5. Anne of Green Gables
Growing up, my first best friend was my older sister and the first best friend we shared was a lively, imaginative redhead from Maritime Canada. Anne (“spelt with an ‘e'”) Shirley introduced me to the world of classic turn-of-the-century children’s books as well as inviting me to go deeper into my own imagination and find the rapture of the everyday world through my own eyes. As well, the death of Matthew Cuthbert, Anne’s adoptive father, was probably the first moment in fiction to make me cry for people I’d come to love. Grown folks of a certain age will always know what you mean when you talk about “bosom friends”, and indeed, share a sort of community built around these stories and the other books and poems they led us to. And we have good old “Carrots” to thank for that.
4. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
A classic trope in children’s fantasy is the naïve child who stumbles her (and she is nearly always a girl, in the best of these books) way across the border of a strange and fantastic country and learns something new about herself over her journey through it home. Lewis Carroll had his Alice, and C.S. Lewis his Lucy, but for me, the most formative of these heroines will always be L.F. Baum’s Dorothy Gale. I can’t recall if I first watched the 1939 film adaptation or read the original book, but the vivid, perplexing, pun-sprinkled world full of talking animals and green-but-not-green cities, and the sacred marks of witches left an indelible impression on me that stands apart from the film. In Dorothy’s shoes, I learned that I might just possess the gumption it takes to get through all kinds of things I did not understand. Childhood, life itself, really, was captured for me in a single vivid story.
3. Ramona and Her Father
One of the frustrating things about growing up is figuring out that your parents, the people who seemingly exist to provide everything for you, have their own complex needs and desires as well. There’s a moment in every childhood where you start to see them as people just like you. For Ramona and for me, second grade was right around the time I realized my mom and dad were just as scared of the world as I was, just a bit bigger. Beverly Cleary’s books each capture something fragile and unique about her particular protagonists, but Ramona and Her Father is for me a perfect, crayoned picture of the time in my life when I began to see outside myself.
2. Where the Wild Things Are
Students of the picture book often expound upon the relationship between the illustrations and the text in a given book, how the interactions create a story beyond the words alone. For me, the perfect marriage of form and content is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. In Sendak’s pictures, we meet Max, a loud and angry child whose untempered boisterousness we’ve all experienced, and whose monsters we all recognize the first time we see them. “Let the wild rumpus start!” Max commands, and we obey, along with Sendak’s creatures. Parents and children alike can recognize the portrait of childhood id expressed, indulged and ultimately contained by the story’s close. Cartoonists, librarians, and five-year-olds alike celebrate Sendak for a reason. His books, and this in particular, are just plain good.
1. A Wrinkle in Time
“It was a dark and stormy night,” is a story hook that entered cliché with the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (for whom was named an annual writer’s contest to create the purplest opening line.) But before I could recognize types and patterns, I just knew it as Madeleine L’Engle’s introduction to Meg Murry in a rattly attic bedroom in a cold New England farmhouse. This book–with its interdimensional adventure into the manifold experiences of love and freedom–is at once a perfect picture of early adolescence and a wildly inventive science fiction story whose beats I can’t describe without explaining them away. The author, and the angelic beings she draws as guides through the world, trust you the child to instinctively grasp each image and experience as it unfolds, a rare gift in sci-fi even rarer in children’s books.
But what holds it together for me, what brings me back to the book again and again is the intimate connections L’Engle builds between her characters, and between the reader and her heroine herself. You can’t come away from this book without having loved someone. That it’s also a deeply religious defense of self-giving love as the foundation of freedom and community was lost on me as a child, but has only deepened my appreciation for Wrinkle in retrospect. Read this book, and you’ve read the world.