I was an enthusiastic reader as a child, but I still managed to miss out on a lot of excellent children’s books when I was in their actual target age group. Fortunately, I’ve never been of the opinion that books for young people are only for young people, so I’ve kept reading them even as I’ve gotten older.
Sometimes I read books for young people now and think, “Oh, I would have loved that at age x.” Sometimes I read books for young people now and think, “I love this to pieces,” and there’s no need for a qualifier.
So here’s a Friday Five in honor of the latter category: five books or book series intended for children that I first read as an adult and loved wholeheartedly anyway.
(I’m restraining myself. The list could be longer.)
1. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
In which Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters, shows that sometimes, even in fairy tales, adventures aren’t only for the youngest and prettiest sister.
This is one of my favorite books of all time. It cleverly rewrites fairy tale tropes, and the plot has a very particular and crazy internal logic. Best of all, there are the two lead characters. Sophie is cranky and opinionated, and Howl is everything a romantic lead shouldn’t be: vain, flaky, and totally undependable.
It varies in tone considerably from the gorgeous (if logically incoherent) Miyazaki film adaptation, so don’t base your expectations for it on the movie.
Honorable mentions for two other books by Diana Wynne Jones: Dogsbody and Archer’s Goon.
2. The Earthsea novels by Ursula K. Le Guin
Only the first three books in this series (A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore) feel like children’s or teen novels; with Tehanu the series takes a more mature turn. I wonder sometimes if that’s why I enjoyed them so much; I may have been older than most readers of A Wizard of Earthsea when I read them as a college student, but I was nearing the right age for Tehanu. (If that’s the case, maybe it’s cheating to put them on this list. Oh well.) Even upon my first reading, I was surprised by how well they both conformed to and challenged the common tropes of middle reader fantasy. The first three books may be aimed at young people, but they all have deeper themes that make them substantial reads for readers of any age.
On an only semi-related note, writer Jo Walton has a sharp analysis of one scene in The Farthest Shore in her blog post The Dyer of Lorbannery (also known as the spearpoint post). Be warned: the post in question has some big spoilers for that novel.
3. The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm by Nancy Farmer
A science fiction/fantasy/mystery adventure set in a future Zimbabwe. When a general’s children are kidnapped by gangsters, it’s up to three legendary detectives–the Ear, the Eye, and Arm of the title–to find them.
Really unusual and inventive worldbuilding and lots of adventure combine to make this a wow read.
4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
This is the story of Nobody Owens–Bod to you and me–a boy who has the good fortune to be raised by the ghosts of a graveyard after his family is murdered by a mysterious man named Jack.
When I first thought of writing this Friday Five, I was planning on mentioning Gaiman’s Coraline. Then I read The Graveyard Book in the interim, and my plans changed. You know, the world may not need any more boy’s-coming-of-age stories, but I’m really glad we got this one anyway. It has a great hook of an opening, and it comes to the reader all bundled up in old folk tales, rhymes, and ghost stories. As soon as I read it, I wanted to share it with everyone I knew. That’s always a sign of an excellent read.
On a side note, I tend to think Gaiman’s novels for children are much better than his novels for adults; the narratives are tighter and less inclined to fall apart at the end. What do all of you think?
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
I read the first two books in the Harry Potter series fairly early on in the hype–I was still in college at the time–and I wasn’t overly impressed. Then I read book three and promptly started telling everyone I know that they needed to pick up the series. I enjoyed it that much.
Even though my fondness for the other books in the series has faded over time, I still love this one because it’s the point in the series where the mysterious backstory of the wizarding world and everyday Hogwarts shenanigans are best balanced.
One day I’ll have to do a teen lit version of this post as well. Until then, tell me what would be on yours, either children’s lit or teen lit.