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13 Books That Changed My Life Before & After I Had Kids

Courtesy of Olivia Hinebaugh

I love books. If I had an extra two hours a day (and what person hasn't wished for that?), I'd surely spend it reading. I read books for creative inspiration, for escaping reality, for entertainment, and occasionally, that entertainment actually changes my life. Books have taught me about love and bravery and imagination. They've changed my opinions and shaped my ideals. They've been with me before kids and after kids. But they've also just given me plenty of feels.

I'm a total bookworm, and before I had children I could easily devour a hundred books in a year. (Anyone else feel strangely competitive on Goodreads, or is that just me?) Even with kids I still make reading a priority, but with less time to devote to it, I'm always on the lookout for recommendations of books that I absolutely must read right this very moment. That's not to say I don't love to pick up a feel-good fluffy romance (and some of those are really my faves), but if someone gave me a list of books that changed their life, I'd want to check it out.

Therefore, I'm giving you my list. These are 13 books that will always, always stick with me. (And now I want to start rereading all of them.) They've shaped the way I parent, how I've decided to raise my children, and they've been with me through the most important moments in my life. So much of who I am can be found on these pages:  

'Charlotte's Web'

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We all have that one childhood book we absolutely fell in love with, and Charlotte's Web by E.B. White was that book for me. I never would've believed I could feel so deeply about a pig and a spider, but I did (and still do). In caring about animals, there's a deeper lesson there about putting yourself in someone's shoes and seeing things through their eyes, no matter how different their lives might be. (And I'll admit, I stopped eating pork after reading this and Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith). I've picked up this book every few years since I first heard it in first grade, and I still cry at the very end.

'My Side Of The Mountain'

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My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George was assigned reading in fourth grade, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Sam, the book's main character, is so brave and so adaptable. He leaves his city life behind and runs away to the Catskills. It's an epic survival story. I was often the imaginary world architect when I played with my best friends, and this story inspired some of the best and most epic games of pretend ever. It's the story of a boy who runs away from his city life to live in the wilderness. I still want a pet peregrine falcon. I plan on reading this one to my kids when they're in about the same age I first read it. And I hope it inspires them to always find joy in the outdoors.

'A Wrinkle In Time'

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There are so many magical books that shaped my life and my childhood. I've been in love with Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and Narnia forever. But when I think about one book that inspired me as a kid and made me look at our world in a new, magical light, I'd probably have to pick Madaleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. There was something so cool about how she wove science into the story. It had me asking big questions about time and space and it really embedded the idea that there is more out there than we know about or can even see. Even if we can't all tesseract through the universe, I'm still hoping that when my kids are old enough (and have already been steeped as richly as they are in Hogwarts and Narnia) they'll appreciate the "dark and stormy night" that brings Meg Murry on all sorts of adventures.

'All Quiet On The Western Front'

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I'm so fortunate to not have experienced war firsthand. When I was in 10 grade and assigned to read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, I had no idea how eye-opening it would be. Not only did this book show just how devastating war can be, it was also so sad to read that war envelopes everyone, even decent and caring people. I suddenly looked at history and current events differently. Surely there are good and evil in the world, but by seeing the World War I through the eyes of a compassionate German soldier, I realized that just because someone is our enemy, it doesn't mean they are evil.

'The Cider House Rules'

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John Irving is absolutely one of my favorite authors of all time. Once I read his book A Prayer for Owen Meaney, I was totally hooked. The Cider House Rules completely changed my thoughts on abortion. Prior to reading I viewed it as a complex issue only from a pro-life lens, thinking solely of the babies. After reading, I realized it was about so much more. It was about safety for women and their choices. The choices aren't always easy, but John Irving handles this topic with grace. Aside from all that, it's just a darn good story.

'Agorafabulous: Dispatches From My Bedroom'

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Agorafabulous: Dispatches from my Bedroom by Sara Benincasa is a hilarious read. Benincasa is delightfully candid and manages not only to convey the seriousness of her battles with mental illness (in this case severe anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and agoraphobia), she also presents it in a way that's refreshingly self-deprecating. As someone who has similar struggles, it was amazing to not only feel like I could overcome my agoraphobia, but I could do it with humor and aplomb. Plus, anything that helps you feel less alone is always impactful.

'Ina May's Guide To Childbirth'

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When I was pregnant with my first child, Ina May's Guide to Childbirth written by Ina May Gaskin was definitely life changing. Reading women's accounts of natural, physiological, beautiful births filled me with confidence. There's so much uncertainty when you're pregnant for the first time, and this book infused me with such trust and comfort that I wish I could make it required reading for every pregnant woman. Even the women who had difficult births saw the beauty in it. I understood so much more about the process having read this book.

'Anne Of Green Gables'

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When I read Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery as a child, I immediately fell in love with Anne. She was warm and brave, and most importantly, imaginative. But this book really changed my life when I read it after becoming a mother. Suddenly I realized just how much Marilla loves Anne. Every sweet and bittersweet moment in this book took on all new life for me. I especially love the story's overarching them that it's never too late to find your family or to find love, and that we can all learn from each other.

'Jellicoe Road'

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First of all, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta is a book that truly inspires me as a writer. It made me realize how profound and amazing young adult literature can be. The story of the protagonist, Taylor, is interwoven with a story of friendships from a generation before. It's a difficult plot to describe and give justice to, because the way it comes together is amazing. But beyond that absolutely breathtaking writing and intricate weaving of the story, the emotional impact this book had on me is indelible. To me, this book is about how sometimes people come into our lives at crucial moments and change the trajectory for the better. (I got shivers just typing that.) If you choose to pick up any book on this list, may I gently suggest you try this one on for size?

'The Red Tent'

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The Red Tent by Anita Diamant made me feel ALL THE THINGS about what it means to be a woman. It's the story of Dinah, a woman from the Old Testament. Dinah is Jacob's daughter in Genesis and a victim of a rape that leads to the slaughter of an entire city. The thing that struck me about  this book is that it puts Dinah at its center. It shows the amazing and empowering community of the women in Jacob's family. And in this story menstruation and birth are celebrated.

It really made me want to pitch a tent for my menstruating sisters so we could spend a few days gossiping. It may sound super cheesy, but it changed the way I viewed my femininity and my power as a life-giver. Women didn't have all the power in Dinah's world, but they had more feminine strength than I could have imagined. OK, yeah, cheesy, but life-changing nonetheless.

'The Bronze Horseman'

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I have to include my favorite love story. Set during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons is about how 17-year-old Tatiana goes from lovesick and somewhat silly teenager to a resilient and strong woman. Oh, and she falls for a soldier in the Red Army named Alexander, and he's totally, totally swoon-worthy. Their love story and struggle through one of the bleakest moments in history still leaves me teary-eyed. No other book has hit me in the feels quite this hard. I feel like I know and care about these characters so much. It really hits home how integral books and stories are when it comes to how I see the world.

'Arcadia'

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Lauren Groff is an amazing and evocative writer, and while Fates and Furies got a ton of attention in 2015, my favorite of hers is still Arcadia. The story spans decades of Bit Stone's life. He's born on a hippie commune and you get to experience life there through a child's eyes, but then later, as the commune falls apart, you follow the story through the eyes of a disillusioned but still idealist adult. The way it's told is so immediate and ephemeral. The moments of his life slip away faster than you want them to. It made me want to sit back and be more present on a day-to-day basis and to appreciate the beauty that's in front of me with the knowledge that it might not always be there.

If you set out to underline the beautiful passages in this book, you'd likely never put your pen down. This book inspired me on such a basic, artistic level.

'Rosie Revere Engineer'

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Written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts, Rosie Revere, Engineer had to make my list. A friend gifted this book to my children, and it's quickly graduated to a favorite read-aloud for us at all hours of the day. It's a cute read with darling illustrations, but the underlying message is marvelous: play and create, and don't worry so much about the criticism you might receive.

I want my kids to be resilient and to always challenge themselves. I don't want them to lose their instinctual drive to learn and improve the world. It's a fun book, and the icing on the cake is that it features female engineers. Reading it together with my kids really clued me in to how important it is to read empowering books about girls and women, especially for my daughter.