Some things from childhood don’t age well (microwave cake, boy bands), but the best kids’ books are forever young, always ready to tip you back, head over heels, into the way it felt the first time you discovered them. Here are 10 books that double as portkeys to the bookish afternoons of my childhood. What are yours?
A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
“It was a dark and stormy night.” Nothing could be cozier than cocoa in a warm kitchen on a storm-tossed night, or creepier and more thrilling than a sudden interruption from the outside world. After this stellar beginning in the Murry family home, Meg Murry, her brilliant little brother Charles Wallace, and her soulmate, Calvin, follow three strange old women (who are much, much more than they appear) through time and space to save the Murrys’ scientist father from, nbd, forces of pure unadulterated evil. Lucky for us readers, this was just the first in a five-book series.
The Wayside School series, by Louis Sachar
I bet there’s nary a helicopter parent in sight at the PTA meetings of Wayside School, an anarchic establishment that got off on the weird foot when it was accidentally built on its side, creating 30 stories of single classrooms (and woe betide you if you end up on the nonexistent 19th floor). Sachar’s stories follow the 30 students of the 30th floor, who endure such misfortunes as an evil teacher who turns students into apples, cow invasions in the classroom, and seriously low educational standards. It’s sheer bizarre genius, and you can rip through all three books in one hilarious afternoon.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis
I love the first six books in the Chronicles of Narnia (I just can’t fall for The Last Battle), but there’s something extra special about this one, set in a ship on a voyage to the end of the world. Lucy and Edmund Pevensie come aboard via a magical painting on the wall of their dull cousin Eustace Scrubb’s house (Eustace Clarence Scrubb, “and he almost deserved it”), joining the noble Prince Caspian, brave mouse Reepicheep, and assorted others in their search for the seven lost lords of Narnia. They find the seven lords, dead or alive, on seven separate islands, meeting mermaids and magicians and slavers on their way. At last they reach the rim of the world, where the salt waters grow sweet. The book’s final pages are among the most enchanting in literature.
The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg
Every child with a speck of imagination has dreamed of running away and seeking their fortune. We were inspired, I bet, by all those seventh sons in fairy tales, but also by the story of Claudia Kincaid, a classy runaway who chooses New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as her new home. With her younger brother by her side (he’s the treasurer of the operation), she spends her days walking the museum and her nights snuggled down in an antique museum bed (!!!), and is soon embroiled in an art mystery that leads her into the orbit of the eccentric Mrs. Frankweiler. But the enchantment is in the details, the parts that read like a primer on running away in style. We learn what the kids eat, how they get money, how they bathe (hint: those last two problems have the same solution). It makes me sad that I’m too old and creaky to hide in museum bathrooms after closing without just getting arrested.
The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks
On his birthday, Omri receives a toy Indian brave, a scavenged cupboard, and an antique key. After being locked inside the cupboard, the toy brave, Little Bear, comes to life. But Little Bear isn’t Omri’s possession, he’s a real man magicked away from his own life in another time and place, who’s trying to make a place for himself in Omri’s world despite his predicament. But when Omri’s rowdy friend discovers the secret and decides to chuck a cowboy into the cupboard alongside Little Bear, the plot thickens.
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, by Bruce Coville
Bruce Coville wrote 5 books about the transient magic shop of Mr. Elives, which tends to pop up when it’s needed most, to dispense enchanted objects that wildly complicate the lives of their recipients. Artistic grade-schooler Jeremy Thatcher is chosen as the keeper of a dragon’s egg, which hatches after Jeremy recites a satisfyingly magical rhyme under moonlight: “Full moon’s light to wake the egg/Full moon’s light to hatch it/Midsummer Night will crack the world/But St. John’s Day will patch it.” Jeremy and his dragon, Tiamat, develop a powerful bond, communicating through telepathic colors and images, but when she gets too big for his bedroom (and starts eyeing the family pets), he has to let her go back to her own world.
The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, by Betty MacDonald
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is a cozy, kid-loving lady who specializing in serving up just desserts to children whose parents are at their wits’ end. Whether she’s a benevolent witch or simply brilliant is hard to say, but Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has a cure for everything. Your daughter won’t bathe? Let her get so filthy you can plant radishes on her, thus terrifying her into the tub. Your son keeps talking out of turn? Blow a little interrupter powder his way, rendering him temporarily mute. Also, her house reminds me of a certain classic episode of The Twilight Zone, so that’s always good.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
Milo is just a terminally bored little boy when a large mystery package arrives in his bedroom, addressed “FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME.” And thus began a million children’s obsession with receiving mysterious, magical packages. He indifferently assembles his gift, a “genuine turnpike tollbooth,” gets into his miniature automobile, and soon finds himself in the punny, word-obssessed lands beyond, where he must brave the Doldrums, the Mountains of Ignorance, and other perils to save the banished princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore their ordering influence to the land.
The Fairy Rebel, by Lynne Reid Banks
Jan is an unhappily childless young wife when she meets Tiki, a rebellious pink-haired fairy who’s more interested in human fashion trends than in obeying the tyrannical fairy queen. Despite the dangers of getting involved with humans, Tiki uses her magic to help Jan conceive a child. That child, Bindi, grows up with just two signs of her magical origins: the first, a clutch of blue hairs at the crown of her head, which end up having powerful properties, and the second, a yearly magical godmother’s gift from Tiki. When Bindi’s grown into a schoolgirl, she and her mother must save Tiki from the vindictive fairy queen and her army of wasps.
Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, by Judy Blume
Blume brilliantly captures the top-shelf imagination of Sally, a Jewish schoolgirl, in this coming-of-age tale set in post–World War II America. Like all kids, Sally’s mind is a combination of things she knows, things she imagines, and all the assumptions that fill up the cracks in what the adults are willing to tell her. This wonderful book was the best thing I got for my 10th birthday, and that was the year I got a Paula Abdul cassette.
What books from your childhood are you never too old to reread?