5. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1987)
This is only a “children’s book” insofar as it’s written in simple language and marketed to children. In reality, it’s a wilderness survival tale that makes Man vs. Wild look like a day trip to the petting zoo. Gary Paulsen writes like a sort of Ernest Hemingway or Jack London for kids, and—as his memoir, Guts, makes clear—he walks the walk too. (Among other things, he once led a sled team in the Iditarod.) Children appreciate candor a lot more than most adults give them credit for, and like all the best children’s authors, Paulsen doesn’t baby his readers. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Hatchet and its sequels not only opened my eyes to slightly more “serious,” “grown-up” reading, but also helped awaken an appreciation and respect for nature that have only grown with age.
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)
I understand this choice may be a bit passé. If the praise that has been heaped on Jo Rowling and her creation in the Internet age could power a car, we would have solved the energy crisis eight years ago. I’m not one of those who think the Harry Potter books are the pinnacle of literary achievement, but there is a reason they’ve proven so popular. This series got even the non-nerdy kids tearing through books heftier than most dictionaries. When was the last time in your adult life you read a novel in excess of 800 pages? (Stephen King and George R.R. Martin don’t count.) At the height of Pottermania, kids were doing it in a day. Harry, Ron, and Hermione introduced my generation to the page-turner as well as the Time Turner, and the summers I spent speed-reading library copies—heavy, dog-eared, and cigarette-scented though they may have been—will always hold a fond place in my memory.
(Disclaimer: I don’t think this is actually the best book in the series, but since I know Brian would never allow me to include all seven under one heading, the most iconic will have to do. Also, I’m aware that I’m using the American title, not the more brainy-sounding British original. Take it up with Uncle Sam.)
3. Holes by Louis Sachar (1998)
I imagine I have this book to thank for many of my current idiosyncratic tastes, and I think I’m the better for it. Holes tells the slightly surrealistic story of Stanley Yelnats, an obese teenager who is sent to Camp Green Lake (actually a barren desert waste) as punishment for a supposed theft. At the camp, Stanley and his fellow juvenile delinquents are expected to dig one five-foot-by-five-foot hole per day, all the while avoiding heat exhaustion, venomous lizards, and the wrath of Mr. Sir and his cronies. It’s a weird, dark(ish), funny book, similar to something the Coens might come up with if their medium of choice was children’s literature rather than film. The semi-sequel, Small Steps, is worth a read as well.
2. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
Again, this isn’t necessarily the best book in the Narnia series, but it was the first published and remains the most popular. Some people (among them Lewis’s pal J.R.R. Tolkien, who we’ll get back to in a moment) decry The Chronicles of Narnia for being overly preachy or “message-heavy.” I’ll admit subtlety may not have been Jack’s strongest suit, but he had so many other strong suits that it’s hard to fault him that one. Among other things, this series kindled in me a love for world-building and fictional maps that would later burst into flames with The Lord of the Rings. It was also my introduction to one of the most influential figures in my journey as a reader, writer, and human being, as my many subsequent ventures into his adult works can attest. Of course, Lewis firmly believed that adults could derive just as much (if not more) pleasure from a good fairytale as the children they were written for, and the old set of Narnia books passed down to me by my grandparents remains the most cherished item on my bookshelf to this day.
1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
Try as he might, even the once-great Peter Jackson can’t defile this classic’s legacy. Mr. Jackson’s biggest error lies in thinking that “adventure” is synonymous with “action.” Though the film trilogy that shares its name would have you believe otherwise, The Hobbit is not particularly action-packed. Most of its fun comes from a) exploring Tolkien’s beautifully-crafted world, and b) watching Bilbo use his wits to pull through when no amount of muscle would make a difference. A ten-minute barrel-surfing battle scene may make for good 3-D entertainment (may—it doesn’t do anything for me personally), but The Hobbit is really about using your brains when the brawn has failed. A lesson any young reader could stand to learn.