Favorite Books for Kids

While filling in for USA TODAY’S Pop Candy blogger Whitney Matheson (while she was on maternity leave), Zack Smith asked me and several others (including writers Jodi Picoult, Brad Meltzer, Lizzie Skurnick, Kate DiCamillo, and BONE graphic novelist Jeff Smith) a series of questions about books we enjoyed as kids, offbeat kids’ books we’ve discovered, and kids’ books we’d like to see come back into print. I love this topic! So here are my responses to Zack’s questions.


POP CANDY: What books had the biggest influence on you growing up?

JOSH: Long before the Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Wimpy Kids, and Hunger Games series, I dug books about semi-mythical kids who carried swords, young wizards in training, weirdo middle-schoolers rebelling against authority, and kids versus dystopia.

My dad read T.H. White’s amazing The Sword in the Stone (1938) to me; though it’s ostensibly about young King Arthur, it’s mostly an excuse for White to sneak in a tremendous amount of know-how about falconry, jousting, and how to hunt a Questing Beast — and if you read White’s later add-on, The Book of Merlyn, you’ll find a nomadic goose advocating Fourier-esque anarchism!

Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the template for all subsequent fantasies (e.g., both Star Wars trilogies, not to mention Monica Furlong’s great 1987 novel Wise Child) in which an eccentric wizard takes a half-feral child with tremendous untapped magical abilities on as an apprentice. I think my stepmother encouraged me to read this series.

Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) is one of my favorite novels of all time — why, oh why, can’t anyone make a good movie adaptation of it? Is it because Fitzhugh’s Harriet is neither cute nor nice?

I was a big fan of John Christopher’s two post-apocalyptic series — the Sword of the Spirits trilogy (1971-72), the Tripod trilogy (1967-68) — because Christopher had a knack for telling a story from a brave but otherwise not particularly admirable boy’s perspective. My dad really liked British kids’ and YA books; he got me the Christopher books, as well as Peter Dickinson’s brilliant Changes trilogy (1968-70), which is set in an England which has mysteriously reverted to a medieval way of life.

I could go and on about the dystopian kids’ books, because there were just so many — often from Scholastic! — appearing in the 1970s. I credit my dad a lot, in these responses — so I should just add, here, that my mom was extremely generous when it came to the Scholastic catalog. She also subscribed me to the Science Fiction Book Club, and every week she’d let me buy one book (I usually chose fantasy or sci-fi) from Harvard Square’s now-defunct bookstore Wordsworth. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to my older cousin Martin, who mailed me an enormous box of books he’d outgrown.

POP CANDY: What were some particularly unusual and offbeat titles you feel are worth rediscovering?

JOSH: I don’t know how well-known Jane Langton’s Hall Family Chronicles are, these days. I discovered them fortuitously, when my father left me on my own in the children’s room of the Boston Public Library’s main branch one afternoon. In The Diamond in the Window (1962), Eleanor and Eddy Hall, who live in Concord, Mass., discover the secret attic playroom from which their aunt and uncle had disappeared at the same age. A mysterious Prince Krishna has left behind literary clues (related to the writings of Louisa May Alcott, Emerson and Thoreau) which may help them free the missing children from an enchantment. The books are funny, suspenseful, smart, and deeply wise — in fact, they’re philosophical novels. I’m re-reading The Swing in the Summerhouse (1967) and The Astonishing Stereoscope (1971) right now, and there are several others in the series, too.

What else? I was an early adopter of Tintin, Lucky Luke, and Asterix — my dad would buy them in French, at Schoenhof’s Foreign Books in Harvard Square, if English translations weren’t available yet — but these days they’re widely known. So I might just mention a few other early graphic novels that I liked as a kid: Peyo’s Smurfs (1963-on) books, which are far more rewarding than the TV show and movie, and which have recently been reissued; Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas books (1973, 1975) plus his Fungus the Bogeyman (1977); Ed Emberley’s extraordinary The Wizard of Op (1975), a psychedelic op-art adventure that is very funny and clever and way out of print; oh, and Virginia Lee Burton’s Calico the Wonder Horse (1941).

POP CANDY: Are there any older children’s books that you’ve since discovered as an adult and enjoyed, and if so, could you tell us about them?

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1958), and the other Danny Dunn books by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams didn’t appeal too much to me back when I was an anti-math kid — though I did love Alvin’s Secret Code (1963), and other books by Clifford B. Hicks about Alvin, a middle-school inventor. But looking at the Danny Dunn books now, I think they’re terrific. In Homework Machine, Danny and his pal Irene — unusual, in those days, to have a girl protagonist who was into math and science — program a midcentury computer to do their homework. The garbage-in, garbage-out lesson they learn is that computers aren’t really any smarter than the humans who program them; something that many of us, today, no longer know. The Danny and Alvin books hail from the first DIY era — anyone who digs Make Magazine or Instructables.com should read ’em.

POP CANDY: Or are there any books you remember as being just incredibly strange, with elements you just couldn’t get away with today?

JOSH: Maid Marian leading a guerrilla attack in her leather armor, in White’s Sword in the Stone — yowza! (Readers, I married her. Her name turned out to be Susan.)

Not strange, but telling — many of the kids’ books I enjoyed as a kid, including Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince (1915), Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (1930-47), Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series (1942-63), Elizabeth Janet Gray’s Adam of the Road (1943), Robert Lawson’s The Fabulous Flight (1949), Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain (1959), are about kids who have what I’d call “grownup-free” adventures, though the kids are not orphans. These are wonderful adventures in which kids use their wits and behave responsibly in order to conquer adversity or whatever… and it’s not because, as in the Harry Potter books, say, they don’t have mothers and/or fathers. It’s because their parents trust them — and trust the universe, or fate — enough to allow their kids to go off on their own and attempt extraordinary things.

POP CANDY: What are some books you’d recommend to Whitney for reading to her baby?

JOSH: I mentioned above that Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams were ahead of the game in writing about a girl protagonist who can do anything boys can do. Williams is also author of the girl-power illustrated book The Practical Princess. Perfect for Whitney’s baby!


PS: Also see my POP CANDY post about the Matthew Looney series of sci-fi books for kids.