This week, I started a reading challenge with some students I work with: If they read a book I recommend to them, I’ll read any book they want me to. Not only did it energize my kids about reading, but it also got me thinking about what children’s literature is worth passing on. What follows are four of my personal favorites that are not only good stories for children, but well worth a reread – or a first read – as an adult.
The Giver is a book you probably read in school, maybe 7th or 8th grade. If you did, you probably hated it because you had to do a whole bunch of graphic organizers about symbolism and maybe an essay on dystopia – and what’s that ambiguous ending all about, anyway?
Listen, I understand. I do. But The Giver has so much more to offer than that. It’s a beautifully intense book that completely rocked my eleven-year-old world and continues to scramble my sense of security just a little every time I reread it. Told through the eyes of Jonas, it calls into question concepts we take for granted – color, for instance. Jonas’ process of discovery and shock is powerful and gut-wrenching, so if you like the feeling of being vaguely haunted by a book for days after you read it, give this one a shot.
I could easily have composed this entire list of Roald Dahl books, but for the sake of variety, I restrained myself. Most people know Matilda, even if they’ve only seen the movie, but I find that fewer people have read The Witches. It purports to be about “real witches” who hide themselves as ordinary women and sneakily make children disappear for their own nefarious purposes.
Like all of Roald Dahl’s books, this one feels fresh even on the tenth read, and it’s eerily chilling without being nightmare-inducing. It’s a fun story despite the fear, and Dahl’s humor, accompanied by Quentin Blake’s clever illustrations, appeals to adults just as much as to children. It goes best with a mug of hot cocoa and a storm outside to add to the atmosphere, but even the California drought can’t stop me from devouring this in an afternoon.
Perhaps a little more obscure than the first two books on this list, My Father’s Dragon is a sweet tale of a young boy named Elmer Elevator who runs away from home on the recommendation of an alley cat he meets to rescue a baby dragon from the dangerous Wild Island. The writing is fun and bright, not dated at all, even though the book was written in 1948.
The charm of the story is in Elmer’s MacGyver-esque manner of getting out of predicaments and his golden heart. It’s a very quick read, but anybody who wants to be transported to a place of wonder without feeling patronized (as some children’s literature does) should give My Father’s Dragon an hour of their time.
This book doesn’t seem terribly well-known, but we’ve had a copy on my bookshelf for as long as I can remember. Beautifully illustrated and cleverly constructed, Paddle-to-the-Sea is the tale of a small wooden canoe and its wooden passenger, hand carved by an indigenous Canadian boy. The canoe, inscribed on the bottom with the words “I Am Paddle to the Sea—Please Put Me Back in the Water,” has a series of adventures on its way through the Great Lakes and to the Atlantic Ocean.
The best part of Paddle-to-the-Sea is probably the gorgeous watercolor illustrations for every short chapter, but there’s also a lot to be said for the pacing. The book balances slow moments with rapid adventure, moving with a rhythm like waves on the shore. Read it to children you know or read it to yourself, but don’t miss it!