It’s not exactly a big secret that I love reading (also – that would be a pretty weird thing for me to keep secret). I’m 30 and I still get crushes on fictional characters, although maybe I have better taste now than I did as a moony teenager in love with Holden Caulfield. One of my greatest hopes for Theo is that he will grow up to love books even a fraction as much as I do. In light of that fact, I’ve created a list of 20 books that I loved when I was a kid as a sort of starting point for Theo’s future reading career. Because it’s never too early for this sort of thing, right?
Keep in mind that I haven’t read some of these books in, like, 20 years, so my reviews/descriptions might not be entirely accurate. However, what I can offer you is the dominant impression these books leave me with so many years after the fact:
1. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, 1959
This is a book about a 12-year-old boy, Sam, who gets sick of living in his parents’ crowded New York City apartment with his
10,000 8 brothers and sisters. His solution to this problem is to take off for the Catskill Mountains and find this piece of property his family abandoned years before (they used to have a house or something there, like, three generations ago, but then they moved to the city I guess).
Sam tells his parents that he’s going to run away to the mountains and basically says that he will go whether they’re cool with it or not, so they totally let him go. Um, amazing! How come my parents weren’t that cool when I was 12? Anyway, he apparently learns some wilderness skills or whatever at the public library (TAKE THAT, ROB FORD), and then is all, see ya, giant family and tiny apartment.
My main memory of this book is that this kid was fucking SERIOUS BUSINESS. He finds a peregrine falcon that he trains to hunt for him. He lives in a tree. He almost dies, like, fifty times. At one point he is skinning a rabbit and is like, hmmm, I really want to eat his liver. So he does, and then he’s like, welp, I guess I was vitamin D deficient. I don’t know why, but that scene struck me as especially hardcore. HE ATE A LIVER, YOU GUYS. A LIVER. I guess liver really grossed me out when I was young?
Another big impression that this book left on me was that I was a huge wuss. I would never, ever go off and live in the mountains by myself in a house that I had to dig with my own hands. I could never be that self-sufficient. Also, I could never go that long without seeing another human face (even if occasionally I fantasize about it). In spite of my wussiness, though, I still managed to identify with Sam because, hey, who doesn’t want to run off and leave everything behind sometimes? Who doesn’t want to push themselves to the limit to discover how much they can endure, and how much they’re really capable of?
And I guess that’s the main message I got from this book: if you really want something, and you really prepare for it, you can achieve it. And also maybe you will get a sweet pet falcon out of the deal.
2. Warrior Scarlet, Rosemary Suttcliff, 1958
This one takes place in Britain, during the Bronze Age. It tells the story of Drem, a kid with only one functioning arm. The thing is, Drem really, really wants to be a warrior (in case you were wondering, this is kind of a Big Deal in his tribe). At first everyone is all, no way can you be a warrior, your arm doesn’t even work! You’ll have to go live with the sheep-herders. Have fun with the sheep, Drem! And then they’re like, well, I guess you can train with the other youth. Maybe.
So of course Drem goes to train with the other boys his age, seems to prove that he’s able to keep up with them, and totally starts to get over the fact that he’s different. He even starts to bond with his peers! BUT (you totally knew there was a but coming here), in order to become a warrior he has to kill a wolf. And of course the killing gets all fucked up (the wolf injures him really badly, so his friend steps in to help, which is TOTALLY NOT ALLOWED according to the tribe), and it looks like Drem will be spending the rest of his life with the sheep people. Of course, some other stuff happens, Drem ends up somehow killing the exact same wolf he failed to kill years before, and there’s a happy ending where he completes the super seekrit initiation ceremony and becomes a full-fledged warrior. Yay! Everybody wins! Except the wolf, I guess.
My main memory of this book is how insanely fascinating, beautiful and bad-ass it made Bronze Age Britain sound. I remember poring, practically drooling, over passages about midnight bonfires and sacred rituals and ancient magic, and whoa, did I ever want to live in that world. I remember this being a book that I daydreamed about a lot, and that’s something that I want for Theo. I want him to have books that he loves so much he ends up spending hours and hours imagining what it would be like to exist within the confines of that story.
Plus, you know, super seekrit initiation. SO AWESOME.
3. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, 1962
First, can we all just agree that Meg Murry is awesome? She’s not conventionally attractive, she has self-esteem issues, she’s socially awkward, she beats other kids up, and she’s super smart. I mean, sure, she’s not as smart as Charles Wallace, but then who is? Anyway, she’s someone that a lot of people can identify with. And she ends up kicking major ass.
The book takes place in small town America (I want to say somewhere in New England, but I’m not sure) during the cold war. The Murrys are a family that includes two super-smart parents, their super-smart daughter Meg, their super-super-smart son Charles Wallace and their totally boring and average twins, Sandy and Dennys. Mr. Murry disappeared during some kind of secret science mission, and now everyone in their village thinks that he just ran off and abandoned his family. Oh and everyone also thinks that Charles Wallace is developmentally delayed, even though he’s a genius like whoa.
Anyway, Meg and Charles Wallace end up teaming up with some extraterrestrial-type ladies, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, and Meg’s hot schoolmate Calvin O’Keefe (who is super popular but ALSO has issues) in order to go rescue Mr. Murry. They travel through space and time in a sort of “wrinkle” called a tesseract (SCIENCE!!!!) and have some adventures before finally arriving at the planet where the force of ultimate evil darkness is keeping Meg’s dad prisoner. Even though you would think that it would be Charles Wallace who ends up saving the day (because he’s so frigging precocious), it’s actually Meg’s badass contrariness that gets everyone out of there alive. HIGH FIVE FOR SMART, CONTRARY WOMEN.
My main impressions from this book were: a) whoooaaaa I think I like science fiction and/or fantasy (it was probably the first sci-fi/fantasy book I read) b) I wish I could be part of the Murry family and c) I triple wish that Calvin O’Keefe was my boyfriend (he is seriously so nice, you guys don’t even know). It’s a book about a smart, resourceful young woman who realizes that she’s strong and awesome and ALSO she gets a hot, nice boyfriend without even changing anything about her looks. He even tells her he likes her in glasses! Aw, you guys, I love this book so hard.
4. The Great Brain, John Dennis Fitzgerald, 1967
This is actually the first of a series of books about Tom Fitzgerald, the titular Great Brain. The books, which are set in late 19th century Utah, are narrated by Tom’s long-suffering younger brother, John. See, Tom is a genius, but he only wants to use his powers for evil, i.e. “swindling” people out of their possessions and thinking up get-rich-quick schemes. He also does things like trying to frame the schoolteacher for being “a drunk”. You guys, these were THE BEST BOOKS EVER, basically.
No, but seriously, even though Tom occasionally receives his comeuppance, he still gets away with a lot of stuff. When I was a kid, I mostly wanted to hang out with him and stir up shit and learn how to swindle people out of their possessions because, hey, it sounded like a lot of fun! Plus, they had so many whacky adventures. If these books are anything to go by, Utah is way more fun than any place I’ve ever lived.
5. Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943
There is some kind of law that every French-speaking person has to read this book at least once over the course of their childhood. Now, let’s be totally clear: no kid is going to understand this book. They might enjoy it, but they won’t understand it.
Plot-wise, the book is about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara and is struggling to survive. One day, a young boy, the titular Little Prince appears. Now, this Little Prince is from space (!!) where he lives on his own personal asteroid (!!!) that has three active volcanoes (!!!!) and one rose. Weirdly, the humanoid prince falls in love with the rose (to be fair, I guess he didn’t have a whole lot of options in terms of life partners), who then lies to him because she’s super vain and kind of rude. They break up for a while, but then I guess they get back together.
The Little Prince decides he needs to explore the universe, so he sets off to visit a bunch of other asteroids, each of which is populated by a single, ridiculous adult. One of these adults, a geographer, is all, hey, you should totally check out the planet Earth! And the Little Prince is like, okay cool!
On Earth, the prince meets more ridiculous adults, and discovers that his rose isn’t beautiful or unique after all. He’s pretty bummed about this until he meets a fox (who totally steals the spotlight and gets the best lines in the book) who convinces him that yeah, dude, your rose IS special because she’s the one you love. Whoa! Revelation! The prince also meets a weird snake who tells him that he can send him back to his home asteroid, but the prince is all, no, that’s cool, I’m good for now.
Anyway, the prince tells this whole story to the pilot, and then helps him find a well so that he doesn’t die of thirst or whatever. Then the prince is like, welp, I guess I’ll go find that snake again! The pilot realizes that the Little Prince will have to let the snake kill him in order to get him back home, and tries to convince him to stay on Earth. The prince totally ignores him and lets the snake bite him. Sorry, pilot! The story ends with the pilot looking for the prince.
As a kid you read this book and you’re like, hmmm, I guess this is fine. It’s kind of funny or whatever. Then you read it as an adult and you’re like, oohhhh, I get it. Adults are boring and totally sucky, while kids are awesome (fact). Also we have to appreciate the people we have in our lives who love us, and not spend time comparing them to other people (double fact). And finally, you realize that you want to spend all day hanging out with the fox, who says things like, “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (One sees clearly only with their heart – the essential is invisible to the eyes)
As an adult, I’ve read Saint-Exupéry’s other books, and have realized that he is this crazy amazing poetic philosopher. Wind, Sand and Stars is, in particular, my favourite. But I’m glad that I read The Little Prince when I was a kid, even if I didn’t understand it. I’m glad to have my childish impressions so that I can compare them to how I see the book now – I think that’s especially important given that it’s a book about the magical worldview children have that we lose as we age.
I’ll finish off here with a quote from Wind, Sand and Stars:
Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.
Stay tuned for parts II, III and IV. And please feel free to leave book suggestions in the comments – if I get enough of them, I will do a whole post about your suggestions. I would write about books all day every day, if I could.
p.s. Can we all just agree that Holden Caulfield would be, like, the worst boyfriend in the history of ever?