Posted September 2, 2013 by in Awesome Books

Five Great Book Origin Stories

Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, has famously said that the idea for her best-selling tales of sparkly vampires and forbidden love came to her in a dream, and we all know the story of J.K. Rowling on the train. Meyer and Rowling aren’t the only writers whose well-loved novels came into being in surprising ways. Read on for five more stories of interesting book origins, and aspiring novelists, take notes—you never know where your next big idea might come from! 







The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Legend has it—and so do verifiable interviews—that Tolkien was grading English exams in the course of his work as a professor at Oxford University when he came upon a page that a student had left blank (“the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner,” in Tolkien’s words). On that page, he suddenly wrote: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Later, he investigated the idea, eventually told the complete story of The Hobbit to his grandchildren, and turned that quirky book origin into the phenomenon that would lead to—among other legacies—millions of delighted readers, actual Elvish speakers, and an impressive sweep of the 2003 Oscars.


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

Another happy story of Oxford inspiration is Lewis Carroll’s (born Charles Lutwidge Dawson), who took his friend Henry Liddell’s daughters out for boat ride on the Isis in 1862 and drew on his fantastical ponderings to tell the three girls a story of a girl named Alice in search of adventure. Several drafts later, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, and its subsequent popularity and sometimes-controversy are well known. Opinions differ—and evidence is scarce—as to whether Carroll’s interest in the real Alice was anything other than innocent, but as many other tales of book origins show, telling stories to children in person seems in any case to be one of the surest ways to see whether or not they’ll appeal to wider audiences.


The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques

An especially delightful twist on the book origin story of an iconic author’s telling tales to children is that of Redwall author Brian Jacques, who gained success as a writer later in life after writing stories for the students at Liverpool’s Royal Wavertree School for the Blind.  Jacques delivered milk to the school in his job as a truck driver, and his website biography points out that this particular audience made Jacques especially careful to describe the worlds he created as vividly as possible, “so that the schoolchildren could see them in their imaginations.” An added delight? The fact that Redwall, the first in an epic series of stories about a society of woodland creatures, rose to fame after Jacques’s childhood English teacher secretly brought it to a publisher.


The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

“I had never written a book, and he had never illustrated.” That’s Norton Juster, talking about himself and his friend Jules Feiffer, who collaborated on The Phantom Tollbooth, a favorite of children—and, well, everyone—everywhere. But the two were friends and neighbors in Brooklyn Heights, and their upstairs-downstairs partnership (along with Juster’s grant from the Ford Foundation) gave both the support they needed to carry out the new endeavor. Every time Juster finished a chapter, he told NPR, he would run it upstairs for Feiffer to illustrate.  With that very lucky living situation, a unique book origin tale was born.


Stuart Little, by E.B. White

With Stuart Little, E.B. White’s first novel for children, we come back to the same phenomenon that gave us Team Edward and Team Jacob: dreams. Like Stephanie Meyer, E.B. White found a compelling character in his dreams: his was Stuart, a small, mild boy who looked like a mouse. White wrote down a few stories about Stuart, kept them hidden away in a drawer for over a decade, and then wove them into the popular novel that was finally published in 1945.


As these stories indicate, the books we love have rich histories, popping out of their creators’ minds from every which way and in response to an endless variety of circumstances. What are some of your favorite stories of book origins?  Share your thoughts in the comments section!


Image credit: Chicago Art Department via Creative Commons

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Hannah Sheldon-Dean

I'm a lifelong literary omnivore, and am delighted to be turning my obsession with books into a career. I currently write for Kirkus Reviews and Bookslut, and I also work as a freelance writer and editor for organizations and individuals of all stripes. When I'm not messing around with words, you'll find me singing, cooking, or wandering the streets of Brooklyn. Check out all my articles.