“Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along – the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires.” – Orson Scott Card
After looking at all of these books together, I realized there is a common thread of talking animals and traveling through time and space, which I suppose is an indication of my future adult-self’s love of fantasy fiction. I decided not to waste a spot by including the Harry Potter series in this list, since by now it is generally considered common knowledge that if a child enjoys reading she should read Harry Potter. Many of these classics have been turned into movies, but try to have your child read the book first. Otherwise the reader’s imagination will be limited to picturing the actors and set design in the film, rather than creating her own escape. And where’s the fun and learning in that?
These books helped shape my childhood. In no particular order, enjoy.
1. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl appears twice on this list, since he was a pioneer of children’s literature and one of the most imaginative men of the twentieth century. He brought us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Big Friendly Giant, Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Danny The Champion of the World, and this giant peach. Tim Burton brought it to life in the most visually arresting Disney movie of my childhood, bringing the mistreated orphan boy trope on his first fantasy adventure.
2. Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton
A combined edition of two short books into one; “The Magic Bed-Knob” (Part I) and “Bonfires and Broomsticks” (Part II), Mary Norton’s classic novel features a witch-in-training named Miss Price who agrees to give three children a flying and time traveling bed in order to keep her identity secret. The children travel to a tropical island, a police station, and Restoration England, all in the hopes of visiting their mother.
3. The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm by Nancy Farmer
A 1995 Newbury Honor Book, The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm is set in Zimbabwe in 2194 and is a fascinating version of the future that captivated me as a child. The Chief of Security’s three children escape their sheltered life for an adventure into the city’s underbelly and quickly get kidnapped to work in the plastic mines (which are essentially tunnels built in plastic landfills, because in the future plastic has become obsolete). After the children go missing, their parents hire Africa’s top detectives to find them: The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm.
4. Holes by Louis Sachar
The name Stanley Yelnats not only taught me the meaning of a palindrome, it made me giggle a little too. Camp Green Lake is a detention center for misbehaving boys who are forced to dig holes in the dried up lake, and after some bad luck and a misunderstanding Stanley ends up at the camp. While the counselors claim digging holes “builds character,” Stanley and his friends quickly discover they are looking for buried treasure. Holes is a mystery novel of the finest degree, teaching American history, a story of interracial love, bittersweet revenge, family ties, the price of greed, and the reward for kindness.
5. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien
The perspective of small animals (or toys, for that matter) who see the world from below our ankles always intrigued me as a child, so giving them voices and inventions was even more intriguing. Mrs. Frisby is a widowed field mouse who lives with her children on a farm, and must move her burrow before the plow season but her youngest son Timothy is too weak to move with pneumonia. She turns to the extremely intelligent rats of NIMH living under the rosebush, who have always been her natural enemies, but their cunning minds and clever fingers help her find adventure and eventually solace.
6. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards
Julie Andrews, as in Mary Poppins and the Sound of Music, has published several children’s novels under the pen name Julie Andrews Edwards including this fabulous work in 1974. It follows the story of three Potter siblings (published long before Harry Potter) who meet a brilliant professor at a zoo and tells them about magical creatures who disappear to another land because children stop believing in them. He invites the children on a quest to Whangdoodleland to find the last ones, terrifically smart creatures that look a bit like a horse and mouse and grow a new pair of slippers on their feet each year.
7. Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye
To begin with, this book features a map in the first few pages, and every child (or fantasy reader) loves a map. It follows the life of Hermux Tantamoq, an average watchmaking mouse who becomes a detective after some suspicious activity surrounds the repair of a watch left in his care by a silky and sexy Linka Perflinger. If you fall in love with Hermux Tantamoq, follow his next adventures in The Sands of Time, No Time Like Show Time, and Time to Smell the Roses.
8. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl’s second appearance on this list is one of his lesser known works, but perhaps one of his greatest. This collection of short stories showcases Dahl’s literary genius and talent for crafting the unexpected, especially in tales like “The Swan,” “The Hitchhiker,” and “The Boy Who Talked to Animals.” While some tales are slightly above the average reading level, any child can appreciate his playful writing style and content. Three nonfiction stories appear in the book: “The Mildenhall Treasure,” “Piece of Cake,” and “Lucky Break: How I Became a Writer.” The last is the story of how Dahl became a writer from a fluke during WWII and functions as a guide for young hopefuls who want to be fiction writers one day.
9. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
A 1963 Newbury Medal Winner, this science fiction children’s classic is about two outcast siblings whose father goes missing while studying time travel. Three witches show up named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which (almost as confusing as the stage names at Bonnaroo) and take the siblings and their new and only friend Calvin O’Keefe on a adventure through time and planets. In case you become best friends with Meg Murray and her stumbling brother Charles Wallace, the series continues in the Time quartet with A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters.
10. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Published in 1865, Alice in Wonderland has challenged logic, inspired costume parties, and captivated drug users and children alike for over a century. The Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat’s eerie nonsense might force children to reconcile with the strange and scary corners of their imagination, and wide-eyed Alice tip toes and tumbles around Wonderland with the same timid curiosity that we explore our dreams.