Shelf Improvement is a monthly column that features three books guaranteed to improve your library and your life. From literary fiction, young adult, and humor, to spirituality, autobiography, and more, no genre is off limits. The only requirement of the selections featured here is they must be transformative and page-turning. If you’re hoping to build a better bookshelf, Shelf Improvement can help you on your odyssey.
Holes, by Louis Sachar
It’s no mystery why Louis Sachar’s mysterious Holes has won more than a dozen awards, including the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award: it’s easily one of the most original works of literature (children’s or otherwise) around. Chock full of comedy and tragedy, suspense and adventure, Holes follows the ill-fated journey of Stanley Yelnats, a well-meaning, overweight, oft-bullied middle schooler who ends up wrongly accused of theft and exiled to Camp Green Lake, a barren desert detention center for boys.
Stanley and his family are no strangers to adversity; it seems misfortune has followed the Yelnatses ever since Stanley’s “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great grandfather” broke a promise to an Egyptian sorceress several decades back. Regardless, Stanley accepts his fate with an admirable stoicism, digging a new five-feet-wide by five-feet-deep hole every day in the sweltering Texas sun, alongside a motley team of supposed ne’er-do-wells.
Despite the book’s bleak landscape and dismal circumstances, things take an electrifying turn when Stanley realizes the boys are being duped into digging for the Warden’s hidden treasure instead of being rehabilitated. Subsequently, he and Zero, his partner in crime, decide to risk their lives for liberty and literacy. A tale for all ages, with a masterfully woven storyline featuring insightful flashbacks and an impossible-to-predict ending, Holes teaches deep lessons about race and redemption, friendship and freedom, as well as self-reliance and self-respect.
Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is best known for high-flying, far-fetched classics like James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But time and again I have returned to this lesser-known novel, not just as my favorite Dahl work, but my dearest childhood read.
Danny the Champion of the World is the story of a young boy and his widowed father living the simple life, running a filling station in the English countryside while living in a tiny, refurbished gypsy caravan. As unpretentious as their lives are, their days are still remarkably meaningful and magical; they build fire balloons and homemade kites, chase boomerangs and race soapbox cars, and construct treehouses high in oaks. Not to mention, Danny’s father knows everything there is to know about mechanics, as well as the countryside; according to Danny, he would have made a fine naturalist if given more schooling. But the real story here is where Danny and his father ultimately take their mutual love, respect, and teamwork: deep into the forest, on the world’s largest ever pheasant poaching expedition.
Determined to give the county’s biggest snob his just desserts (for kicking animals and belittling children, among other general atrocities), Danny and his dad set off to spoil Victor Hazell’s notorious annual pheasant hunt with a scheme reminiscent of Robin Hood. A rollicking read that will leave readers rooting for the underdog, this book never condescends to children’s intelligence, instead assuming all kids can grasp and appreciate a fast-paced plot, social commentary, the nuance between right and wrong, and the intricacies of parental love.
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
One of the most important human behaviors we can learn is that of compassion. In fact, it might be the only virtue we really need to seek. Which is one of the reasons R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is such a significant contribution to the literary world: its main lesson is how indispensable kindness is—now and forever, in both fact and in fiction.
But, as if its moral wasn’t gift enough, Wonder’s message is presented via one of the most touching plots in contemporary writing. Its main character, August Pullman, is a 10-year-old boy afflicted by a severe facial deformity. His childhood has been marked by surgery, homeschooling, and scorn, but now, on the cusp of turning 11, he has decided to take the plunge and attend a mainstream middle school. What follows is one of the most excruciating, and eventually exhilarating, school years ever detailed.
Written primarily from August’s point of view, readers also experience first-person accounts of August’s journey from his sister and various friends. In this way, Palacio allows us to see how it feels not only to be ridiculed, but to love someone who is ridiculed. A deftly written tearjerker about rejection, cruelty, perseverance, triumph, and, above all else, compassion, Wonder is a landmark book (more victory cry than sob story) that belongs on every shelf and in every classroom, because it has the potential, like the rarest reads, to actually change the world.