Maybe it's my Southern origins that put this classic at the top of my list—or maybe it's a combination of the book's humor, pathos and sense of adventure. Twain was a gutsy, brilliant writer who understood not only the way different people from different walks of life spoke but, more important, how they behaved and felt. Although his language was plain and his writing simple, he dealt with a number of complex issues. Slavery, for example. He allowed readers—with his gentle guidance—to draw their own moral conclusions based on the nuances of the relationship between the characters. Huck's dilemma of whether to turn in his friend Jim may have been one of my first literary lessons on "doing the right thing."
The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds By Paul Zindel
This play won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Its story of a widow and her two awkward daughters is both painful and poignant. The family is living in poverty; one daughter suffers from convulsions and the other is a social outcast. Yet the traumas endured are accompanied by a sense of hope that had an enormous impact on me, and enabled me to grasp that out of some of the most brutal circumstances, real optimism and strength of character can emerge.
Black Like Me By John Howard Griffin
This remarkable piece of nonfiction tells the story of how Griffin, a white man, comes to understand (by changing the color of his skin) what it's like to be a black man living in the Deep South. The fact that this is a true story meant a great deal to me. I remember being amazed at how much had changed in the South from the time the book was written in 1959 to when I was a teenager in the '70s. At one point, Griffin is on a bus trip, and the driver will not stop to let him use a bathroom. I found that display of bigotry mind-boggling. I was also touched by both the sheer bravery the author demonstrated in pursuing the truth and his willingness to confront his own prejudices in order to let his readers confront theirs.
Of Mice and Men By John Steinbeck
A tale of two migrant workers on a journey to pursue a better life, Steinbeck's story has everything—wonderful descriptions of western scenery, the American dream of owning one's own property, attempts at romance and even an accidental murder. The book traces the powerful connection between its two main characters, George and Lennie, and portrays a real moral conundrum: To what lengths will you go, when ultimately tested, to protect a friend?
A Patch of Blue By Elizabeth Kata
As a young girl, I was completely moved by this beautiful story about love, in which Selina, a blind white girl, sees with her heart the goodness in a black man. Despite the difficulties they each face, they share a relationship that is honest and rewarding. The main character was blinded after her mother threw acid in her face when she was a girl. I was horrified by that vicious act but touched by her ability to persevere.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter By Carson McCullers
Last but by no means least is the book that had perhaps the most profound impact on me while I was growing up. It seems incredible that Carson McCullers was a mere 23 years old when she wrote this. McCullers depicts a small Southern town and a handful of "misfits" who live there. The central character, John Singer, is a deaf-mute whose isolation and loneliness are painfully described. But it's the character Mick Kelly, a shy, thoughtful girl, who affected me the most. She was surrounded by desolate circumstances, and yet her passionate search for beauty was unflinching. As is true for so many of the books I've mentioned, this one was moving because it depicts the triumph of the human heart.