The Best of Children’s Books

When I close my eyes and think about childhood, I think of the magic that used to stir in me when I would read books. For me, childhood is not a collection of memories or moments that have been pieced together by my teenage brain. Childhood is the books that I read and the feelings that those books inspired within me, changing the way that I looked at the world no matter what age I read them at.

1. Ella Enchanted (1997) by Gale Carson Levine

Ella Enchanted is the story of a fourteen year old girl, Ella, who lives in Frell. Ella is kind, clumsy, funny, and smart, but the quality that stands out to everybody is that Ella is unwaveringly obedient. This is because she had a curse of obedience set on her at birth by a fairy named Lucinda. After the death of her mother, Ella decides to go find Lucinda and beg her to get rid of the curse. Along the way, Ella finds a blessing in the form of Prince Charmont- or, Char as Ella comes to call him. Ella Enchanted (which, I would like to say, is nothing like the 2004 movie of the same title) tells the journey of Ella’s path to finding the good within herself and the strength to become the girl that she is truly supposed to be. A beautifully written and masterfully woven children’s classic, the magic of this novel comes from both the fantasy world in which Ella lives and the characters that leap off the page towards the readers that they belong to.

Best Quote:  “I loved his laugh, his handwriting, his steady gaze, his honorableness, his freckles, his appreciation of my jokes, his hands, his determination that I should know the worst of him. And, most of all, shameful though it might be, I loved his love for me.”

2. The Penderwicks (2005) by Jeanne Birdsall

Although the Penderwick children’s feet are set firmly on the ground of Massachusetts soil, this childhood story has a magic of its own. Full of whimsy and delight, it instantly brings its reader back to the joy and freedom of being children- with several fun moments and twists along the way. There are four Penderwicks sisters, all of whom have their own unique personalities and perspectives on life. When they meet Jeffrey, the son of the women who they are renting their summer home from, they are thrilled to sweep him up in their gleeful and mischievous adventures. Their shenanigans range from misplaced rabbits, being chased by a bull, crushing on an unattainable older boy, and disliking Jeffrey’s mother’s boyfriend. This novel throws its reader into the beautiful Berkshires setting, imitating the warmth of sun on skin and the warmth of a close, loving, and happy family.

Best Quote:  “The cuter the boy, the mushier your brain.”

3. Elsewhere (2005) by Gabrielle Zevin

Elsewhere is one of the books that immediately sweeps a person up and doesn’t spit her out until her entire world view has changed. It’s story is a sad one: Liz wakes up to find herself on a boat that is sailing her to heaven. It turns out that she is the fatal victim of a hit and run and now has to go live with her grandmother, Betty, whom she barely knows, in Elsewhere, which is Zevin’s concept of heaven. Sixteen year old Liz has a very difficult time letting go of her past life and accepting her reality until she meets Owen. He’s far older than her, but because people in Elsewhere age backwards, they are close to the same age. Using Elsewhere to create a dialogue about personal growth and the way that death affects people dead and alive, Zevin creates a unique, fascinating story about growing up, finding who you are, and accepting your circumstances for what they are.

Best Quote: “Oh, there are so many lives. How we wish we could live them concurrently instead of one by one by one. We could select the best pieces of each, stringing them together like a strand of pearls. But that’s not how it works. A human life is a beautiful mess.”

4. Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott

Jo March loves her family. Her family and her writing are the only things that really matter to her- everything else in the world is secondary. But Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are all so different and unique that sometimes it’s hard to show the selfless love that their mother teaches them about. It’s difficult to be good, too, as their mother always asks of them in her quiet, simple, and wise way, yet the girls strive to do these things because they know that it is right. Set in the heart of Massachusetts, Little Women, a novel full of heart all of its own, chronicles the lives of these four girls, showing their love for each other, their parents, and eventually, the men and children that the girls love their entire lives.

Best Quote: “I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end.”

5. The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry

The trend of Young Adult dystopians is still going strong in modern American society, but at it’s roots, The Giver can be located. Arguably, this 1993 book spawned the popularity of the genre that is currently thriving. The Giver’s story belongs to Jonah, who is living in a dystopian society so controlling that the characters cannot even see color within their world. One day, Jonah is throwing an apple back and forth with a friend and it shifts before his eyes, showing something that is bright and indescribable. The same thing happens to his friend Fiona’s hair, but when he tries to put it into words, he cannot. On the day that Jonah is assigned his job, he is assigned to train to be the next Giver, somebody who holds all of the memories- good and bad- that society hides from. This story is arguably one of the most important children’s books of it’s decade, and is emotional, educational, and completely harrowing.

Best Quote: “The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.

6. Little House on the Prairie (1932) by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.” This iconic sentence was penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the first line of her nine book series, chronicling the lives of an American family before the automobile was invented, or the telephone, or even the television which would broadcast the TV series based off of Ms. Wilders’ books. Laura has an older sister named Mary and a younger sister named Carrie, and together the family lives through both losses and successes. Although these books start off when Laura is four, eventually Ms. Wilder takes us along the path of childhood to her teen years to the marriage between her and the love of her life, Almanzo. This series has a sequel series about Laura’s daughter, Rose, which was written by Rose’s “adopted grandson,” as he likes to call himself. There are other spin off series as well, one about Laura’s mother, Caroline; another about Laura’s grandmother, Charlotte; and the final about Laura’s great-grandmother, Martha, as she grew up in the highlands of Scotland. All of the books in all of the series are chalk full of family, friendship, history, and love.

Best Quote: “Laura felt a warmth inside her. It was very small, but it was strong. It was steady, like a tiny light in the dark, and it burned very low but no winds could make it flicker because it would not give up.” (From The Long Winter)

7. The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) by Jane Yolen

Much of childhood is fantasy; wondering about witches and unicorns and mermaids. When Hannah Stern, a Jewish girl who doesn’t connect with her heritage, gets sent back to 1942 Poland, this isn’t a playful fantasy. Instead, she is thrust into the midst of World War II, one of the most trying times in the history of the Jews. As she and the other Jews are rounded up and taken to a concentration camp, Hannah is aware of exactly the fate that they are walking toward: the horrors; the starvation; the desolation. This book is important to read because it provides a person with an insight to religion, history, and one more thing that he might have forgotten about in the throes of adulthood: Hope.

Best Quote: “We all have such stories. It is a brutal arithmetic. But I – I am alive. You are alive. As long as we breathe, we can see and hear. As long as we can remember, all those gone before are alive inside us.”

Honorable Mentions:

  • Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
  • Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
  • The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillio
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson