1. A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler
The cynic in every child is awakened at some point or another, but reading through the comprehensive (and almost always alliterative) titles of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events activated my love for the bizarre and macabre early on. Playing off of Triskaidekaphobia, Daniel Handler (the man behind the Lemony Snicket pseudonym) presents thirteen odd stories from The Bad Beginning to The Ersatz Elevator to The Carnivorous Carnival dealing with the Baudelaires — Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire — whose parents die in an intentional house fire only to be taken in by their deeply disturbing distant cousin, Count Olaf. I, for one, miss the weirdness, the creative catastrophes, and, of course, the binding relationship between the three siblings that got them all the way to The End, the final book in the series.
2. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
Although he finished with a third class degree from Exeter College, Oxford, Philip Pullman proved he deserved his first class honors with His Dark Materials, an ingenious fantasy series that questions organized religion and bursts with color and verve. Lyra Belacqua proved a perfect heroine, and her adventures in The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass were what I looked forward to for a few cherished weeks in the sixth grade. Shame that Chris Weitz, Nicole Kidman, Dan Craig, and the gang couldn’t much bring the magic to the big screen. Nonetheless, it’s still well worth a re-read in your older years.
3. Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
It’s amazing to think that Rowling was penniless when she began to pen what would become a seven-book series on wizards and witches. How does one have an entire world like that kicking around in one’s brain? From Latin-based spells (lumos!) to social class commentary (Muggles vs. Mudbloods) to Biblical ideas of good versus evil and a central Christlike character, Rowling pulled out all the stops. If anyone deserves to vast riches and fame, it’s this über-creator.
4. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
Considering this science fiction novel was written in 1962, it could be not just a favorite from your childhood but from your parents’ childhood as well. The book, which concerns Meg Murry’s father, a scientist, who goes missing after working on a mysterious project, works from L’Engle’s research on quantum physics and her experience on a ten-week family camping trip. She said that twenty-six publishers rejected it because it was “too different”, and “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children.” Yet, children are smarter than many think, and this clever book caught on and has been in print ever since.
5. [Literally anything], Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl lived every little boy’s dream: become a decorated fighter pilot then write stories out of whatever funny, dark or mysterious things pop into your head. From James and the Giant Peach to Fantastic Mr. Fox, it seemed like Dahl’s creativity had no end. And moving into his more adult short stories that touched on brothels and gambling and illicit affairs with titles like “Switch Bitch” and “Lamb to the Slaughter” was a sort of barometer of my childhood innocence slowly waning. Yet, I didn’t mind. When growing up means you get to enjoy more tales of Dahl, there’s no reason not to want to age.
6. Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
Another oldie published in 1961, this classic tearjerker addresses the life of a young boy and his two hunting dogs. You cried. Don’t deny it. Don’t even try.
7. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
1961 was a good year. More of a modern fairy tale than a children’s book akin to Alice in Wonderland, Juster’s tale of Milo, a boy who drives through a magical toll booth and arrives in The Kingdom of Wisdom is chock full of puns and idioms and gorgeous illustrations so sublime it’s still fêted to this day (like here in The New Yorker).
8. Holes, Louis Sachar
There are a lot of creepy books in this list, but Louis Sachar seems to go above and beyond. He was always coming up with creepy stories that kept my eyes masochistically glued to the page, and Holes is no different. An ugly, lonely boy who supposedly has a curse over him as a result of his great-great-grandfather stealing the shoes of Clyde “Sweet Feet” Livingston, Stanley Yelnats is just one of many pathetic characters in Sachar’s novel. There’s the homeless, borderline feral Hector “Zero” Zeroni and the tiny, pretty much blind X-Ray, who round out the weird cast. Disturbing? Yeah. But, in the end, a worthy tale of courage that helped our insecure young selves? Absolutely.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The book that convinced us we should all become lawyers (or at least upstanding, moral people), Lee’s classic is one of the most adult books a fifth-grader can read. Yet, it’s also a book stuffed full of serious issues and undertones that, like a quiet mockingbird, gently flew over our youthful heads. Give it another read and see what you discover.
10. Number the Stars, Lois Lowry
Perhaps the best introduction to the genre of historical fiction, Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning novel concerns the escape of a Jewish family from Denmark during the Holocaust. A tale of Annemarie Johansen and her family, symbolism abounds in her David’s star necklace and the theme of family, bravery, and the reality that happy endings don’t always transpire.
11. Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
It doesn’t get more classic than Barrie’s story of a boy who can fly and never grows old. It’s not a wonder Disney made a movie out of it in 1953; Neverland is host to all the Disney favorites: mermaids, Indians, fairies, pirates, and our human protagonists, Peter and Wendy. Peter Pan is rooted in deep emotion too. Barrie’s older brother died the day before he turned fourteen in an ice-skating accident, and Barrie says that he seemed to always remain a young boy, “a boy who wouldn’t grow old.”