A while back a bunch of people started posting lists on Facebook about the top books that stayed with them — everything from children’s classics to modern literary juggernauts. It got me thinking about the books that I loved as a kid, the ones that really meant something to me. So here are the Top 10 books that shaped my childhood and early reading habits, in no particular order. Although there are plenty of others, these are the books I get most nostalgic about when I think of my elementary and middle-school libraries.
Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself
By Margaret Wise Brown
This one is a real throwback to my early reading days. Golden Books were pretty awesome in general (Saggy. Baggy. Elephant. Damn right.) but Mister Dog takes the cake and eats it too. It set my world on fire with the idea that I could also be a hobo dog living on my own, doing as I please, strutting down the street in my straw hat and cane, smoking a pipe and running through fields with rabbits and dogs and cats. Then go home, cook a huge steak, and fall asleep sprawled across my bed in the glow of a woodstove. That was my dream as a kid, to be a hobo dog. Hell of a book, and I still own a copy.
Dear Mr. Henshaw
By Beverly Cleary
I liked this one a lot because it was about a kid who loved to read, wrote letters to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw (the whole book is epistolary, just letters or journal entries), and he grew up in a lower-class family and struggled with divorce, being new at school, being bullied, etc. I could relate to all of it and the book just felt comforting and supportive of the idea that writing out your thoughts, fears, wishes, and problems can make them manageable, it can help, and that writers and authors were something special in this down-and-out world. It was a great book for a troubled bookworm like me.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Who didn’t read these and love them as a kid? I barely remember the plots of any of them, but I do know that the ones I liked best were creepy as hell and you could die in the most random ways, or become some sort of kick-ass, sword-wielding warrior of the wastelands by the next page. I think I remember a couple about haunted houses or time travel or castles or something, but I read these all the time on the school bus ride home to stave off the cheap-jack bullshit reality of a busload of morons squawking and squirming all around me. These books were the ultimate escape for a kid who desperately needed one daily.
The Monster’s Ring
By Bruce Coville
Again, a book about a kid who feels bullied and lost in life, but finds a magical ring in a mysterious shop that slowly transforms him into different types of monsters. At first the transformations are scary, then fun, then useful for putting bullies in their place, but then they begin to dominate his life and become scary again. It mirrored my own experiences when I abused peyote and cocaine in 5th grade…okay, totally joking there, but the idea of owning a ring that would allow me to turn myself into a demon to battle the bullies at school and then fly away was too cool to pass up. Great book.
By Seymour Simon (Illustrations by Stephen Gammell)
Okay, this is where life took a sharp turn into the darklands. Ghosts, demons, werewolves, and vampires (the real ones, not the sparkly ones) were a fascination of mine as a young kid, and this book was full of truly terrifying “real” ghost stories, like the Ghost of No. 50 Berkeley Square in London, Glamis Castle in Scotland, a crypt with moving coffins in the Caribbean, and a bunch of other stories that definitely kept me up at night. It was also illustrated by Stephen Gammell, the guy who did the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark drawings. You know, the ones that gave you nightmares f-o-r-e-v-e-r? That guy. I’m amazed parents allowed this book in an elementary school library, but I’m thankful it was there, tucked in a dark corner with other occult books. That was my favorite corner. I hope the up-tight parents of today never find that corner. There was also a really, really old book in that corner that was all about ancient werewolf myths and contained a supposed ritual for turning yourself into a werewolf with a recipe including all kinds of weird herbs, magic circles, and animal guts. No way that book is still there, but if it is, may the gods shine down on the librarian who kept it safe. (PS: I called my elementary school just now and they STILL have this book. Awesome!)
Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge Children’s Encyclopedias
By Mickey Friggin’ Mouse, probably
This was a fun series about all kinds of things—ancient Rome, earth sciences, American history, native cultures, oceanography, geography, everything, and it was all narrated by Disney characters (I recall Scrooge McDuck being in a lot of them). I loved having these around and I wish I still had them. They were informative and fun without blowing your eyes out with psychotic moving shapes and colors like children’s books, games, and TV shows do today.
By Brian Jacques
I liked this series in the early 90s until it became rather predictable (I only read the first 4-5 books), but I have many fond memories of reading about the mice, rabbits, otters, moles, and other animals who lived in and fought for the little Redwall abbey against the vicious rats, weasels, and ravens. There were knights, battles, pirates, magicians, escapes, monks, spies, secrets…it was like Lord of the Rings but all in one location with animals instead. It was a fun series, and it helped open the door for more fantasy adventures later on. (We’ll discuss my favorite below.)
The Three Investigators
By Robert Arthur, Jr.
These guys were my jam. Three kids in California with their own secret clubhouse and access to a limo provided by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock, who always made an appearance at the end of the book. Or at least he did in a good deal of them. These were always a lot of fun, and the three guys (Jupiter Jones – a chubby sleuth, Peter Crenshaw – a jock, and Bob Andrews – the nerdy one) always tackled some spooky stuff like laughing skulls, haunted houses and castles, criminals prowling through a carnival, ghosts and caves and buried treasure. The Hardy Boys were chumps compared to these three, and I wish I still had the original books. They came back in the 90s with a new series of mysteries when the three guys were older, but all of those were terrible and couldn't hold a candle to the spooky, pulpy occult mysteries of the original series.
The Prydain Chronicles
By Lloyd Alexander
This was my Lord of the Rings. A fantasy realm based on ancient Welsh myths about a boy raised to tend pigs and crops who dreams of being a great warrior. Through one adventure after another, learns that he is of noble worth through his deeds and kindness, although he has to learn a lot of lessons along the way. He’s pretty hot-headed and heedless early on, but his friends — everyone from a wandering bard to a magical dwarf, a tom-boy princess and a talking crow — all help him become a man worthy of leading a kingdom by the end of Book 5. It’s a great series full of monsters, warlords, action, and magic. I read this series a few times as a kid, and hell, a few times as an adult. It’s that good.
By John Patience (Illustrations, too)
That’s right, I'm willing to say that Fern Hollow is the most memorable and cherished book from my childhood. It was anthropomorphic heaven. The stories were rather quaint, all taking place amongst the various animal citizens of Fern Hollow. They had a baker, a mayor, a constable, a miller, a parson, a bookshop owner … they even had a damn bookshop. Some books were about the various seasons in town, some were about notable adventures of sundry citizens, some detailed crimes, some detailed parties and celebrations, or just building a house, and all of the stories had wonderful illustrations. But the kicker was the map in each book. I was a map junkie as a kid and I loved just staring at the map of Fern Hollow in the back of the book and imagining living in town, who had the nicest house, who had the best neighbors, where I’d go if I were trick-or-treating in Fern Hollow … just endless fun staring at that map. I loved it. I still do.
How about you? What were your favorite books from your childhood?