Get your child genuinely excited to read this summer with Slate’s kids’ summer reading package. Got a reluctant reader on your hands? This librarian can help. Got an awkward middle schooler on your hands? He should read these books. Want to broaden your high schooler’s horizons? Read YA author Tochi Onyebuchi on school summer reading lists.
In parents’ fantasies, summer, with its long days and more languorous pace, is a time for our children to be engrossed in wonderful books. In real life, our kids feel the pull of Fortnite and rebuke our summer reading prompts, subconsciously (or consciously) considering it “homework.” Not to mention we parents can be at a loss for quality book recommendations powerful enough to truly lure our kids into another world.
So we’ve gone to the experts to bring you a list of books that will captivate your young reader this summer. We asked 14 authors of important and influential children’s books—many of them suggested by the Slate Parenting Facebook group—to tell us about the book that shaped them the most.
Consider this list a resource on two fronts: First, the authors we approached—including Lois Lowry, Kwame Alexander, Kate DiCamillo, and many more—write some of the most beloved books for young readers out there. If you’re not familiar with their work, get thee to a bookstore. Second, these authors’ touching tributes can remind you of forgotten classics and provide some new inspiration.
We’re also hoping our list will offer parents some much-needed ammunition. Your daughter couldn’t put down the Wings of Fire series? You’ve probably recommended Anne of Green Gables ad nauseam, but maybe she’ll finally consider it after reading Wings of Fire author Tui T. Sutherland’s endorsement.
I finally learned to read when I was 7, and this, I knew, was the key to happiness. I had spent a lifetime watching the everyone in my family sit transfixed by books. Still, each week when we visited our little public library, I was deposited at the picture book table, as though I were an illiterate, while my older sister made a beeline for Junior Fiction, the paradise where they kept the stories that I knew would change my life if only I were allowed to read them. For months, I sat in my bitty chair and fumed.
And then, one day, I rose up and stormed Junior Fiction. I thought someone would stop me, but no one did. I wandered through the shelves, fingering the lovely spines, until I found Ellen and the Gang, a book about teenagers who were involved in wicked camera-stealing activities,. And I was right. It did change my life. Everything that has happened to me since is in some way a result of Ellen and the Gang. Not that I learned how to steal cameras—what I learned was that I could find out about stealing cameras. That was the revelation: I could find out anything I wanted. The grown-ups in my life might not be willing to divulge their secret information, but I didn’t need them. I had the library, I had Junior Fiction, and I had power.
I could easily name several wonderful children’s books that had an impact on me (and have named them quite often in other conversations), but one major influence that I sometimes neglect to mention is the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to be a detective—to solve mysteries, decipher clues, and find missing items—and the Encyclopedia Brown books, more than any others, gave me the best chance to pretend. Each book contains a number of short mysteries in which the ingenious young detective is presented with clues, and the reader can attempt to solve the mystery before turning to the back of the book and discovering (or better yet, confirming) Encyclopedia Brown’s solution. As a reading detective I was sometimes successful, sometimes frustrated—but I always wanted more. I read as many of those books as I could lay hands on, and now, decades later, I find myself writing about clever characters who solve riddles and clues that the reader, too, might conceivably solve. What children’s books shaped me? No mystery there.
Buy Encyclopedia Brown on Amazon: $4.99 (ages 7–9)
Buy The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages on Amazon: $16.85 (ages 8–12)
Back in the 1960s, when I was the same age as the majority of my readers (fourth to sixth grade) we didn’t read books in school. Nope. We had … [shudders] … something called SRA, which was a big box of color-tabbed essays. When you answered all the questions about the, say, blue essay correctly, you moved on to the next color. When you got to the final color, the teacher might let you read an actual book.
So my love of reading and writing didn’t come from children’s books (I would’ve loved Edward Eager’s 1954 book Half Magic—if only I’d known it existed). No, it came from “the usual gang of idiots” at Mad magazine. I bought my first subscription with five dollars I got for my tenth birthday. And all year I saved my money so I could purchase Mad books—collections of previously published material—when my family went on vacation to Florida.
Mad taught me the power of words, humor, and satire. They used to knock the stuffing out of everything—movies, TV shows, politicians, advertisements. Nothing was sacred. Later, in middle school, when I became the target of bullies, I think it was the spirt of Mad that helped me fight back with my wits instead of my fists. And, yes, I still subscribe to Mad to this day!
Buy Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library on Amazon: $4.07 (ages 8–12)
Subscribe to Mad magazine: $19.99/year
I wasn’t born in India. My father was not a diamond merchant. At 11, I’d never been to London or set foot in a boarding school. And yet I found a kindred spirit in Sara Crewe of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. I knew rationally, of course, that Sara’s life was nothing like mine, yet Burnett had created a character I yearned to be, living out a fantasy I didn’t know I had. How did Burnett know so much about me? Every day when I sit down to write, I hope I can give an 11-year-old this same deep reading pleasure that books like A Little Princess gave to me.
Many books have shaped me, but the first one that comes to mind is Anne of Green Gables. I wanted to be more like Anne. Yes, her friends sometimes scoffed at her, she was an orphan, she wore ugly clothes, and she herself thought she was homely. Yet in spite of all that, she never considered herself less than her friends or peers. I, as a young Asian-American girl lost in a sea of white faces, who often felt lesser or out of place, longed for that same sense of self. No matter what embarrassment Anne caused herself, what catastrophe happened, she kept trying, believing that tomorrow would be a better day.
So how did Anne of Green Gables shape me? It gave me a beautiful philosophy of cheerful perseverance that I attempt to incorporate daily in my life. It gave me a heroine who didn’t let others or her circumstances decide her worthiness. And, most of all, it gave me a friend whom I can always return to when I’m in need of comfort.
My favorite Astrid Lindgren book wasn’t her famous and wonderfully unruly Pippi Longstocking. It was and still is The Brothers Lionheart, the tale about two brothers whom death cannot part. Some critics accused Lindgren of describing what awaits us after death in such appealing ways that children might be tempted to kill themselves—an accusation Lindgren did of course smile about as she understood children far better than those critics. For me The Brothers Lionheart is an unforgettable tale about friendship, love, selflessness, and courage. Lindgren celebrates the circle of life in this book and shows death as just another door. She celebrates kindness and the willingness to fight for what we believe in without ever sounding like a missionary. She is far too good a storyteller to make that mistake!
The book that most inspired me to become a writer would definitely have to be The Young Landlords by Walter Dean Myers. Myers is most known for his masterpiece, Monster, but this more obscure novel sent me into creative disarray, simply because I’d never read anything with such a cutting voice. And by cutting, I mean … familiar. The plot is simple—a group of kids inherit a slum building for a dollar, therefore becoming young landlords. But they have no idea what it takes to deal with the complicated tenants and the janky joints of the building. It’s a hilarious story of young optimism, even in the midst of kids unfairly taking on the responsibilities of adults, all told in razor-sharp rhetoric, drawing the reader into Paul, the protagonist’s, life. I read it and immediately knew I could (and would) be a writer.
When I was in my 30s, I worked for a book wholesaler. My job title was “picker.” I went around the warehouse filling orders, picking books off the shelves. One winter day, late in the afternoon, I picked a book called The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. I read the first chapter of Christopher Paul Curtis’ beautiful novel while I was standing on the warehouse floor. My arms were full of books. My feet hurt. Sunlight was streaming in through the windows, and I thought, “This. I want to try and do something like this. I want to write a book that makes someone laugh and cry. I want to write a book that tells the truth.” I’ve been trying ever since.
For me, it was Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Every time I reread it, I realize again how much it made me want to be a writer, an optimist, a kindred spirit, and someone who never stops finding things amazing, just like Anne. I’ve found a few other heroines I love the same way: the girls in Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks, Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Cilla Lee-Jenkins in the series by Susan Tan, and Nimona in Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, for example. But I think Anne Shirley will always be the character who first showed me the kind of person I wanted to be, how far imagination and determination can take you … and how to think of each tomorrow as “a new day, with no mistakes in it yet.”
It started with Fox in Socks. My mom would read it to me as a toddler. Then, I memorized it. And, I fell in love with poetry and stories and books. Until fifth grade. That’s when everything changed. That’s when my father made me read the encyclopedia. And if I didn’t know what a word meant, he sent me to the 10-pound dictionary in our garage-turned-library. In middle school, he gave me his dissertations to read. Three of them. Then he quizzed me. Because of this, I started disliking books. Actually, loathing them.
And, then, one day while cleaning out the “library” I discovered a copy of The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali. It was a 400-plus page book about Ali’s life, and I picked it up and started reading. I’d seen clips of his fights, read about him in a few children’s picture books, and generally looked to him as the coolest, baddest, most incredible athlete and man to ever walk the earth. I was 12 years old, and I’d never read a book more than a few hundred pages. I couldn’t put it down. The rhythm of his story. His bold voice. The audaciousness. The boxing. The jabs and the knockouts. I was enthralled. Read it in one night. It captivated me. Made me want to read again. And, I did. Reminded me that books could be cool. Made me want to be the greatest. How cool is it that, 30-plus years later, I am now writing a book for young people. About Muhammad Ali. Ain’t life grand?
I was, I think, 10 years old when I checked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith out of the library in the small college town where I lived. Before I got home, the librarian had called my mother to express her concern. Apparently it was an “unsuitable book.” It had, after all, been published for adults. My mother chuckled and ignored the librarian’s warning. Thank goodness for that, because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn became a life-changing book for me, a glimpse of real life with all its drama and tragedy and humor and grit. I hadn’t found any of that in The Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew!
I first read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton five years after becoming a refugee from Vietnam. At the time, I was trying to find my own tribe, and The Outsiders gave me an insider’s view of the social quagmire embedded in high school. I didn’t see myself in any of the characters, but I clawed onto the ideas of family, honor, upward gaze, and authentic fun. I also found the book magical in how the opening scene circled around to the closing scene. Before reading it, I had not known a writer had the power to not just tell a story but choose which voice, whose point of view, and where to begin and end. Much later, as I attempted a novel, I often thought back to how The Outsiders made me feel—pained, enlightened, angry, warm, hopeful, entertained—and challenged myself to do the same in my writing.
I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. All the books they assigned in school seemed like schoolwork. I painstakingly consumed them with my brain and never my heart. That all changed when a middle school teacher assigned The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. It was the first time I ever lost myself in a text. I felt like she was writing about the border community where I was born. The characters reminded me of my aunts and uncles and cousins. They reminded me of myself. And I’ll never forget the moment that changed my perception of reading forever. In one of the vignettes, “Darius and the Clouds,” Cisneros gives one of the book’s most deeply philosophical and poetic lines to a boy character who is earlier described as “sometimes stupid” and “mostly a fool.” Wait a minute, I remember thinking. Regular kids like me and my cousins can be portrayed as deep, too? I went on to read The House on Mango Street over a dozen times, always with my heart. Back when I was a kid, it helped make me a reader. Today, it continues to guide me as a writer.
Sometimes you read a book and immediately know it will change your life. Other times, you meet a book at different stations on your life’s journey and realize that its influence on you has been subtle, but no less powerful for the quiet ways it has shaped you as a reader, writer, and human being. One of those books for me is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
Some might not classify this book as young adult, though most characters are young people on the cusp of adulthood who are pushed into adult situations as they are confronted by the worst horrors of the Vietnam War and its power over them, even once the war is over. This book occupies an interstitial space—neither solely memoir nor fiction, neither novel nor short story collection, both heartbreaking and healing all at once. I first read it when I, too, was on the cusp of adulthood, and then taught it to high school seniors. As a writer, I turn to it to reexamine its structure, theme, and the wrenching lyricism of its deceptively simple prose. The Things They Carried is a book about war and death and also about life and living memory—spaces I explore in my own writing. It’s a book about tragedy that is also filled with hope. For me, it is a stunning example about the power of the word and singular brilliance of the human imagination that allows us to keep those we love with us, forever. There is a quote from this book that is taped to my desk, even though it is also etched in my mind: “But this too is true: stories can save us.”
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