Friday, April 29, 2011

15 Favorite Children's Books

Organized by author's last name.

1. Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

What it’s about: Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper, aspires to adventure and heroism. He gets what he wishes for, and more.

Books in series: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King

Why it’s essential: I didn’t actually read this series until middle school, and when I did I thought, Why haven’t I read this yet? These books are a classic “coming-of-age” story. Plenty of action, but plenty of emotional growth as well. Idealistic and heartwarming.

2. Tales from Dimwood Forest, by Avi

What it’s about: Mice. Mice being heroes, mice going on adventures, mice struggling with personal/moral quandaries, mice playing out relatable themes and stories. I’m doing a bad job of explaining this.

Books in series: Ragweed, Poppy, Poppy and Rye, Ereth’s Birthday, Poppy’s Return, Poppy and Ereth

Why it’s essential: talking animals in a realistic setting, bravery, adventures. But mostly because I loved this series to death in third grade.

3. Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper

What it’s about: Good v. evil. An eleven-year-old English boy named Will Stanton discovers that he is part of an ancient struggle between the Light and the Dark. And, in case you couldn’t guess from the title, the Dark is rising.

Books in series: Over Sea, Under Stone; Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree (if you’re starting the series at 10+, skip OSUS)

Why it’s essential: Imagination, magic, bravery, and tough choices. I can’t say I loved all the characters (the Drews bored me), but Bran is one of the more effectual “loner” characters I’ve read. Complex and beautifully written, with plenty of shoutouts to mythology and Arthurian legend.

4. Magic Shop series, by Bruce Coville

What it’s about: Each book is a separate story (though there are occasional cameos) in which a child stumbles across Elives’ Magic Shop and finds a magical object. Hilarity, character development, and poignancy ensue.

Books in series: The Monster’s Ring; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher; Jennifer Murdley’s Toad; The Skull of Truth; Juliet Dove, Queen of Love (start with any, though I recommend JTDH)

Why it’s essential: I can’t explain how much I love Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. That was, I think, one of the few books I actually got teary-eyed over in third grade. These books are absolutely amazing: deep without smacking the morals over your head, rich in humor and character, and overall filled with a glorious sense of wonder that had the eight-year-old me reeling with inspiration.

5. Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
What it’s about: Milo is always bored. One afternoon, he receives a magical tollbooth that leads him to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Wordplay, puns, and a host of quirky characters accompany him on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason.

Why it’s essential: this book is so whimsical and witty. A real gem. Sure, a kid may not get every piece of wordplay in this, but the adventure is the sort you can sink your teeth into. The ending is brilliant.

6. King Matt the First, by Janusz Korczak

What it’s about: After his father’s death, young Matt becomes king. In a world guided by pragmatic reality, can his childlike and idealistic method of ruling succeed?

Books in series: King Matt the First, King Matt on a Deserted Island (the second book hasn’t been translated to English yet. Sadface.)

Why it’s essential: I love this book. Sosososo very much. Matt’s adventures are colorful and well-crafted and the writing is full of a quaintly awesome charm. The best part of the book, though, is the characters. Klu Klu, the African princess, is a BAMF. And Matt himself – you can’t not cheer for this kid.

7. A Book Dragon, by Donn Kushner

What it’s about: A dragon called Nonesuch, last in his line, shrinks and has many adventures through several centuries.

Why it’s essential: here is another book that I lovelovelove. One word to describe it would be magical. Another, melancholy. Yet a third, hopeful. There is a hint of sadness, of nostalgia, to this book, a longing for times past where there must have been more magic, but behind the sadness there is joy. Who knows what other remnants from a time more enchanting are tucked away in the corners of today?

8. Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

What it’s about: Jesse becomes friends with Leslie, a girl as fast as she is imaginative, and together they create their own magical land of “Terabithia” as they deal with problems in real life.

Why it’s essential: the movie was terrible. The book was not. When I read it as an eight-year-old, I was daydreaming about creating my own wooded empire for days. The ending might smack you right in the gut, but it’s worth it.

9. Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

What it’s about: Eccentric rich guy Sam Westing has been found dead at his manor. A seemingly random assortment of people must go through a series of clues to find the truth of his inheritance.

Why it’s essential: Plot twists like you will not believe. Unlike a lot of children’s mystery (Nancy Drew, I’m looking at you) it’s smart, not just clever. The truth will surprise you the first time you read it (nine-year-old me was absolutely floored) but it makes sense in so many ways.

10. Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

What it’s about: yeah, like there’s anyone who hasn’t heard of Harry Potter. An eleven-year-old boy finds out that he is a wizard and, upon entering Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, enters a world of magic and danger.

Books in series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the original UK version), HP and the Chamber of Secrets, HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban, HP and the Goblet of Fire, HP and the Order of the Phoenix, HP and the Half-Blood Prince, HP and the Deathly Hallows

Why it’s essential: I got it when I turned 7. Best birthday present ever. Amazing, memorable characters; insanely well-planned-out plot; action/adventure coexisting with lighter school fare…if any series deserved its wild popularity, this is it. The world is so complex and rich that I actually thought I’d get my owl from Hogwarts. Sadly, I went to a regular middle school. Oh, and since I love this series so much: it has serious longevity. I’ve been a fan for over half my life. Also, since I was born in the summer like Harry and there are seven books to correspond with the seven grades after elementary school in most American school systems (3 years of middle school + 4 years of high school), I reread the book corresponding to my grade level every year (i.e. book 4 freshman year) and, since the protagonists are the same age as me, it gains a new level of relevance.

11. Wayside School series, by Louis Sachar

What it’s about: Shenanigans go on at the eccentric Wayside School.

Books in series: Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, Sideways Arithmetic From Wayside School, More Sideways Arithmetic From Wayside School

Why it’s essential: This series is really offbeat and funny. There are a lot of characters of whom it might be difficult to keep track, but these stories amused me greatly in elementary school.

12. Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden

What it’s about: A Connecticut cricket called Chester ends up in Times Square. He is taken in by Mario Bellini, a boy whose family runs a newsstand, and the streetwise Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat. Chester’s musical talent brings prosperity and fame, but will that really make him happy?

Books in series: the only other ones I’ve read are Tucker’s Countryside and Harry Kitten & Tucker Mouse

Why it’s essential: I have a confession: I did not actually read this book. My first grade teachers read it to the class and we really enjoyed it. Because I love cats, Harry was my favorite, but bombastic Tucker, mild Chester, and the assorted human characters were all highly empathetic. The story has a bit more depth to it than the sentient-animals-meets-fish-out-of-water (sorry – cricket-out-of-countryside would work better) premise would suggest. A thoroughly charming and heartwarming story.

13. Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket

What it’s about: After their parents die in a fire, the Baudelaire siblings – Violet, Klaus, and Sunny – are shuffled around to various relatives, pursued always by the menacing Count Olaf.

Books in series: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, The Ersatz Elevator, The Vile Village, The Hostile Hospital, The Carnivorous Carnival, The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, The End

Why it’s essential: As the titles probably warn, this is not a happy series. But there is a certain catharsis in reading them, and the Baudelaires’ resourcefulness is likely to appeal to any kid who has an adventurous streak (and what kid doesn’t?). Also, Snicket’s voice is different, which in this situation means interesting and fun to read.

14. Shadow of a Bull, by Maia Wojciechowska

What it’s about: Manolo’s father was a great bullfighter, and it seems everyone wants Manolo to take his place. Everyone, that is, except Manolo.

Why it’s essential: The above was just a half-truth. What this book is really about is following your dreams and doing right by yourself, rather than following the path someone else has laid out for you. It has plenty of surface action (bullfighting, come on), but I bet any kid will pick up on and appreciate the deeper meaning along with the oles. Apart from all that, the writing is fantastic.

15. Enchanted Forest series, by Patricia C. Wrede

What it’s about: Princess Cimorene is stifled by her sheltered life and dreading her upcoming marriage to a really, really stupid prince. Her solution? Run away to become a dragon’s princess. Magic, draconian political intrigue, and general awesomeness ensue.

Books in series: Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, Talking to Dragons

Why it’s essential: On a list of my all-time favorite series, this would be right up there either in first or second place. Cimorene was my role model all through elementary school and even now when I go back to reread I am not disappointed. No other series quite ignites my spark for intricate and specific magical systems. No other series portrays dragons quite as I prefer them (on a spectrum of human and not) – or, conversely, it could be said that this series established what I feel is the ideal “dragon type.” I love the humor, I love Wrede’s writing (I’ve gone on to love a lot of her other books), I love how…all right, let’s say I love everything about this series and call it a day, shall we?

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