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If you like to read, you know the power of a good book and can probably remember the novel that sparked your passion for page-turning. Whether you read it as a child or recently finished the last chapter, it likely changed your life in one way or another.
When it comes to books at TODAY, you can consider Jenna Bush Hager the resident book expert. Since the Read With Jenna book club turns three today, Jenna has read quite the number of books over the years.
In celebration of the anniversary, TODAY tapped the authors behind the 39 Read With Jenna book club picks to find out which reads have changed their lives. From memoirs to children's books, keep reading to see all of the standout titles.
"The first book to change my life was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins," Tara Conklin, author of March 2019 pick "The Last Romantics," said. "I was probably 8-, maybe 10-years-old when I first read it and the effect was profound." Not only did the book transport Conklin to a different place and time, but the young, "fiercely independent" protagonist also left an impression on her.
"Karana is self-sufficient, strong, wise, completely and utterly herself and at peace with the natural world around her," Conklin continued. "When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, during an age of princesses and weak-willed maidens, this kind of female protagonist showed me what was possible — in fiction and in life."
"Growing up in a sheltered home, books were my only bridge to the outside world," says Etaf Rum, May 2019 author of "A Woman is No Man." "But Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns was the first time I saw myself and women like me represented in literature. That book then inspired me to write my own."
Jean Kwok, June 2019 author of "Searching for Sylvie Lee," says that this book was the "first time I realized books in English could be written by and about someone who looked like me, someone from my culture, someone who spoke my language. It was incredibly powerful to see myself and my culture reflected in a book."
This book, which is about the making of the movie "The Bonfire of the Vanities," is July 2019 author of "Evvie Drake Starts Over," Linda Holmes' pick. Holmes says it "really helped me grow as a creative person and a critic, simply because it’s so honest about how hard it is to make anything good."
"I read Audre Lorde's "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name" during freshman year of college, an 18-year-old from Jamaica, still struggling with my sexuality," Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of August 2019 pick "Patsy," said. "Zami made me realize that I wasn’t alone as a black immigrant lesbian; that I, too, could be as courageous and as loud with my truths; that I could defy a legacy of silence through the power of the written word. Lorde inspired me to write for the next generation of girls—LGBT+ or otherwise—who must be reminded that their voices matter, too."
For Cara Wall, Cara Wall, author of September 2019 pick "The Dearly Beloved," this book was an eye-opener.
"It was the 'textbook' for my very first creative writing class when I was 15. As soon as I picked it up from the school bookstore, I sat down in the library and read it all the way through," Wall said. "At some point, a girl I knew walked by and said, 'What a weird name for a book.' I didn’t know how to respond, because I all I wanted to do in life was write down the marrow of every bone in my body. It was the first time I realized that there were actually people in the world who didn’t want to be writers! (The girl who thought the title was weird eventually became a doctor, so I guess we are both working in the bone business, now.)"
"I don’t know what book changed my life, but I can tell you what book changed my mind, and that’s A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib," says Ann Patchett, author of October 2019 pick "The Dutch House." "Abdurraqib just won a MacArthur 'Genius' grant, and the book won the Carnegie Prize for the best work of nonfiction as voted on by members of the American Library Association. It’s pure brilliance."
Kevin Wilson, author of "Nothing To See Here," the November 2019 RWJ pick, chose "Magician's Assistant," "a story that had magic and tenderness and a family made out of broken piece in order to protect each other."
"And it pulled me into her other novels, all brilliant, all so resonant, but I think often of The Magician's Assistant, because it helped me figure out the books that I wanted to write," Wilson added.
The December 2019 pick was "Late Migrations," by Margaret Renkl.
"'Charlotte’s Web,' by E.B. White, which I read for the first time in second grade, helped me see how rich the emotional lives of animals can be and taught me that sitting quietly nearby is the best way to understand other creatures and the world they share with us," Renkl said. "Perhaps most of all it taught me not to fear grief, for grief is only the way we keep on loving when someone we love is gone."
"I read The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing when I was an anxious 16-year-old, and it made me believe I might be able to be a writer," said Ann Napolitano, author of Jan. 2020 pick "Dear Edward." "The novel is wildly unusual, which meant that anything was possible inside the covers of a book. And the story concerns the deep interiority of women, a subject I felt qualified to wade into, during a time in my life when I was qualified for almost nothing else."
"A powerful, and deeply inspirational book that not only opened my eyes to the incredible personality that is Mrs. Obama — a woman who has dedicated herself to giving kindness — but has also shown me how to be intentional about seeking out people who lift me and celebrate me, and how to find the grace and courage to advocate for women and girls, and how to have faith, resilience, determination in the face of opposition and criticism," says Abi Dare, author of February 2020 pick "The Girl With the Louding Voice." "I felt every word in a deep part of my soul, and came away forever changed."
Lily King, author of March 2020 pick "Writers & Lovers," selected this book. "I discovered Virginia Woolf in my late twenties, and she exploded my idea of what a novel was, what a sentence could do," King said. "She changed the way I wrote, the way I saw and felt the world. If I were a painter it would be the moment I first saw color."
"Valentine," by Elizabeth Wetmore was the Read with Jenna pick for April 2020. Wetmore says she chose "Sing, Unburied, Sing," for its "spare and lyrical prose, its steely-eyed examination of injustices past and present, and its tender portrayal of family, ancestors, and home." The book is "a beautiful, haunting novel that changed the way I read, think, act, and write," she continued.
"Lynda Barry's comics made me feel like she had peeled over my skull to look inside my brain—I had never encountered such honesty and humor about the middle-school condition: the pain, the freedom, the boredom, the sublime," says Emma Straub, author of the May 2020 pick "All Adults Here." "Marlys and Maybonne forever."
Megha Majumdar, author of the June 2020 pick "A Burning," picked this novel "for how beautifully it showed, in contemporary English-language literature, the Bengali ways and habits that my parents and I knew so well."
"Soon after I graduated college, one of my best friends sent me a copy of 'Nora Ephron Collected,' Courtney J. Sullivan, author of July 2020 pick "Friends & Strangers," said. "I was just starting out as a writer and had just moved to New York. Nora’s wit and brilliance inspired me so much. Her tales of evolving as both a woman and a writer felt like a portal into a life I desperately wanted. Years later, she wrote me a note about one of my books and we met for lunch. Truly the thrill of a lifetime."
"Minor Feelings is a razor sharp look at identity, gender and race in America," Berman said. "It’s at times both gutting and beautiful—an illuminating read I keep coming back to.”
Chan said it "changed my life quite recently, but it's the book I've always needed, and which I'll share with my daughter as soon as she's old enough. These powerful, gorgeous essays give astonishing voice to so many facets of Asian American life that I've never seen before on the page," she continued. "I can't imagine anyone who won't be changed after reading this book."
"My first introduction to Whitehead, whose brilliance is universally recognized, blew my socks off because it combined a three-dimensional Black protagonist with smart allegory and speculative fiction," R. Eric Thomas, author of the August 2020 pick "Here For It," said. "When you see a book that tells you that anything is possible—narratively and personally—you start to believe it.
"I read 'The House on Mango Street' by Sandra Cisneros for the first time my freshman year of college and was so moved by its tenderness and its attentiveness to community," Yaa Gyasi, author of Sept. 2020 pick "Transcendent Kingdom," said. "It’s a novel that helped me define the kind of stories I wanted to tell, the kind of writer I wanted to be."
"We’re our most malleable as children, so I think it’s books for children that are most likely to change any reader’s life," said Rumaan Alam, author of Oct. 2020 pick "Leave The World Behind."
"For me, Louise Fitzhugh’s ‘Harriet the Spy’ was more than entertainment, more than a parallel world into which I could escape—it’s a thrilling book about storytelling itself, and made me want to be not only a reader but also a writer," Alam said.
"'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,' by Betty Smith was the first book I ever truly loved," said Susie Yang, author of Nov. 2020 pick "White Ivy." "I cared about the Nolans as if they were my own family. I wept for them, I cheered for them, I wanted them to have a good life. This book has taught me how to write truthfully, and serves as constant inspiration on the power of literature."
For Jan. 2021 author of "Black Buck," Mateo Askaripour, "King Leopold's Ghost," is "a vivid and devastating account of what the Belgians did to the Congo, personified the cost of colonization in a way that I will never be able to forget."
"The thing I love about reading is that every great novel changes the way you see yourself and the world. One of the books that really changed my life was Katherine by Anya Seton," Kristin Hannah, author of Feb. 2021 pick "The Four Winds," said. "It sparked a love of history in me and showed me both the power of women and the importance of love."
"Toni Morrison's Beloved changed my life. I read it in college, and frankly I didn't understand it. I put it aside, thinking it was just one of those books that wasn't for me, but for some reason a few years later I was compelled to pick it up and read it again," Lauren Fox, author of "Send for Me," the other Feb. 2021 pick, said. "On the second reading, something happened. Something inside of me shifted. Like a bolt of lightning, I understood at least some of what Morrison was trying to convey in this difficult and glorious novel: that maternal love is fierce and irreconcilable, that external forces shape our bodies and our hearts, that history lives inside of us. I was never the same after reading Beloved for the second time."
"When I was a teenager, I read 'Breath, Eyes, Memory,' by Edwidge Danticat at the recommendation of my high school English teacher, and it changed my life, Naima Coster, author of "What's Mine and Yours," the pick for March 2021, said. "It’s a novel about the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter, as well as their familial past and national history. It’s a Caribbean story and a Brooklyn story that tackles trauma, generational rifts, and the desire to be free head on. It’s one of the most painful family stories I’ve ever read, but it’s also full of hope and promise for the character at the center, Sophie. The book gave me a vision I could see myself in as a reader, as well as a vision to aspire to as a writer.”
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of April 2021 pick "Good Company," says this collection of essays changed her life.
"I still have my father’s copy which I read and confiscated as a teenager. I turn to those essays all the time when I want to remind myself that the best prose tells the story directly, honestly and with a good dose of humor," White said. "His iconic essay 'Here is New York' is probably one of the reasons I moved to New York City two weeks after college, a decision that permanently and joyfully changed the trajectory of my entire life."
"I read 'Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica,' by Sara Wheeler in my mid-teens, and it awakened in me a lifelong fascination with the polar regions and a determination to get to them," Maggie Shipstead, author of May 2021 pick "Great Circle," said. "Without that book, I'm not sure I would have seen some of the most spectacular places I've ever been, and I don't think I would have written my novel Great Circle, a six year project."
“Lucille Ball's memoir 'Love, Lucy' not only made me fall in love with celebrity stories but it set me on the path I'm on today," said Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of June 2021 pick "Malibu Rising."
"I was only thirteen when I read it but I was blown away by Lucy's determination, the clear-eyed way she saw her own talent, and her ability to bust through doors that were closed to her," Reiid said. "I would not be writing the stories I am today without that book.”
Jason Mott, author of the July 2021 pick "Hell of a Book," says "Grendel" made him want to become a writer.
"It taught me that there are two sides to every story and, perhaps more importantly, you have a choice in whether or not you are the person others say you are or the person you want to be," Mott said.
For Megan Abbott, author of the August 2021 pick "The Turnout," "'The Member of the Wedding' by Carson McCullers, [is] the best, most haunting and truest coming-of-age story I ever read. The hero, Frankie, is an outsider, a misfit, full of yearning and with every page McCullers captures the febrile intensity of adolescence, with all its perils and awe."
“The entire 'Baby-Sitters Club' series offered me a community and a tight-knit group of friends when I was at my loneliest, and the lessons they taught me on life, loyalty, and responsibility guide me to this day," Qian Julie Wang, author of Sept. 2021 pick "Beautiful Country," said.
"I have read The Waves by Virginia Woolf several times over the course of my life and each time, it changes me," Naomi Krupitsky, author of "The Family," the Nov. 2021 pick, said. "'The Waves' has taught me, again and again, that a book is a living thing — that it is not constrained to time and place but instead can jump seamlessly from perspective to perspective, from year to year, and that the unifying factor in a book can be something as intangible as the flow of consciousness itself."
Ethan Joella, author of the bonus pick for Nov. 2021, "A Little Hope," chose this novel by Jesmyn Ward.
"I think I was a different person after Ward's book because I couldn't stop thinking about the main characters: Christophe and Joshua and their grandmother," Joella said. "This book is not only a master class in writing, but it also has so much heart and empathy; toward the end I was only reading a page or two a day because I didn't want it to be over."
"I will never forget how deeply I resonated with Nuala O'Faolain's achingly honest and beautifully written memoir 'Are you Somebody?'" Lisa Harding, author of the Dec. 2021 pick "Bright Burning Things," said. "This book shaped my life: I had never read anything about the female experience that was so personal, so vital, so acutely observed and the parallels between her life and mine were uncanny. The moment I finished the book I knew it was time for me to go home to Ireland after thirteen years away; it gave me permission to find my authentic voice and write, bravely."
"This 1953 dystopian narrative isn’t only about burning books," Charmaine Wilkerson, author of Feb. 2022 pick "Black Cake," said. "It made me more hopeful about all the different ways in which we can share stories, preserve memory and and create community."
Lee Cole, author of March 2022 pick "Groundskeeping," selected this book.
"Reading Mason’s work was the first time I saw my home — western Kentucky — represented in fiction," Cole said. "It was all so familiar and beautifully evoked — the way people talked, the jobs they worked, their struggles and joys – and it gave me permission to write about my own relationship to home."
For more book recommendations, check out:
- Jenna Bush Hager selects Kentucky-based love story for March 2022 book club pick
- Jenna announces the latest chapter of her book club: A new production company!
- All of Jenna Bush Hager's book club picks