Saturday, February 16, 2013

Books that changed my life (the young readers edition)

As a lifelong reader, and someone who worked at Barnes and Noble to help put myself through college, I've had a great number of people ask for my recommendation on books for their kids to read.  Here are a couple-few books that greatly impacted my childhood, and my life ...

 1. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell.  This book (well, actually the epilogue) awakened me to the fact that the world of non-fiction (or in the least, historical fiction) existed.  I must have been about 7 or 8 when I first read this (I started reading when I was 2, and read a college freshman level by 4th grade, so it was often the case that I could decode books before I could fully synthesize what I was reading).  Anyhoo - it was in the epilogue that O'Dell explains that the book is based on a real Chumash girl who was rescued and taken to the Santa Barbara Mission.  My little girl world was rocked when I realized books could be written about real people, and thus my love of history was born.

Island of the Blue Dolphins, which won the Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature in 1961, is the story of  Karana, whose family is killed, and who ends up surviving on her own for 8 years on an island off the coast of California.  O'Dell wrote the story based on Karana's own recounting of her life. The story explores not only Karana's loneliness, but also the beauty and simplicity of her solitary life.  It also paints the image of a strong, powerful female protagonist that is often lacking in children's literature.  O'Dell is a master of imagery, and his descriptions of the island Karana inhabits are quite lovely.   Island of the Blue Dolphins is standard reading for all 4th grade California students, who study the state's history during the year.  I don't remember being bothered by it (unlike the gut wrenching heartache I experienced reading Where the Red Fern Grows), but I know of some kids who were troubled by the descriptions of violence that result in Karana's family being killed.  If your little ones are especially sensitive, this would be a good book to read aloud together, which makes things a little less frightening, and allows for all important conversations.

2. A Wrinkle in Time and A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle.  I don't remember how old I was when I first entered L'Engle's magical worlds of Kairos and Chronos, but I never left them.  I adored all off her books, but especially the two mentioned above.   A Wrinkle in Time, along with the Narnia books mentioned below awakened my life long love for science fiction and fantasy, while A Ring of Endless Light helped me overcome some of my more angsty childhood moods.  It can still bring me comfort when I need it.  I have a beautiful hardcover edition of Ring... that my grandparents bought me when I was young.  I also remember having a (seemingly) huge late fee at the library because I had A Swiftly Tilting Planet out for an extra couple of weeks.  Looking back, it was probably a whopping $1.50, but as a kid paying my own late fee it seemed really steep; Considering I remember it so well after 25+ years

A Wrinkle in Time and the other books of the "Time Quartet" are a great introduction into science fiction, while the books about the Austin family, including A Ring of Endless Light, are more traditional young reader books about the difficulties we all face growing up.  As I read and reread these books throughout the years, my appreciation for L'Engle's abilities to weave characters between these two seemingly separate worlds grew exponentially.  Chronos is our ordinary every day "wristwatch" time, while in the Kairos universe time moves differently, sometimes quicker and sometimes much slower.  There are a number of characters who are able to connect and cross between the universes and appear in both sets of novels.  A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery in 1962, and A Ring of Endless Light was a Newbery Honor book in 1980.

3. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  Really, the whole Narnia series.  The Magician's Nephew is a close second as to which installment would be my favorite.  I received a box set of these books from my Aunt Gail for Christmas when I was eight or nine.  They have traveled with me, through my dozens of moves ever since then.  The box had to be taped back together a time or two, but the books themselves are still in extraordinary condition, considering how often they've been read. 

I'm fairly certain the description is unnecessary, but the Chronicles of Narnia recount the beginning, middle, and end of another world.  It begins (and ends, actually) with the Pensevie children being magically transported (through the titular wardrobe) into the world of Narnia.  Narnia is full of satyrs, fauns, and talking animals, especially Aslan (the Lion) who rules over the realm. 

C.S. Lewis is a beautiful introduction to the world of fantasy.  I think I spent half my childhood imagining I was either in Narnia or Middle Earth (see below).  I bought the series for Chandler a couple years ago when the Disney movies started coming out, and found that the order of the books had been changed.  While it is true that, chronologically, that The Magicians Nephew comes first, Lewis meant for readers to first encounter Narnia through the wardrobe, and I share that belief.  I altered the numbering on Chandler's set of books, and I suggest you do the same.  The Magicians Newphew should really be book number six.

Much has been made of these books being written as Christian allegory, and there is certainly an abundance of evidence to back that up.  I began making such connections when I reread the series as an adult, but that's because of my Christian beliefs.  If it's not your thing, you can still completely enjoy the series as simply fantasy novels.

An interesting segue - C.S. Lewis became a Christian based on his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a strong believer in Christ, and who wrote the next book(s) on my list.

4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Of course, the Ring trilogy follows as books I loved (after all, we do have a dog named Frodo), but The Hobbit was the first one I read.  What with the blockbuster films that have come out lately, I probably don't need a long explanation; but this is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who goes on an adventure, finds a magical ring, and defeats a dragon with his mental prowess.

I wanted nothing more as a kid than to visit Hobbiton or Rivendale, and I was in love with Legolas long before he looked like Orlando Bloom.  Hours, days, and months of my childhood were spent reading and rereading Tolkien's books.  They're a bit more difficult of a read, and contain more violence than the other books discussed above, and are probably best for kids who are a bit older or more mature, but The Hobbit is a more simple tale, and is a great intro into the world of Middle Earth.

What books were you most influenced by as a young reader?  I'd love to know, please leave a comment below. 

*all photos were borrowed from my good friends from Barnes & Noble at 


  1. I'd say, Where the Wild Things Are, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

  2. In my pre-school days, I would say Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax." I guess my parents instilled activism in me at a young age.

    As a pre-teen, I was a huge Judy Blume fan. I loved "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" and "Just as Long as We're Together".