Barbara Kingsolver on Annie Dillard, 'Room,' and The Book That Makes Her Feel Seen

Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

barbara kingsolver on annie dillard, 'room,' and the book that makes her feel seen

Coyote’s Wild Home by Barbara Kingsolver and Lily Kingsolver

$17.35

Barbara Kingsolver’s new book is a family affair. The award-winning author has teamed up with her daughter Lily, who is working on a graduate degree in environmental education, for Coyote’s Wild Home, Kingsolver’s first children’s book. Set in the Appalachian forest, the story follows a young girl who finds comfort and solace in a coyote pup.

Kingsolver—Maryland-born and Kentucky-raised—studied classical piano at DePauw University on a music scholarship and then changed her major to biology. She began writing full time as a science writer at the University of Arizona, where she attended graduate school, and published her first novel, The Bean Trees in 1988, after winning a local fiction writing contest. She’s best known for her novels, The Poisonwood Bible and Demon Copperhead, the latter of which earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2023. Check out her award-worthy picks below.

The book that…

…made me rethink a long-held belief:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, set me onto my vocation. I grew up with no belief that I could be a writer, because I only knew regular people doing ordinary stuff. In my early 20’s, this novel bowled me over by showing me the most beautiful, funny, heroic thing I could possibly write about: ordinary lives.

…shaped my worldview:

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, shaped the way I look at the natural world. “Beauty and grace are performed,” she writes, “whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” I show up.

…I read in one sitting, it was that good:

Room by Emma Donoghue, kept me up all night. I spent a year resisting recommendations that I read it, because I thought the subject would be too awful. Then I opened it, and didn’t stop reading till the end.

…has the best title:

Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman has the best title of any book, ever. Case closed.

…has the best opening line:

Household Saints by Francine Prose, opens with a line I can still recite forty years after I read it: “It happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game.” One could argue for Dickens with his famous “best of times/worst of times,” but tell the truth: which one compels you to read the book? The Santangelos win.

…has the greatest ending:

The ending of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier broke my heart, and I haven’t quite forgiven him for it. I’d read it again—it’s that beautiful—but maybe reinvent the last chapter for myself.

…has a sex scene that will make you blush:

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell has a sex scene that will make you do more than blush. I’ll never look at an apple again without feeling a little tingle.

…makes me feel seen:

The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, might be the first book that made me feel powerfully seen. I’d grown up with a claustrophobic despair over being female that I couldn’t really name. That book gave me the words, and turned my despair into an engine that’s been running ever since.

…helped me become a better writer:

The Progress of Love by Alice Munro, is one of a thousand books that made me the writer I am, because I learned my craft entirely from reading. I can’t name one best teacher, but Munro is a standout. She taught me that the secret is in the sentences: every one has to be perfect.

…I brought on a momentous trip:

The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough, is a history of the Panama Canal that I brought with me, obviously, on a trip through the Panama Canal. It’s wonderfully researched, and about a thousand pages long. The book lasted longer than the trip.

…I’ve re-read the most:

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is probably the book I re-read most. I pick it up again in every decade of life and always find something new in there, written just for me, at exactly the age I am.

…I consider literary comfort food:

Hannah Coulter, or any other novel by Wendell Berry, is my literary comfort food. In these books I know I won’t be upset or alarmed, just touched to my core. Berry’s people are my people and I love them.

…sealed a friendship:

Independent People by Halldor Laxness sealed a friendship. It was given to me by Ann Patchett, who has magical powers as a book-giver. Laxness is the Icelandic Nobel Laureate you’ve never read, and this book is definitely not for everybody. But it was so right for me. She knew.

…taught me this Jeopardy!-worthy bit of trivia:

Pod by Laline Paull, taught me countless facts about ocean life, but the knockout is this one: Humpback whales compose and sing very long songs that they send into currents of water that echo around the planet. Other whales hear and repeat their favorite songs, with some getting worldwide play. The ocean has its own greatest-hits channel.

…I’d pass on to my kid:

I’ve shared books with my daughters all their lives. When polled for childhood favorites, one claimed Jan Brett’s Annie and the Wild Animals, and the other also cited two animal-centered books, Stellaluna and Verdi by Janell Cannon. I guess it’s a natural next step that Lily and I have now co-authored a children’s book about coyotes.

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