At just 4 years old, Jodi Picoult was tirelessly learning to scribble down her name so she could get her very first library card.
“I was so proud of that because then I could bring home my own stack of books, just like my mom,” the bestselling author exclusively recalls to Us Weekly. “For my birthday, I got a reading lamp so I could read in bed, just like she did. I was such a reader!”
Devouring book after book helped Picoult — author of My Sister’s Keeper and The Pact, among others — become one of the most beloved and prolific storytellers today.
In her latest novel, Small Great Things (out October 11), she tackles race, a subject she’s been eyeing for quite some time. “I wanted to write about race 20 years ago,” admits Picoult. “But I couldn’t create an authentic story with an authentic voice. Racism is different because it’s really hard to speak about that without offending people. Many of us choose not to talk about it at all.”
Finally, in 2013, inspiration struck when she learned of an African American nurse suing a hospital after her supervisor agreed to a swastika-tattooed father’s request that no black nurses care for his newborn baby.
“It made me think, what if I could tell the story from the points of view of this white defender, this black nurse and this skinhead father as they all confronted their beliefs about race and privilege?” Picoult says. “I wasn’t trying to tell people of color how tough their lives are. That is not my story to tell. It was my job to tell other white people that, although it’s easy for us to point to someone and say, ‘That’s a racist,’ it’s very hard to point to yourself and say, ‘I am one too.’ By being white in this country, you are born into a system that gives you all the power. I wanted people to realize that you could take every skinhead on this planet, ship them off to Mars and there would still be racism.”
Now, the bestselling author shares the stories that have had an impact on her throughout her life with Us.
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
After reading the Civil War–era drama, Picoult, then 13, was inspired to become a writer. “This woman created a world out of words,” she says of the 1936 classic, set in Georgia. “I could feel myself walking down the street even though I have never lived there or lived during that time. I was amazed at how resonant that setting was because of her writing. I thought, Maybe I could do that. It was really the first time I remember thinking, Maybe I could be a writer. “
Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen
As a Princeton junior, Picoult wrote a thesis on the 1937 memoir about the author’s time in Kenya. “She doesn’t describe how she felt about her lover. He meant so much to her she couldn’t do that relationship justice in words,” she says of the authorial technique known as ellipsis. “As an author, that has been one of the most fun things to explore when I’m writing. The idea that words fail us and that tells readers something.”
Turtle Moon, by Alice Hoffman
Postcollege, Picoult was thankful to read for pleasure, rather than what was on her syllabus. Packed with magical realism, “this was the first book I read as an adult fan,” she admits. Hoffman has since become an all-time favorite of Picoult’s: “She’s like comfort food. She makes writing look easy and it never really is.”
The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch
She loved reading this tale — the heroine rescues a prince — to daughter Sammy, now 21. “Ironically, we wrote a young adult book about a girl who falls for a fairy-tale prince who needs her help,” she says of their 2012 novel, Between the Lines. “Full circle!”
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
“Here’s a book that on the outside is about a boy, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger on a lifeboat. It sounds like a bad joke. When Pi gets back on shore, he tells his rescuers this story and they don’t believe him,” Picoult tells Us of the 2001 fantasy. “This is a brilliant exploration of how we make people believe the stories we tell.”