As an only child growing up in rural East Tennessee, far from towns and neighbors, books were often my favored companions: on dark, cold January nights, curled up beside the woodstove with a mug of hot chocolate, or through hot and languid summers, stretched out in the front porch hammock with a glass of strawberry lemonade beside me. Here, without further ado, is a list of five books that marked those carefree years, and whose memory brings back waves of joy, surprise, adventure and nostalgia. It is by no means exhaustive—the quantity of superlative literature for children and young adults is astounding, and ever-growing—but rather, a small sampling of favorites.
- Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell
Aside from an inspiring survival story of a young girl who shows herself to be deeply resourceful and takes on traditionally masculine roles while stranded on an island off of the California coast, this book serves as a powerful testament to the tragedy of the Native American languages, cultures and lives which were lost with the arrival of traders and missionaries.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell (Laurel Leaf)
2. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Elliot
Combining two of my early and ongoing passions—poetry and cats—this slim collection of poems is wildly funny and witty, and made all the more delightful by Edward Gorey’s splendid illustrations. When I later discovered the musical (which is rather an affront to its literary roots, but, dancing!) it officially became one of my Favorite Things Ever.
“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter / It isn’t just one of your everyday games”
Words to live by, whatever your age.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Elliot, (Harcourt Brace and Company)
3. The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman
The first in the His Dark Materials trilogy, this ostensibly young adult novel wanders into far more “adult” territory with its themes of physics and philosophy and its open questioning of religion. These topics are handled against the backdrop of a magnificently believable, immersive fantasy world and the coming-of-age tale of the children Lyra and Will. For me, the series’ transgressive nature—an inversion, and some would say perversion, of Paradise Lost—grew up along with me, and provided a lens into literature’s power to formulate questions and shape dialogues.
The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman, (Laurel Leaf)
4. The Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. Le Guin
The entire Earthsea cycle consists of six books, and together they provide an expansive introduction to complex, multilayered storytelling, imbued with history, mythology and geopolitical struggles. I remember being both fascinated and overwhelmed by the world created by Le Guin, and by her ability to paint a reality distant from our own and yet vividly realistic in its portrayals. When I later learned that Le Guin was a pioneering feminist in the “man’s club” of fantasy literature, it better informed the impressions I had when first reading the series, but with or without the tools to fully describe it, my initial impression was both strong and lasting.
The Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Aladdin Paperbacks)
5. In the Suicide Mountains, John Gardner
My copy of this book had gorgeous, evocative illustrations by Joe Servello, and my memory of it is tightly wound with recollections of my father reading it to me. Buried within what felt like more familiar fairytale material are a mix of allegorical meditations, philosophy, and a deeply strange and somewhat unsettling series of images and events—in short, the ideal introduction to literary form for a curious six year old.