In a new series, Sea of Shelves introduces personalized lists of favorite childhood books inspired by this original post. Welcome Sophia Ahn to the team!
Hi everyone. Below, in no particular order, are the top ten books of my eccentric childhood. I say “eccentric” because–due to a misguided act of patriotism to my motherland–I refused to speak or learn English for the entirety of second grade. I had just emigrated from Korea and barely knew my ABC’s. Thankfully books managed to accomplish what my teachers and peers couldn’t: lure me away to discover new words and fall in love with beautiful syntax. By fourth grade, a year after I passed my ESL test, I was sufficiently self-taught and mastered tomes like Little Women and Great Expectations. I read everything from a wildlife encyclopedia to Greek tragedies. I even read Clockwork Orange in sixth grade, not knowing what it was, and was scarred forever.
So here’s to all the eccentric, bookworm children, hiding under their sheets to read one more chapter (and consequently ruining their sight, straining to read by the flashlight). Go forth and read.
1. Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
This is probably the most depressing way to explain friendship to a child. But even from a young age I was struck by its truthful messages about unconditional love–about its irrational nature and heartwarming loyalty. Don’t be fooled by the small word count, elementary doodles, or simple writing: it contains some deep messages about the vulnerability intrinsic in unconditional love, and how some people may take advantage of it.
2. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
While my friends dreamed of ponies and talking cats, I fell madly in love with Max’s world of grotesque-looking beasts with hearts of gold. It was the first book that introduced me to a seemingly strange and scary world that wasn’t so strange or scary at all. Children’s books often shy away from nightmare-inducing graphics/plots, but I found them exciting because Max faces a challenge and wins his keep through fortitude and friendship. It was empowering. Also, the story ends with a moral that reads like a gentle nudge instead of a forceful shove: despite parents’ nagging, they love and care for you. It’s a message that stubborn kids–the type of kids who are enthralled by grizzly beasts and ghouls–truly need, but can’t get from fluffy PBS shows. No one delivered the message better than Sendak. RIP Maurice Sendak, molder of my childhood.
3. His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
Reinterpreted as a film in 2007, featuring an evil Nicole Kidman and a computerized polar bear, the film gave life again to the 1995 fantasy novel, The Golden Compass. It’s the first in His Dark Materials trilogy, which captured my imagination with a gripping storyline, brave heroine, a magical all-telling device, and last but not least, daemons. In Pullman’s magical but decidedly dark realm, daemons are animal companions that are actually physical manifestations of the characters’ souls. It’s a lifelong pet (if it dies, you die, vice versa) that convinced me to adopt an imaginary daemon for months. In retrospect, only a child would choose a daemon over an alethiometer, the heroine’s device that will answer any question truthfully with a compass-like face full of symbols. Step aside, Hermione’s time turner.
PS: Another dark but child-appropriate read by Pullman is Clockwork. I read it to my guinea pig all the time. She seemed to like it.
4. The BFG by Roald Dahl
In full disclosure, I loved this book mostly because the protagonist has a similar moniker as mine. But I continued loving and recommending this book because of my previously mentioned love for strange, terrifying yet amiable friends (this one is a 24-foot giant). He is the “Big Friendly Giant” who destroys nightmares and offers sweet dreams to children, unlike his unfriendly, people-chomping peers. Full of hilarious words like “snozzcumbers” and Sophie’s international acts of bravery which save mankind, the book contains plenty of laughs and morals about how teamwork can bring down bloodthirsty giants. Anyway, how could you go wrong with a Roald Dahl book?
5. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Back in my day, this timeless story by Lowry donned every bookstore’s shelf in time for summer reading assignments, and then again for fall’s back to school list of supplies. This remains the most mind-blowing, memorable book from my middle to high school reading assignments, and I sincerely hope kids are still mandated to read it. It was my introduction to dystopian novels, and I never looked back. In a world ruled by creepy “sameness,” a boy discovers the scary truth behind his seemingly happy community. Like 1984, he faces the horrible decision: should he leave or should he stay? It’s a lot of wisdom for the not-so-wise middle school readership.
6. Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery by James Howe
Talking animals can be a hackneyed writing tool for any children’s author–but in the case of this series, the typical storyline gets a spooky (and definitely silly) twist. A stray bunny is adopted by a human family, but it’s up to the humans’ furry pets to expose the sweet bunny for what he truly is: a sinister, vegetable juice-sucking vampire bunny. The 1979 novel made vampires cool decades before Twilight did.
7. Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
An unlikeable protagonist is rather unusual, especially in a children’s novel. But this 1911 tale follows a bratty girl who discovers her pure sense of wonder and curiosity. She heals and betters her disposition as she roams the outdoors, looking for a secret garden: a good way to lure kids to ditch their video games and play outside. I was captivated by Mary’s transformation as a character but also liked the idea of a secret garden. Subsequently I began exploring the creek near my apartment like I was searching for the door to Narnia. I suppose it’s the ultimate dream for a kid to find a secret place of your own, whether it’s filled with centaurs or flowers.
8. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
A high-energy boy and his stuffed tiger did the impossible: more than any dictionary or encyclopedia, they organically expanded my vocabulary to include SAT words like “vindictive” and “transmogrify.” The duo also made science cool (Calvin tinkers a lot) and to this day, the comics still tickle my imagination. Many situations in the cartoon, including Hobbes’s existence itself, make audiences question whether it’s real or vivid make-believe play by Calvin. The beauty is that it’s both. Your perceptions of the world define reality. For Calvin, Hobbes is real; to this day, there’s something magical about that.
9. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
This eight-book series didn’t keep me busy for long. I flew through the lengthy series, thanks to its adrenaline-pumping storyline and easy writing style. It’s the perfect amalgam of fantasy, science fiction, and thriller for the imaginative preteen. Artemis, a character with a name as epic as some of the books in the series (The Opal Deception and The Atlantic Complex being some of my favorite titles) fights bad guys, befriends fairies, and saves the world. It’ll have your heart pounding like a reading of The Hunger Games, and leave you yearning to be a secret spy friend to Artemis.
10. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Penned by the author with the best pen name ever, Lemony Snicket, was this thirteen-book series that was reinterpreted as a film in 2004. The books follow the trio of Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny after they are orphaned. After The Bad Beginning, the first book of the series, things continue down a dark path as their first guardian insists on making the siblings’ lives miserable. Sometimes the sadness seems unbearable as each new parent substitute meets an untimely end, but the scrappy trio are an inspiration. (Spoiler alert ahead!) My favorite moment of triumph is when Violet signs the marriage license with her right hand, since she’s a lefty, and gets out of her forced union with Count Olaf through that loophole. Although in retrospect, that’s probably not how contracts work.