Top ten


On Facebook Sarah asked, "What are the top ten books that sort of defined your childhood? Books you read over and over and were incredibly fascinated with and changed your world?"

To answer this question, I'm sticking to books I read and reread before high school. Anything after that was a different sort of experience and informed my tastes in a different sort of way. Still tough to stick to ten, but I made an honest effort. I feel particularly bad leaving Jack London off this list, but what can I do? The rules say ten!

The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill
This is the first novel I have a memory of rereading. I read it and reread it my second-grade year and when my teacher retired at the end of the year and gave away all her books, she gave this one to someone else. But it's always stuck with me.

The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes
Cheating, I suppose, but I read all the Hardy Boys books at least twice and all the Nancy Drew books at least once and then in junior high I switched to the Three Investigators which prepared me to read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which emboldened me to take on Literachoo. Thanks, Frank and Joe! (and Biff!)

The Mystery of the Dinosaur Graveyard by Mary Adrian
No one else at my elementary school checked this book out and so I filled the checkout card myself. i don't know if I've ever been as obsessed with any book as I was with this book.

Riddle of Raven Hollow by Mary F. Shura
This was one of my go-to books when I couldn't sleep and wanted to read. I had all the beats of its plot tattooed on my soul. I'm sure this book has had a lasting affect on how I structure story.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
This novel helped me understand what literature meant. The layers of symbol, the ambiguities, the things left unsaid. Konigsburg played an important role in teaching me how to read.

Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
Long after childhood ended, I would periodically reread this book, and I would sob at the ending, and I would know I was yet human and that a healthy emotional life was still possible.

Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
Although not strictly magical realism, this novel had that sort of affect upon me. Anything can happen. Anything can go wrong. The world is more wondrous and fragile than I imagine.

The Silver Chair and A Horse and His Boy I had other Narnia books and reread some of them many times, but these two are unquestionably my favorites. And they inform greatly my ideas on what a "series" of books should consist of.

The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander
In contrast to the last pair, I included this book as a negative example. I reread this book many times, but I never really liked it. Frankly, Alexander seems like a swell guy, but even as a kid I didn't think he was much of a writer. And having to articulate myself as I read and reread what made this book a failure sharpened my critical capacity.

Thornton W. Burgess's Animal books
If literature is meant to teach empathy, no books did this better than Burgess's. The breadth of experience presented boggles. That two books can present the same two characters---one a predator, one food---and make them both fully identifiable and heroic? That taught me a great deal about charity, about humanity, about writing.


  1. I think I was not so much of a critical reader as a child, but just found certain books very compelling, & was not sure why...I lovec that mystery, too. From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler was also one of my favorites. I think that what I loved about Lloyd Alexander's books is that they weren't safe...no happy endings guaranteed, and characters one loves often die. I need to read some of these others. Based on observation of shared tastes and opinions.

  2. I liked Alexander's Prydain series, but I also read it in 5th grade and had no sense of what makes writing "work". I simply enjoyed the fantasy aspect in part because I was a major Tolkien fan, but had not yet read much of any other fantasy outside Greek and Arthurian myth - so it had that new worlds feeling, whereas if anyone writes anything even close to the farm boy finding his destiny now cliche I would cringe.

  3. .

    One of the things that bugged me about Llyr is that, excepting when my fourth-grade teacher read the class The Black Cauldron, I didn't read any of the Prydain books and I hated how the narrator assumed a lot of prior knowledge on the one hand and explained unnecessary stuff on the other. That's my primary memory of it now, is those issues with its opening. There was a big cat on the cover so I guess pigboy must have bumped into one of those, but otherwise I remember nothing.

  4. I hear you, I recall I read all 5 books back to back - so everything was fresh in my mind and if I remember right, I did that in just a couple days too.