Once upon a time (in 1893 to be more precise), the then master of fairytales, George MacDonald, reminded his reading audience, “I write, not for children, but for the childlike, whether they be of 5, or 50 or 75.”
In this sentiment, MacDonald has summed up what so many readers (of all ages) and lovers of stories already know: There is a timeless kind of magic in the tales we tell children. And often, in the best of “kid lit,” the childlike in all of us comes alive—the curiosity, the wonder and what MacDonald called “the fantastic imagination” are reawakened.
So, as many parts of the world are falling back under the cold, low-ceilinged gray of another winter, it is the perfect time to discover (or rediscover) these 10 stories that light up the kid in all of us.
1. The Wind in the Willows
This quintessentially British children’s book is one of the most beautiful hymns to nature and friendship ever penned in the English language. Grahame’s characters are each wonderfully drawn as either insecure, brave, brash or wise, and the reader sees herself in them all.
There is much more to The Wind in the Willows than “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” and, undoubtedly, after reading the book, you will find yourself desperate to move to the English countryside!
2. The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone
In 1975, 16-year-old Robin Lee Graham set out from California to do what no one that young had ever done: circumnavigate the globe alone. Over the next five years, Graham sailed his boat, Dove, through storms, collided with freighters and nearly lost his mind sitting motionless for weeks in “the doldrums.” But along the way, the sailor and author also came of age, met and married his wife and discovered a deep faith in God.
The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone is the charming children’s adaptation of Graham’s real-life adventure and is full of wonderful maps, journal entries and a lot of National Geographic photographs from around the world.
3. White Fang
Two of the main characters of White Fang are a vicious half-breed wolf dog and Canada’s Yukon territory—a harsh, frozen kind of snowy “El Dorado.” And while White Fang is not exactly a kid’s book, it has many elements we associate with fiction for children: adventure, human and canine as companions and the journey from youth to adulthood. But the reason White Fang should be (re)discovered in 2013 is that it is a beautiful portrait of determination, commitment, compassion and the limits of nature’s blessings and cruelty.
4. Tuck Everlasting
Reading Tuck Everlasting as an adult feels much different than reading it as a pre-teen. What, upon your first read (back in fourth grade), was a story about a wandering family and some magic water takes on a second life when read through grown up eyes. (Re)discovering Tuck is like stepping into an allegory about the nature of identity, family, decisions and their consequences, and the meanings of life, death and true love. In its own way, Babbit’s book is both a moral tale as well as a stroke of gothic Americana. It’s an easy read, but it leaves you with a lot to challenging things to think about.
5. Swallows and Amazons
This classic British story follows two families of kids as they spend their summer in England’s Lake District sailing, camping, engaging in “naval battles” and outsmarting any adults that get in their way. Swallows and Amazons is a celebration of exploration, imaginative play and the long happy holidays of childhood.
Oh, and (sidenote), there is a new Swallows and Amazons film in production featuring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) as the villain!
6. True Grit
You probably heard about the Coen Brothers’ brilliant 2010 film adaptation of True Grit, but you may not know the film is based on a remarkable little novel. And, like White Fang, though not strictly for kids, True Grit thrusts young Maddie Ross into a rough and tumble world of adults—where she must bargain hard, be persistent and brave and sacrifice to get what she wants. Portis’ prose style is rapid-fire and wonderfully colloquial, and Maddie Ross and Rooster Cogburn may be two of the greatest characters ever set in the fictional American West.
7. The Wildwood Chronicles
Wildwood, written by The Decemberists frontman Collin Meloy, is ultra cool. Set outside Portland and populated with many bearded characters, Wildwood is something of a hipster Chronicles of Narnia. But Wildwood is immersive and elaborate, playful and, at the same time, weighty.
The protagonist of The Wildwood Chronicles, Prue, is a loving sister just trying to rescue her kidnapped brother but, of course, she, together with the reader, finds herself in an entirely new world. Book one is great, book two is even better (and very funny), and book three comes out in February.
8. Boy: Tales of Childhood
By the time Roald Dahl wrote Boy, part one of his memoirs, he had already redefined the genre of modern children’s literature. In sharing episodes from his real childhood in Boy, Dahl gives readers insights into how he thought up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG and many of his other beloved books. If you ever need reminding that amazing stories are born from amazing lives lived, this is the book for you.
9. Peter Pan and Wendy
If you think you know Peter Pan because you’ve seen Disney’s 1953 animated classic, think again. Peter Pan and Wendy, Barrie’s book adaptation of his original stage play, is far darker, complex and quirkier than you might imagine. The “Neverland” of the original book is a world of mythology, mystery, murder and biting humor. The narrative style takes some time to get used to, but once you’re settled in, you’ll feel like you stumbled upon the director’s cut of one of fantasy’s greatest stories.
10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Whether you read the Harry Potter books as a kid or if you’ve only seen the films, The Goblet of Fire (along with the whole series) is worth (re)discovering as an adult. Not only is Goblet a lot of fun to read (dragons, elves and plot turns. oh my!) but it also signifies a thematic turning point both in the series and in Rowling’s writing. Goblet is long, yes, but it is the first book to really begin dealing with Harry, Ron and Hermione’s adolescence: the consequences of evil and violence, young love, a changing world and the “larger games afoot” in the Wizarding World. If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series, get started, you’ll be amazed how quickly you can work through the more than 1 million words of the series!