Probably the first book that intrigued me enough to say "I wanna do that" was 'My Teacher is an Alien' by Bruce Coville. I must have been in elementary school at the time. The first book in what became a four-book series was about a girl who stuck up for the nerdy kid and later needed his help to get to the bottom of an alien invasion plot. I knew a girl like Susan who would stick up for kids getting picked on. And, yes, I related to shy Peter. But it was the first time that I had seen that sort of a marriage between weird sci-fi elements and relatable characters. The kids in that book were a little older than me at the time, but I still related to strict teachers, tests and the seating arrangements in the cafeteria in the middle of a larger sci-fi plot.
I remember how psyched I was when I was walking through Walden Books at the Lincoln Mall in Rhode Island and I realized that there was a sequel, 'My Teacher Fried My Brains' centered around Duncan, the bully kid from the first book. I remember laughing a lot more with that book, as Duncan would always argue with his brother and they would hit each other. I never had a sibling, but I had friends that I would roughhouse with, so that was age appropriate for me at the time. But the thing that intrigued me about the first book, the weird alien stuff...there was a lot more of it in the second. And the third. And the fourth. Especially in the third and fourth, where most of it took place out in space and we met more aliens. That combination of relatable characters that grounds the weird stuff stuck with me and found its way into my writing when I would actually start writing, taking it seriously years later.
And then, the Ninja Turtles became popular. Relatable teenage characters who, like me, love pizza. But they're giant turtles who know kung fu. And their dad's a giant rat. It was a perfect storm of the things that inspired me about Bruce Coville's books. I don't know if 'My Teacher is an Alien' is still in print, but you can check out a book that was largely inspired by Bruce Covillle's work (and for a slightly older audience) here.