The Book That Changed My Life

Kimberly Willis Holt

Kimberly Willis Holt won the 1999 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.

My twelfth year was a solitary one. I had few friends, none that I interacted with after school. Every weekday afternoon, I raced home to watch the Watergate trials and eat homemade fried apply pies. I wish I could say that a desire to read all the great American writers caused me to select a Carson McCullers' novel. Instead a pretty blond girl looking wistfully at the moon beckoned me to take a closer look.

Yes, I chose The Heart is a Lonely Hunter because of the cover. But when I turned to the first page, I was lost-lost in a world unlike my own, though one I felt a part of. I felt like Mick and to my surprise like the deaf mutes too. Back then I couldn't see the connection between the lonely characters and the chubby preteen on her couch, watching John Dean testify. I only knew the story caused a lump to form in my throat.

Today I recognize McCullers' genius. Her talent for crafting a world made up of complex characters seemingly without effort. But at twelve my view was simple; her characters were real people to me.

Before I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, I enjoyed writing but I never thought about being a writer. After reading Carson McCullers' book, I wanted to write characters that rang true with readers, and more than anything I longed to write a story that caused a lump to form in someone's throat.

Kimberly Willis Holt

Kimberly Willis Holt at the 50th Anniversary National Book Awards Dinner and Ceremony. Photo: Robin Platzer.