell my students an installment of The Odyssey and we practice the art of storytelling. It was in the sharing of the story with my students and with others that the book changed my life, and actually inspired me to go to seminary.
So what is a book? Is it the written word, or is it the story of sharing it, or is it the notion of ‘odyssey’ and the fact that I’m still on one?”
Contributed by Devin Coleman, FCS Class of 2011 and current Equipment Manager & Varsity Boys Assistant Basketball Coach
“This was just a book that exuded positivity at a point in my life that I really needed it. I was 25, transitioning from playing basketball and figure out where I wanted to go next in life. The lessons that I took away from this book helped me in that transition and opened my eyes to things that were important.
I was maybe halfway through reading the book when I realized that the message within it was something positive enough to take and apply to my life.
There’s a lot in the book about the importance of ‘reading the signs’ and making the most of your situation. There’s also a lot about transformation and the fact that you never know what will come next in your life. It made me realize that it’s okay to transition to something else, and to feel a bit of confusion about what’s next.”
Contributed by Galen Guindon, FCS Class of 2006 and current Upper School Teacher & Varsity Boys Soccer Coach
“You know when a song comes on the radio and it transports you back to a time in life when you first heard the song or had a connection to it? I had one of those moments, where I was transported back to the fifth grade. This book was my connection back to that time period, which was a really important time in my education.
Fifth grade Galen didn’t love to read. But my fifth grade teacher gave me this book and told me that she thought I would enjoy it. Up to that point, I had previously tried to avoid reading, especially on my own. But I started to read this book, and the main character really grabbed my attention.
When I was in fifth grade, I saw the world through the lens of sport, and Maniac (the main character) had this power to bring people together through sport, and the idea really appealed to me.
The part that changed my life was really two parts. One was that the book and character grabbed my imagination. The other was my teacher, who just got me, and who had a major impact on my life and was able to open up how I was learning.”
What Book Changed Your Life?
When asked that question, does a particular book, story, poem, or series come to mind for you? We'd love to learn more about the book or books that have had a lasting impact on your life. Let us know in the comments below.