The first movie I was allowed to see in theaters with a friend and no parents present was 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, which of course follows the owner of a children’s bookstore. A favorite quote from the movie is “When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” This is so true for me as a writer. Although I definitely don’t write for children, in some ways, the reading I did growing up influenced me more profoundly than anything I read past age 16. Around once per year, I still go back to these books. You’ve probably read them yourself – these aren’t hidden gems or anything like that. If you’ve read and loved any of these, come find me on Instagram or email me!
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is by far my favorite children’s book. I re-read it every spring. My falling-apart copy is inscribed ‘Christmas 1993,’ so I may have very well read this 30-plus times. My copy is an edition with illustrations by Tasha Tudor. Funnily enough, Tudor is a last name that figures heavily toward the middle/end of the Pedigree Series, starting with a book that includes a lot elements inspired by The Secret Garden. Burnett’s prose is rich and layered, and as an adult, I love that it doesn’t talk down to her target audience of 9 – 11 year olds. We had a very large garden even before moving out to the country, and I had a few dresses that looked like Mary’s in the Tudor illustrations, so I loved acting out this book. I’m not sure if my mother knew I was routinely climbing our dying crabapple tree while wearing these dresses (and no shoes)! I can’t really put my finger on what specifically makes this book so special to me. I think it’s the setting on a remote country estate with a hundred secrets, the element of mystery, and the themes of healing from trauma and tragedy.
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I’m not sure when I first encountered this book, but my copy has my seventh-grade homeroom written on the inside cover. Of course, having New England ancestry and traveling there frequently made this book more vivid for me. In seventh grade, I had just moved to a new area, so I’m sure the fish out of water aspect of this story resonated. As I’ve gone back to it in adulthood, I appreciate how nuanced Speare’s characterization is. Especially as she was writing for children, she could have gone a ‘good vs. evil’ route, but instead explored character motivations and backstory as drivers for behavior. I will be rereading this one very soon, actually, as a work in progress manuscript winds down and a very early-New England-inspired next installment takes shape!
- The Riddle of Penncroft Farm by Dorothea Jensen. This might the hidden gem from this lineup. A Google search is showing it to be out of print, which is too bad. This is one I re-read every fall around Halloween time. It’s about a boy of maybe 11 or 12 who moves from Minnesota to his family’s farm near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. We read this as a class in fifth grade and oddly, after sixth grade, I ended up moving not terribly far from the area depicted in the book. I was a tremendous history buff in fifth grade. I printed out portraits of the six Tudor queens and hung them in my room. I tried to seance myself back to Colonial Williamsburg on sundry occasions. In the book, the boy meets the ghost of his Revolutionary War ancestor. I was jealous. None of my Revolutionary War ancestors have ever condescended to visit me and/or set forth a historical riddle that ended in me getting a large inheritance. I suppose it could still happen. We’ll see. If you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I’d certainly suggest doing so, no matter your age!
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Does this book really need an introduction? The quintessential coming-of-age tale with bonus points for being New England based. My family did a literary tour of New England the summer I was 17 (this is its own forthcoming post), and it was exciting to see some of the sites that inspired Alcott’s text. This is another one I typically read in the fall. Also, why is not being angry that Jo and Laurie didn’t end up together an unpopular opinion? They were so wrong for each other. So wrong. Sorry, everyone.
- The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. It was hard to narrow this list down, but I’m giving Charlotte the final spot. This is yet another historical New England book with a strong female protagonist. Young Me liked what she liked. This is a breathless read, and it’s fascinating to watch the main character transform and become unable to change back again when society demands. I need to re-read this one soon.
Beauty by Robin McKinley is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that’s set in England. I like the rich backstory versus the original fairy tale. I don’t generally care for the fantasy genre, but love the setting and characters in this novel. I go back to it for the vivid descriptions of the setting and elements and, let’s face it, the horseback riding.
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson. I’m not sure when I first read this book, but am fairly sure it was before age 12. Honestly, reading this one in adulthood, I kind of side-eye it. There’s a lot in here that doesn’t seem appropriate for middle-grade readers, but I guess I turned out okay? All told, it’s a very raw and real story set during World War II off the coast of Maryland.