Currently Reading: Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
With moving and then going home all in the space of one month, it’s difficult not to be a little nostalgic for the days when a box was a thing you played with. Now a box is a thing you pack and then ship or move all while grumbling about how much the whole process costs. Ah, to be a kid again.
In honor of those simpler times, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite children’s books. It’s far from a definitive list. For something more along those lines I highly recommend the UK paper The Independent’s “50 Books Every Child Should Read.” It’s a great list of the classics and some recent books thrown into the mix too.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
The Giver is one of those books that transcends literary genres. It is sold as a children’s book, and it is certainly that. However, the book is too nuanced to be brushed off as “just for kids.” The story focuses around Jonah, a boy living in a dystopian society that has eliminated pain in favor of “Sameness.” Only one person has the ability to feel pain and pleasure and store the memories that existed before “Sameness.” That man is the Giver. When Johan is chosen to next fill that role, he begins to realize that the world is richer than he’s ever imagined it would be. Jonah is faced with a choice to either stay and live the shallow life in the community or run away. The book is controversial because it centers around some very adult themes. This makes it sometimes difficult to categorize as a children’s books. But like most great works of children’s literature, it never panders to the age of its reader. Lowry presents a beautifully written, sometimes heartbreaking novel about freedom and choice.
The Redwall Series, by Brian Jacques
I found the Redwall books when I was a little girl living in Pasadena. A wonderful independent book store, Vroman’s, played a huge role in my upbringing. My family would travel into the shop on Colorado Boulevard at least once a week, hunting for good books on the shelves. One of the best things about Vroman’s is the extensive children’s section with truly knowledgeable staff members (I say this only in part because one of my best friends worked in the children’s section for a summer and still recommends wonderful books that walk the line between children’s and adult literature). I can’t recall whether I just picked Redwall up on my own or whether it was a present from a family friend. What I do remember is that Vroman’s became my chosen hunting ground for the very latest in Jacques’ wonderful, long series.
Redwall was the first Jacques book that I read, so I usually think of the series in those terms although there are prequels and sequels aplenty in this series that stretches over 21 books (so far). The novels chronicle the world of Redwall Abbey and the anthropomorphic animals who live in and around there. All of the animals are native to Britain, and the fantasy series has a definite Medieval English flavor.
The plots over the nine books that I read as a child are too complicated to summarize here. Instead, I will say that the books are charming and engaging. The little world of woodland creatures that Jacques created is so fully actualized that you want to be allowed to slip between the pages and share cups of honey cordial at one of the abbey’s feasts.
Ella Enchanted, by Gale Carson Levine
I found Ella Enchanted later in life than you’re supposed to as a reader. Thankfully it wasn’t through the unfortunately bad Anne Hathaway movie released in 2004. I picked up the book at a friend’s house on an October break from classes my freshman year of college. It took me a couple of hours to fly through the enchanting book (no pun intended).
Ella Enchanted follows a young woman cursed with obedience. Any task that Ella’s told to do she must perform. It’s a burden that becomes almost unbearable when her wicked stepsister orders her to never speak to her closest friend again. Distraught, Ella runs away to find her father. Things don’t exactly go as planned and adventures ensue complete with a charming prince and a happy ending.
The BFG & The Witches & Matilda, by Roald Dahl
It’s difficult to choose just one Roald Dahl book to talk about here. Since it’s my blog and my rules, I’ll bring up three. All of Dahl’s books are magical in their own way, but these three are really superior.
When I read The BFG I wanted a friend just like him who deposited dreams into children’s rooms with a glass blowing tool. I was horrified and fascinated in the way that only a child can be when I read about witches who look like nice women but really have square feet with no toes and horrible wig rash. And when I read Matilda I felt as though I was the only one who really understood the little girl whose greatest pleasure in life was to be caught up in a good book.
Dahl’s books are wonderful because they are simultaneously fantastic and very real. Even better, they are charming and yet ever so slightly wicked. He captured a child’s imagination in a rare way.
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
Very few books are as touching as The Giving Tree. I know that it is quite cliché now to gift the book to graduates as they move from one stage of their lives to another, but things become cliché for a reason. The Giving Tree is a touching story of love and sacrifice that says different things to people in different stages of their lives. I’ve seen adults cry at the end just as often as I’ve seen kids stare at the wonderful illustrations. It’s a treasure of a book that I think is often overlooked because of its simplicity.
The Greengage Summer, by Rummer Gooden & I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
These last two books have probably the strongest pull of nostalgia for me out of this entire list, both of them for the same reason. These are two classics of the English coming of age novel. I read both at transitional times in my life so the connection to the characters and the stories is particularly poignant. However they stand out most of all because I associate these books with my mother.
Mum first gave me The Greengage Summer for my 16th birthday. She told me that she had read it when she was about my age. It’s a beautiful, cloth-bound copy that I’ve since taken with me on every move I’ve made. The book tells the story of an English young girl growing up during one summer in France. Her mother is taken ill at the start of their holiday, and she and her siblings basically run wild at the hotel where her mother is convalescing. Her lovely older sister attracts the attention of the hotel owner’s lover. Told through the perspective of this younger sister, the story moves from charmingly childish to heartbreakingly grown up.
The title of ultimate nostalgia book, in my opinion, goes to I Capture the Castle. My mother also introduced me to this wonderful book right around when I was leaving for college. Dodie Smith is perhaps best known for writing 101 Dalmatians, but her fame as a children’s author sometimes detracts from what she achieved in I Capture the Castle. She writes about an impoverished English family abandoned daily by their famous author of a father who is suffering from years of writer’s block. The story is told by the middle child, Cassandra, who writes about her eccentric family as she tries to develop her own voice as an author. The story of first love and adolescent awkwardness is sharp and funny. It is difficult not to find something about Cassandra that every young woman can relate to.
These are the books I go back to when I’m stressed, sad, homesick, and looking for some comfort.