With the hot weather comes the relief of the load of homework finally being lifted and an excessive amount of free time for us school-aged children. I recently spent one evening scanning my bookshelf halfway expecting some new volume to materialize, and the familiar spine of a book I hadn’t touched since elementary school caught my eye. Pretty soon, an hour had gone by as I surveyed the largely untouched shelf of my childhood favorites… and a few unsavory ones (I’m no longer a big fan of Rani in the Mermaid Lagoon). To me, books written for “children” can often still hold a lot of meaning. Rereading them when I’m older allows me to understand the events, themes, and symbols I glossed over or misunderstood when I was younger, or simply provide less demanding, more plot-driven reading – not to mention the waves of nostalgia I personally experience when I cracked open these old books. I’ve detailed a few of my old favorites, so if you’re interested in a bit of light reading, I invite you to check these books out!
1. When You Reach Me — Rebecca Stead
This book is hard to classify, but it’s like nothing I’ve read before. It discusses a gritty but glorious period of time in the life of a young girl in the New York City of the 1970s, and it involves time travel, a perfectly awing combination. It has a simple feel – the chapters are short and the writing style is undecorated – but all of that contributes to a simply fantastic storyline. Even the minimalistic cover art turns out to be infinitely more important than it may initially seem. If you like books with plots that suddenly fall together and leave you thinking, I highly recommend this novel.
2. The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls — Elise Primavera
This book is a real mind trip. And really long. The storyline is quirky with more than its fair share of twists, turns, and Wizard of Oz references, but its eerie atmosphere forces you to bond with the four somewhat disagreeable girls the story revolves around as they are forced to bond with each other against a foe who will probably make you shiver. Trust me, Cha Cha Staccato is terrifying.
3. The Land of Elyon Series — Patrick Carman
While I don’t usually go for fantasy, this series is one notable exception for me. It holds a special place in my heart, as I read it starting in second grade and finished over the course of five years, purchasing one book each year as they were released, and thus became really invested in the fate of soft-spoken Alexa Daley. I love the mood of this book, which is perfectly portrayed by the cover art – it’s soft and subdued, but adventurous, and I feel like I would really love to live in the world Carman created and meet the wise and diverse characters that inhabit this world on the brink of takeover by forces of evil. This series is also notable because it has one of those rare *actually good* prequels, Into the Mist. Awesome.
4. The Magician’s Nephew — C. S. Lewis
So I lied when I said Into the Mist was one of the only good prequels I’ve read. While most of the popular hype about The Chronicles of Narnia is given to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I personally prefer this book. The origin story for this series is really flawless, and while it’s sad to think that the four siblings of the aforementioned sequel didn’t get to experience the multitude of other worlds that existed in this first book, I’m glad we get to see it and some characters we know well from such a new point of view and in such rich and beautiful detail.
5. The Egypt Game — Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Like many good children’s books that end up hitting us hard when we’re older, this book begins lightly with a child’s imaginary game and suddenly unravels into much darker, more serious themes (I’m looking at you, The Watsons Go to Birmingham). The children’s takes on the myths and ceremonies of Ancient Egypt remind me very much of the games of make-believe I played as a child, and I’ve always had a penchant for Ancient Egyptian history. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t really recommend the sequel. This book is where it’s at.
6. Matilda — Roald Dahl
No list of children’s books could be complete without a Dahl book. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the bright, charming little Matilda and to root for her as she attempts to develop her mind in spite of her derisive family and abhorrent school principal. The movie adaptation of this book is excellent, but nothing can replace the classic, expressive ink illustrations that fill this book. The humor, pitfalls, and triumphs of this book are delightful, just what you would expect from Dahl.
7. Falling Up — Shel Silverstein
I’m not really well-versed in literary poetry, but I’ve memorized every page of my beloved Shel Silverstein anthology. Every one of his smart, and even openly mocking little poems reflects his personal style, one that I’ve come to recognize and enjoy immensely. It’s hard not to appreciate these simple rhymes paired with matching ink drawings.
I made an airplane out of stone…
I always did like staying home.
Tell me you didn’t chuckle… at least internally.
8. A Little Princess — Frances Hodgson Burnett
This story is a classic tale of, not rags to riches, but the reverse. Though it isn’t exactly realistic, readers can empathize with the tragedy that the little princess faces and share her joy when she finally has her happy ending. It belongs in the class of books with novels like The Secret Garden – stories of children growing and changing, undergoing hardships that I couldn’t really imagine, and ending up in good places by following their instincts of morality and hoping that their situations would eventually improve.
9. Little House on the Prairie Series — Laura Ingalls Wilder
I feel like most people know what this wildly successful (I’m not sure if I want that to be a pun or not) series is about, and a lot of people act like they think it’s silly. Personally, I think everyone can find some place in his or her heart with which to love this series. Something about the way frontier families lived seems to continue to fascinate people. I don’t think this kind of heartwarming story will ever go out of style.
10. A Series of Unfortunate Events — Lemony Snicket
At a whopping thirteen volumes, A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the longest and most depressing series I read in elementary, and the steadily increasing length of the volumes began to put an increasing weight on both my young arms and my psyche. Nevertheless, I fought hard on library websites and in the stacks to secure at least three books ahead of the book I was currently reading should I find that the book I needed was gone the next day. Why? Because every book, every unique adventure was fantastic. I wanted so badly to see justice for the Baudelaire siblings and a torturous end for the most clearly evil villain I knew of, Count Olaf. I was inspired by the genius of the children, particularly Violet, and their maturity in the midst of all the incompetent adults around them gives hope that some day, the children may finally get the happy ending they deserve.
11. A Wrinkle in Time Quintet — Ruth Stiles Gannett
This series is known to be one of the greatest works of juvenile fiction, and for good reason. To me, one of the most striking features of the series is the range of situations covered in the books, particularly the first one. From the life of a troubled schoolgirl to quasi-psychedelia and from budding romance to the G-rated version of the world of 1984, this book truly has a lot going on. It’s relatable yet fantastical and undeniably heartening – what more can you ask from a children’s book?
12. The Phantom Tollbooth — Norton Juster
There is no doubt that you missed something the first time you read The Phantom Tollbooth. To a child, this book is not much more than a wild adventure of a young boy through a strange land. To those who appreciate word play, the book is teeming with punning and clever witticisms. To those looking for a life lesson, they will most certainly find one. This book seems to me to be seeking to instill an appreciation for learning in readers of all ages, and it does so in a playful, and original way.
Note: Sorry about the atrocious formatting…. WordPress, you’re killing me!