I am a passionate and avid re-reader of books, a pursuit which both C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde advocate, and many of those books are children’s books. Lewis had a lot to say about reading and writing for children, but he said it best in On Stories and Other Essays: “…a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.”
Listing children’s books that adults should read is a daunting task. I stopped at five, but I could easily go to fifty. I know everyone will have a favorite book I should have listed — I’m afraid that as soon as I finish, I’ll realize even I have another favorite that I should have listed. Let’s title this: “A brief, non-inclusive, completely subjective, feel free to add your own, list of children’s classics that adults should read (or re-read).”
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
Okay, this is more than one book. If you’re only going to read one from the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the one to read. If you have a bit more time, read all seven. These were my go-to books through my school years, and I still re-read them every few years. The characters are great—some good, some bad, all very much like real people. The story of the four Pevensie children is all too human and relatable: separated from their parents by war, they feel unwanted and try hard to fit in; they have perfectly normal sibling tensions and rivalry—and then they travel to Narnia. They meet Mr. Tumnus (whom I love), Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, the White Witch and Aslan. The story is delightful even on a surface read, but so much more thoughtful beneath the surface. It is an allegorical story of betrayal and redemption and a story of a family sacrificing and growing stronger together.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
This book is first in a series of books about the Murry and O’Keefe families—in later books you meet the children of the characters in this book. Again, we have a separated family. Mrs. Murry and her children live together, while Mr. Murry hasn’t been heard from in more than a year. The children face real-life issues of trying to fit in, being different and being bullied, and of fighting for their belief in their father. Eventually, two of the children, Meg and Charles Wallace, along with their new friend Calvin, must travel through space and time to rescue Mr. Murry. The story has elements of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, and also a picture of the results of living in a society that demands total conformity and loss of free will.
Matilda, by Roald Dahl
Really, read anything by Dahl—and use the chance to introduce yourself to his adult writing, as well. Matilda is the story of a neglected little girl who finds power through books and the magic of her own mind. In a world completely out of her control—belittling parents, abusive headmistress, downtrodden favorite teacher—Matilda is able to triumph by being smarter and more determined than those around her. It’s subversive and fun, and I forgive Matilda for not finding the “funny bits” in the books of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. (Perhaps that’s a small lie. I totally hold it against a fictional child that she doesn’t completely appreciate the fictional worlds created by two of my favorite authors.)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll
I pair these two because many of us are familiar with the Disney cartoon and various movie versions that combine elements of both. Alice is a curious child who gets into all sorts of mischief by continually following her sense of adventure. Carroll has fun with logic, math, language and chess — all while giving us a good story and memorable characters. Cheshire Cat, anyone? What about Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum? Better yet, the Caterpillar?
The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
Again, this is a full series. I include it because so many of us were adults when the books were published, but there is a generation that has never known a world without Harry, Ron and Hermione. Whether you’ve seen the movies or somehow avoided them, the books are worth your time. Like other great fantasy books, they are grounded firmly in relatable reality. Once more, good fights evil — and good almost loses. It has great characters, great plot, and great language.
Good children’s and young adult books give us the same thing any good book will give us. We can journey to fantastic, make-believe worlds, or simply go to a different time or place in our own world. We can look at big issues or everyday life, and we can use it to help us understand our own experiences, or to understand something we may never experience. We can enjoy children’s books because the best children’s authors think kids are smart — they don’t talk down in ideas or language. They can lift us up in the same way they lift their younger readers up.
What would you put on your list?