WARNING: This post is long. LONG.
So, inspired by the mention of The Phantom Tollbooth somewhere on the internet that I can’t remember, I decided to compile a list of young adult books that I loved as a child. The parameters of the list were that I managed to remember the book (obviously, but this is more because of omission. I’m sure there’s plenty I’m forgetting.), I read it before I started high school, and I feel like it had a significant impact on me as a reader/person. I’ve read every book on this list multiple times, and I would gladly reread every one of them today. The list is just in the order that I managed to remember the book (I used the GoodReads list of best YA books to help me). There’s nothing earth-shattering or even particularly unexpected on this list. I loved a lot of the books that most kids loved.
Before I start the proper list, I need to point out that I can’t decide whether A Tree Grows in Brooklyn qualifies because I can’t remember if I read it for the first time in junior high or high school. But it’s my favorite book of all time, so I figure it’s worth mentioning anyway.
1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer
This book taught me more about language and its uses than any elementary school English class (apologies to my teachers). It’s probably the cleverest book I’ve ever read, and I don’t think that it even needs to be classified as a young adult book. I still recommend it to people on a regular basis. Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? You should. There are puns. And a guy named The Mathemagician.
2. Bridge to Teribithia and Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
I had both of these books on my list and forgot that they were written by the same person until I looked them up. Bridge to Teribithia is a rite of passage for many children, or at least it was when I was young. For me and many of the kids I knew, it was the first book we read that dealt with death, particularly the death of a child. It’s the first book that ever made me cry (and cry I did. Violently, confusedly, unaware that a book could do something like that to a person). I read Bridge to Teribithia in fourth or fifth grade and Jacob Have I Loved in sixth or seventh. If you haven’t read Jacob Have I Loved, I recommend you do. It’s another book that I feel transcends the YA genre. It was the first book I read that made me feel like I wasn’t reading a book for children. It’s dark, mature, and complex, and it deals with the kinds of ugly emotions that books for children so often seem to skirt around. Sara Louise is one of those protagonists that I can instantly identify with, and I think it’s that way for a lot of people who read the book.
3. All of Roald Dahl’s books for children
I tried to narrow this down, and I couldn’t. I mean, it’s Roald Dahl, what are you going to do? His books made me think outside of boxes I didn’t even know were limiting me. Here are some of my favorites: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Danny, the Champion of the World; George’s Marvellous Medicine; Matilda. I think my favorite scene from any Roald Dahl book is when Danny drugs pheasants with raisins stuffed with powder from sleeping pills in Danny, the Champion of the World. That kid is a smart cookie. Incidentally, I once read a book of Dahl’s short stories for adults by accident. I was probably still a little too young. I vaguely remember being terrified by a story about a guy who gets his finger cut off.
4. A Wrinkle in Time and Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time is another one of those books that everyone should just read. I remember seeing the movie version after I read the book and thinking Gregory Smith was cute as Calvin. My favorite book by L’Engle, though, is Troubling a Star, which I’m guessing is one of her lesser-known books because no one seems to know about it when I bring it up. I liked it so much that I read it three or four times in a row. It’s about one of L’Engle’s recurring characters, Vicky Austin, going on a boat trip to Antarctica. I haven’t read it since I was about thirteen, and now I really want to get my hands on a copy. I think it’s a bit funny that Troubling a Star is my favorite of her books because I hated A Ring of Endless Light, which is probably her most famous book about Vicky Austin. I’ve just never been into books about dolphins, and it seems like there’s a lot of them in YA.
5. The Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
I read my first Alice book, Alice in Rapture Sort Of , when I was in sixth grade, and I became absolutely obsessed. Naylor is probably best known for Shiloh, which I read and liked but never much cared about. I think it was about a beagle or something. But the Alice books became a regular part of my reading life because she kept writing them. They’re still coming out now, though she’s almost finished with the series (Alice finishing high school), and I’m still reading them. They’re incredibly relatable, frank, and funny, even if Naylor does sometimes reveal her disconnect from contemporary teenagers. I like that she doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. Because I’ve been reading them for close to a decade, I have this intense emotional connection to the books and characters that’s going to be difficult to deal with when the series ends. I really want to buy a full set of these so that I can give them to my future daughter or niece or somebody someday.
6. That Summer, Someone Like You, Keeping the Moon, and Dreamland by Sarah Dessen
I found Dreamland randomly while wandering around my junior high library in 8th grade, and I read it and every other Sarah Dessen book I could find in a matter of weeks. Sarah Dessen is one of the writers who first made me consider that I might want to write YA. I’ve read and enjoyed all of her books, and I always get super hyped up about a new one coming out (there’s one this May!). Sarah Dessen has also been a really positive influence on me as a writing student. I follow her blog on livejournal, and it’s a great look into the daily life of a working writer. I think she’s one of the best YA writers currently publishing.
7. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson is the other writer who first made me seriously consider writing YA. I also follow her blog on livejournal, and I feel much the same way about her as I do about Sarah Dessen. Her books are some of the most emotionally charged and challenging books I’ve ever read, in any genre. Speak was a big influence for me because of the unconventional choices she made concerning structure and language. I have a character in a work-in-progress named Melinda after the protagonist of Speak. Another quick note about Laurie Halse Anderson: she’s a wonderful advocate for libraries, independent bookstores, and against banning books from school libraries/curricula (her books have banned on numerous occasions in junior highs and high schools).
8. Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, and Izzy Willy-Nilly by Cynthia Voigt
Dicey Tillerman is one of my favorite young adult protagonists. When I first read the books, I was so impressed by her bravery, skillfulness, and judgement. I was sorry for the things she and her siblings had to endure, but I wanted to be more like her. Izzy Willy-Nilly is probably the most introspective YA novel I’ve ever read, and it was a reading experience unlike any I’d had before. One of Voigt’s great talents is communicating difficult and very individual experiences (like the amputation of a limb in Izzy) in a way that is still accessible to young readers.
9. Hatchet, The River, and Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen
I can not for the life of me figure out why I was so obsessed with these books when I was in the fifth grade, but I read them over and over again. I even asked my dad for a hatchet (which he thankfully did not give me). I have no idea what I would have done with it, since I was not finding myself in any wilderness survival situations. A kid that I babysat a few summers back had to read this book for school, and I remember being confused and a bit offended when he didn’t like it.
10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I remember feeling like this was the first “grown up book” I ever read. I must have been eight or nine. I remember that it was definitely the longest book I had read up to that point (other than when my mother read A Tale of Two Cities out loud to me, which was a torturous experience for both of us). I got totally caught up in the story. What’s interesting about this book, now that I think about it, is that it features the death of a young character. That means that Bridge to Teribithia was not the first book I read in which a character died. I remember that I wasn’t that sad when Beth died, though. I don’t think I fully understood her illness and death at the time. It all seemed so prolonged and pathetic and unreal. Jo was my favorite (she’s everyone’s favorite, right?), so I’m counting her among my writing influences.
11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne Shirley is such a badass. I wanted to be just like her and probably drove my parents crazy after I read this book.
12. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
This is a book about a girl and her brother who run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If that’s not the coolest thing ever, especially when you’re eleven, I don’t know what is. I should point out that it does make it seem very conceivable to run away from home, though, and probably contributed to one or more of my own futile attempts. I was never very serious about it. I would get mad at my mother, pack some things up in bag (including my piggy bank), and go sit on the curb on my street corner waiting for a bus to come. That corner wasn’t a bus stop.
13. The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I had the cutest little set of these books, and I read them all tons of times, though I only vaguely remember them now. I was so fascinated by the fact that Laura was a real person, that the things in the books had really happened. For whatever reason, though, my favorite of them has always been Farmer Boy, which is about Almanzo’s childhood. I should point out that because of these books I forced my mother to buy me a bonnet. Like the hatchet situation, I don’t really understand why I wanted a bonnet so badly. But I had one, and my little sister did too. Also, Little House on the Prarie is an awesome tv show, and Melissa Gilbert’s book is one of the only celebrity memoirs I’ve read and enjoyed.
14. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
You know who else is such a badass? Charlotte Doyle. I thought she was basically the coolest person ever when I read this book. I didn’t understand at the time what the book was doing to discuss gender roles and the abilities of women to transcend others’ expectations of them, but it’s pretty awesome. And tense. I’ve reread this in the past few years, and it still had me on edge.
15. Sideways Stories from Wayside School and Wayside School is Falling Down by Louis Sachar
Like The Phantom Tollbooth, these are some mightily clever books. The way that Sachar plays with language is wonderful. And they’re some of the funniest YA books I’ve ever read. Apparently there’s a third one, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, but I don’t remember that one at all.
16. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
This is one of the things that inspired my notebook-keeping. Who didn’t want to keep a notebook after reading about Harriet and hers? At some point in my childhood this was made into a movie with Michelle Trachtenberg, Rosie O’Donnell, and Gregory Smtih. What is it with Gregory Smith and film adaptations of my favorite childhood books? I’m sure I thought he was cute in this movie, too. There was also the thing about tomato sandwiches. I think I ate a few of those after reading this book, and I didn’t even like tomatoes when I was that age.
17. Cut by Patricia McCormick
This is another book that I read in about 7th or 8th grade. I know I read it multiple times that year. There was just something disturbing, fascinating, and reassuring about reading about people around my age who were way more messed up than I was. A lot of my friends read this book around the same time.
18. The Ramona books and Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
This woman is obviously a legend of children’s literature. Also, she’s 94 and still writing (though she hasn’t published anything since 1999), which is pretty awesome. I loved all the Ramona books when I was a kid, probably because Ramona was a little bit annoying and I identified with that. I also remember reading Dear Mr. Henshaw for some elementary school assignment and being pretty obsessed with it. I probably liked the idea of a kid getting to correspond with an author. I’m fairly certain my teacher made us all write letters to an author after we read the book, but I can’t remember who I wrote to, and I probably never got an answer. The book has a sequel called Strider that I forgot about until I looked it up, but I read that one too.
19. Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger
I read this book in 8th grade, and I’ve read it multiple times since. It’s probably the first book I read that dealt explicitly with LGBT themes, and I think that Wittlinger handles it wonderfully. What I love most about this book is how complex it is. The relationship between John and Marisol is completely unconventional and complicated. It’s a very emotionally mature book, which I always appreciate in YA.
20. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
This isn’t a YA book, but I decided to include at the end of this list because I read it for the first time in 8th grade, and it’s my other favorite book of all time (along with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). I have read this book more times than I can count. I feel like a lot of people don’t give it a fair chance because Janet Fitch isn’t that well known and the book was on Oprah’s book club or whatever, but I definitely recommend it. This is the kind of book I want to write.