I decided to go with my personal favorites from childhood, and not try to knock my brains out trying to rank Charlotte’s Web over or under The Giver or over or under Sarah Plain and Tall.
Here’s the final list!
1. Baby Island, by Carol Ryrie Brink
This is by the author of Caddie Woodlawn. I have never read Caddie Woodlawn. This book was all I needed; how could it not be? Two girls on a cruise ship are bundled into a life boat in a moment of crisis with four babies and toddlers. OMG! In another moment of crisis, the life boat is launched with NO GROWN UPS IN IT! The girls and babies manage to float safely to a deserted island! OMG! They sing Scottish songs to keep their spirits up! They keep the babies alive, fed, and in clean diapers! But OMG! The island isn’t deserted after all! They see footprints in the sand! WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
As a child, friends, family, teachers, and classmates saw me as timid, bookish, and quiet. That’s because I was. But I was also reading this story every 8 or 9 months, getting imprinted in the process at a critical developmental window with two take-charge, can-do, kick-ass, totally unfazable personalities. I do not underestimate the effects of this book on my eventual, late-blossoming self-confidence.
2. Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Another one of my girl-power titles when I was a kid. If the Baby Island girls’ confidence was the destination, Betsy’s slow growth showed me you could get there step by step.
3. Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
I picked this up 3 or 4 times as a kid before I got into it, and now I have read it so many times and have such clear memories of so many different scenes. Ultimately, this book is on this list because, out of all the myriad influences that blended together to create my personal ethical/moral code, one thing from this book I swallowed whole: When Meg cries out against IT, “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”
4. Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle
If Wrinkle in Time became part of my ethical understanding, Wind in the Door became part of my experience of faith: joy at the cellular and universal levels.
5. Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
Thank you Mrs Bounds for reading this to us in fourth grade! The wordplay is great, and when I realized I knew enough to get the jokes about the cart that “goes without saying,” or “jumping to conclusions,” well, didn’t *I* feel smart and in the know. But what really resonated with me then, and still does, is the revelation that Milo could only rescue the princesses because he didn’t know it was an impossible task.
6. Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
When I was a kid, I loved mysteries. As with anything else you read a lot of, some were forgettable, some were okay, some were great. Only one creeped me out so much I couldn’t finish it. (Still haven’t.) And only Egypt Game was so perfectly calibrated, at that particular moment in time, to my personal sense of the possible and the impossible, that I still have a sense memory of the mounting tension and then the sheer mental relief at the end.
7. Silver Woven in My Hair, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
The sweetest Cinderella story. Ever. I remember how delicious it felt to be reading about Thursey reading Cinderella stories, and knowing that SHE was in the middle of a Cinderella story too but that she didn’t know it yet…When I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon this year, I felt the same way, and wished I could have given Mountain to my 9 year old self. She would have swooned.
8. All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor
The thick scratchy tights. The dusting-for-buttons game. Penny candy. Going to the library. Talking and daydreaming after lights out. I am not on the whole a good rememberer-of-details (see Bridge to Terabitha and Trolley Car Family, below) but I do remember so many scenes from this whole series. Because I have to choose just one, I’m choosing the first one for this list.
9. Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Not because of the story itself, but because this was the first time I read a book with a literary allusion that I GOT. Paterson mentions that the main characters loved fantasy stories, including one about “assistant pig-keepers” and that phrase went through me like a shock: I KNEW that book, I had already read the Prydain Chronicles and I felt such an immediate connection to the characters in Bridge as a result. I have forgotten almost everything about Bridge except for the broadest of strokes, but I will never forget that moment of recognition.
10. Trolley Car Family, by Eleanor Clymer
I have absolutely no recall of any detail whatsoever about this story. I’m not kidding, absolutely nothing. But in the middle of the book there is an illustration of the floor plan of the trolley car they lived in, and I spent a long, long time pouring over it—probably as much time as I spent tracing the maps in Katie and the Big Snow—and then drawing floor plans of ways to reorganize the furniture in my room.