I love these kinds of games, mostly because I love giving and receiving recommendations. So, below, find my own list of ten.
Actually, let me say a couple of words about the argument, and about some of the books on Gracy Olmstead’s list. I’m always a little wary of children’s books that are a bit too didactic, as well as those that are a bit too eager to flatter their readers. I remember reacting negatively to The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid because of its didacticism, and I remember my son reacting negatively to, of all things, A Wrinkle In Time (which I loved as a kid) because the author clearly thought her protagonist kids were so darned special.
As it happens that assertion of specialness was part of what I responded to positively as a kid. Which goes to show that not all kids are made the same. More particularly, natural readers – kids who gravitate to books – are very different from kids who are reluctant readers, or find reading difficult, or who are more easily engaged by tactile reality than by the world of words. We parents still want them to read, of course – both to be educated and, on a more practical level, to develop greater fluency. But it’s vital to be attuned to what kind of writing will nourish the mind of a particular child.
And now, my list of 10:
The Bat Poet, by Randall Jarrell. A phenomenal introduction to poetry by one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, but also a great depiction of the character of a writer. And a great animal story to boot. I’m shocked it isn’t better known.
The Light In The Forest, by Conrad Richter. Another forgotten gem, the novel, set in colonial New England, tells the story of a boy kidnapped by an American Indian tribe as a young child, and raised by the tribe’s chief as his own son, who must be returned to his white parents as part of a peace agreement. It’s a real page-turner, but also a real heart-breaker.
Danny, Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl. Not nearly so well-known as Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, this is my favorite book by Dahl. A beautiful father-son story, and coming-of-age story, and also a beautiful evocation of a rural England that has largely passed into history.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams. A true modern epic, one of the greatest adventure stories I’ve ever read, and just gorgeously written. This one’s not a secret, but I’m still shocked when I meet people who haven’t read it.
In the Keep of Time, by Margaret J. Anderson. Want to instill a love of history in your children? Give them time-travel stories – good ones, written by authors who have a similar love of history. I must have read this novel a dozen times as a kid.
Snow Treasure, by Marie McSwigan. A true-story adventure tale of plucky sledding kids against Nazis? Where do I sign up?
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Leguin self-consciously set out to create a fantasy world that was rooted in a mythology distant from the Germanic world familiar from Tolkien. The Taoism underpinning the Earthsea world is fascinating, but the book is also just a wonderful story, and Ged an extremely compelling hero.
Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie. I’ve tried to avoid books I’m assuming everybody either reads or intends to read – the Alice books, or Charlotte’s Web, and so forth – but lots and lots of people have never read Peter Pan. And it’s a treasure – and quite different from either the Disney movie or the musical.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. This was actually my introduction to King Arthur and the knights of the round table, as well as my introduction to Mark Twain, and it’s stayed with me so well that you may just find me waking up in the middle of the night shouting “Hello, Central!”
Twisted Tales From Shakespeare, by Richard Armour. Sometimes, the very best way into a classic is through a parody. Want your kids to get into Shakespeare? Give them Twisted Tales – they’ll need to learn something about the real thing to get the jokes.
Feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments. I’d love to hear them.