Two weeks ago, I was enjoying an idyllic long weekend on Camano Island, rereading A Severe Mercy, making Lego vehicles with my kids, and spending time on the water. We visited a tiny island (appropriately called Baby Island) where scores of seals sun themselves in the warmth of our brief Northwest summers. They swam out to meet us, eyeing us curiously from just beyond the reach of our oars. We also took out a 14-foot sailboat for a bright sail around the strait between Camano and Whidbey Islands—my first sail in nearly a year. (How much I’ve forgotten!)
Meanwhile, over in New York, Tweetspeak Poetry ran a post I wrote about my top 10 children’s novels. I didn’t get the permalink in time to crosspost it before I left for Camano, where I had no internet access (think of it!). But I couldn’t not share my favorite children’s novels with you, so here is the post. If you want to read it with book images and links, you can head over to Tweetspeak and read it there.
The following list does not actually include the top ten children’s novels. It doesn’t even contain my top ten children’s novels because I couldn’t choose only ten. So there are 12. Or 18. Or 21. Something like that.
I happily confess that this list skews heavily toward older books by British writers because, well, I’m an Anglophile and I like old things.
Be forewarned: Some old books use language and express sentiments that are no longer socially appropriate. Rather than throwing the baby of literary excellence out with the bathwater of outmoded ideas, I prefer to see such language as a teaching moment. When I was reading the Little House books to my children, for instance, we came upon a line that said something like, “Ma did not like Indians. She was afraid of them.” This opened a frank discussion about the ways that fear and hatred are related, how else we might respond to fear, and how the Indians might have felt about Ma and other white people.
Also, the language in older books is often more complex than what contemporary children are used to. In most instances, they won’t read these books on their own, unless you read it out loud to them first. Please take the time to do so. You’ll create a lovely memory, a shared bond between you, your child, and the story, and make it possible for them to enjoy a literary gem they would likely miss otherwise. It may even become a favorite of theirs, as happened with my son and The Hobbit.
Without further ado, then, here are my top 17 (or so) novels for children and young adults:
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
This is one of my desert island books. Right up there with Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch in its dearness to my heart. Who can help loving imaginative, accident-prone won’t-you-please-call-me-Cordelia? The book was originally written as a series of interlocking stories for a Sunday School paper on Prince Edward Island, so it reads episodically, but the effect of the stories is cumulative, and Anne’s high jinks are hilarious, even a hundred years after they were first published. There are seven sequels that follow Anne through school, college, career, and into marriage and child-rearing.
Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
Believe it or not, there was a time when Betsy and Tacy didn’t know each other, but let’s not dwell on that. Their lives began, really, with their friendship. Set in turn-of-the-century Minnesota, the Betsy-Tacy books chronicle the homemade adventures of these two friends. The first four books are appropriate for young children. Book five, Heaven to Betsy, and the rest of the series are for older kids (I’d say 12+).
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
As a young girl, this was my favorite book for at least two years (till I read The Secret Garden). I loved the sunny Alps and grandfather’s snug house in the lee of the mountain and the darling goats that Heidi romped through mountain meadows with on summer days. I even loved the thrilling terror of her aunt’s abduction of her, her subsequent adventures with Clara in Frankfurt, the mystery of the ghostly door, and the good doctor who sent her back to her beloved home in the Alps. I recently read this book to my children, and I fell in love with it all over again.
Holes by Louis Sachar
Holes is about a bunch of boys, including one Stanley Yelnats, who spend their days digging holes in the Texas sun. Compelling, no? Well, if that doesn’t make you want to read it, maybe the fact that it won both the Newbery and the National Book Award will. It’s a masterpiece of tightly braided storylines, both past and present, that weave together to create a seamless whole. Plus it’s just plain fun. And funny.
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Every child should get to spend a year living inside this book and its sequels. Wilder makes her childhood in Wisconsin and on the prairie come alive: the feel of dry wind in your face; the prickle of prairie grass under your bare feet; the sound of wolves singing by moonlight in a ring round your little house, Pa at the glassless window with his gun; the heartbreaking sight of Indians traveling silently westward, hour after hour passing your little house in a long line right over the horizon.
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
Ignore the lame title. This is a very good book. (If you don’t believe me, might it help to know that it won a Newbery Honor?) By royal command, Miri and the other girls from her village are forced to spend a year in the eponymous school, run by a woman who wishes she were anywhere but in the mountains trying to teach these rough miners’ daughters court manners. Miri learns more than court manners, though; she learns to read (hence the Newbery) and discovers something that will ultimately save her life and the lives of her friends. Hale also wrote a delightful retelling of Grimm’s fairy tale The Goose Girl and, with her husband, a graphic novel, Rapunzel’s Revenge. (She’s written other books, but these are her best.)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Another National Book Award winner, this book is a coming-of-age story and a quest story and more than either of those categories suggest. It’s tragic and hilarious. It’s brilliant and poignant. And it’s got great cartoons. However, it’s also pushing the limits of the “children’s” category. I wouldn’t give it to my children, who are ten and under, because of the mature themes, but it’s on my shelf and I’ll have them read it in another four or five years.
The Bark of the Bog Owl by Jonathan Rogers
My ten-year-old son insisted that I include this, his favorite book in the whole world (except possibly for The Hobbit; he’s read both books three times). After youngest brother Aidan is called from the sheep fields to meet Bayard the Truthspeaker, adventures galore unfold. Those familiar with the biblical story of David will quickly recognize the bones of Rogers’ plot, though the setting is more like a fantasy version of the swamps of Louisiana, complete with the delightfully wild Feechiefolk, with whom my son wants to live.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
I saw an animated version of this book when I was five or six, and the witch scared me so badly I never read the book or any of its six sequels till I was an adult. Now I’ve read all these stories of the magical world of Narnia (and the thin places between it and our world) at least half a dozen times, half of those times with my children. Of the seven books in the series Lion remains my favorite, though The Horse and His Boy is a close second.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Like I said, this is one of my son’s favorite books. It’s the prequel to Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings series, but it stands on its own merits. Homebody Bilbo Baggins sets off on an adventure (how did he get into this mess again?), meets dangerous foes, finds a magic ring, and of course, is changed by it all. Though Bilbo and his friends ultimately succeed in their quest, their victory comes at no small cost. Tolkien is a master of the English language and a mighty fine storyteller.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
I think this is DiCamillo’s finest book. All her story-telling prowess is on display, but in the most muted of ways. Every time I read this book, I find myself wondering how on earth she makes a character who can neither move nor speak—the eponymous china rabbit—so alive. How does she make me care about him so deeply? How can such a passive character be so compelling? If you read it and figure it out, do let me know! Other great books by DiCamillo include Because of Winn-Dixie, The Magician’s Elephant, and The Tale of Despereaux.
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Words cannot convey how much I love this book. It’s the family story of The Railway Children (see below) and The Moffats updated for the 21st century. The four Penderwick girls can earnestly say things like “family honor” and “chivalry” and not sound the least bit priggish; in fact, they sound cool. Plus, there are two rabbits and a very interesting boy in this tale of an almost magical summer. And there are two sequels, neither of which is quite as good as the first, but both of which are delightful and well worth reading. Book four is supposed to come out in spring 2015 (please, Ms. Birdsall, make it so!).
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
After the mysterious disappearance of their father, three children and their mother must move to a house in the country where the children quickly befriend the workers at the nearby railway station and charm the passengers whose daily commute takes them past these urchins waving happily from beside the rails. We enjoyed this book so much we took it with us on a camping trip last summer, just so we wouldn’t have to wait till we got home to finish it. Nesbit wrote dozens of books for children, so once you’re done with this one, check out Five Children and It (and sequels), the Bastable books, and for younger children, The Book of Dragons (Inga Moore illustrated a delightful version that we love).
The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton
My seven-year-old daughter’s favorite book, this is the story of the delightfully named Persimmony Smudge who longs for adventure and glory and gets a taste of both when she overhears a secret conversation about the real nature of the mountain at the center of The Island at the Center of Everything. With a spunky heroine like Persimmony and her worrying sidekick Worvil, of course everything will turn out all right. Won’t it? Breezy wordplay and quirky characters make this one fun read.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Every child should get to read this story of spoiled, sallow Mistress Mary’s transformation into a healthy, lively girl because it’s not just Mary who is transformed. The garden she discovers is also transformed as is the sickly boy who lives in her palatial new home. By the end of the book even her troubled guardian has returned to light and life and hope—and the reader has, too. For younger children I recommend an illustrated version like those by Inga Moore or Robert Ingpen.
The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg
As a writer, I find this book fascinating: the first half is a series of four interlocking short stories tied together by common characters and a short preface before each. Those prefaces point toward the second half of the book, which is written more like a traditional novel. As a reader, I find the book compelling: the four stories about forgiveness, each with higher stakes, each involving the characters in the previous stories ever more deeply; the formation of The Souls; the state Academic Bowl championship; and the satisfying ending. Konigsburg wrote many books for young readers, including From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, and The Second Mrs. Giaconda.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
My dad read this book to me at least three times when I was growing up. It’s the first book I remember following along with silently as he read aloud. I confess, Mr. Toad’s antics gave my young good-girl heart very anxious palpitations, but homebody that I was (and am) I loved Mole. This is the perfect summer read: find a blanket and a shady tree and some children and make an afternoon of it. Lemonade and cherries and maybe a pie or two wouldn’t hurt either.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Raised in the West Indies, 16-year-old Kit Tyler finds herself orphaned and headed to Puritan Connecticut to live with her mother’s sister. Flashy and very unPuritan, Kit keeps getting into trouble with her uncle and the town’s authorities. She finds solace in the home of Hannah, a Quaker who lives alone on Blackbird Pond, and she eventually has to choose between her own safety and the acceptance of her mother’s people whom she has come to love or the life and friendship of Hannah whom she also loves. This is beautiful story well-told. Speare wrote three other excellent historical novels for young adults: The Bronze Bow, Calico Captive, and The Sign of the Beaver.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Long John Silver is such an iconic figure that every child ought to have the privilege of meeting him in person. Besides, Treasure Island is a rollicking adventure story—pirates, buried treasure, gunfights, treachery, friendship—what’s not to love? The language of this book is difficult for young readers, so I highly recommend making this a family read-aloud. N.C. Wyeth did the original illustrations, and they are wonderful (though not as plentiful as one might wish).
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
Milne is one of the most delightful writers I know. His sense of humor, his keen understanding of human (and stuffed animal) nature, and his playful wordsmithing keep me returning to his books again and again. If you’ve not read the real Pooh (the Disney rip-offs, which are obnoxiously bad, don’t count), get yourself a copy, grab the nearest child, and treat yourself to an hour of whimsy and delight. Other children’s books by Milne are The House at Pooh Corner and two volumes of verse, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.