(Originally posted on Margo Dill's blog.)
Believe it or not, I didn’t actually read a whole lot as a child. My older brother and I mostly played as we were growing up in our rural small town in Northern New York. Our cousins would visit quite a bit as well, and so we did a lot of action-packed pretending and sports-playing every time they visited. I didn’t actually realize how much I loved reading until later in life.
Sometime in graduate school, I started actually reading a lot of young adult fantasy, mostly because those were the types of stories I wanted to read. Adult fantasy novels don’t always interest me because a lot of them have intrigue or mystery-solving as their focus, or can be really cynical. J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, George McDonald’s fantasy stories and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series were some of the ones that I liked best, and I know that I would have liked them as a kid if I had been aware of them.
But there were a few that stood out to me above the others as a parent/author. While it is hard to encapsulate into words how or a why one book speaks to you more than another, I will try my best.
The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.
While it isn’t exactly categorized as a children’s book, I could not leave it off my list. This book made me believe that I could write a novel. It actually inspired me to finally start and finish my first one. How or why, I don’t truly know. Was it the depth and meaning of the story? Was it the lack of cynicism I found in it? Perhaps. Either way, I loved the story and the strength of Chauntecleer. It just reinforced why I like books so much.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
I first read this seven years ago. I was struck by the innocence I found in that novel that seemed to stretch beyond the pages. I loved the simplicity of the book. It reminded me not everything has to be so complicated. While I’m typically not a fan of talking animal stories all that much, there was something endearing about Mole, Mr. Toad, Badger, and the other characters. There wasn’t condescension in the story or the writing. It didn’t talk down to kids.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Adventure. Battles. Bravery. These things describe The Hobbit, and it is why I love it so. The stories that draw a clear delineation between what is right and what is wrong are the kinds to which I’m drawn. I find enough murkiness in life I don’t need it when I read. I want more. I want to find loyalty, trust, bravery, and strength. I want to read about things worth fighting and dying for. Some may say, cynically, the story doesn’t have enough gray in it. It’s too simple. But when I read it, it tugs at those things inside of me that yearn to be pulled out – those qualities that separate us from all other species on earth. A book should make a man strive to be more. That’s what I want in it. For me and my children.
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Since I could not pick out one book that was my favorite, I decided to include the Harry Potter series as a whole. I thought it was well-imagined and quite fun. I liked this series for some of the same reasons I liked The Hobbit. We have a character (Harry) who is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But he is good. He strives to be brave. He strives to do what is right.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
This book was intense and touched on some difficult and serious issues in a way suitable for young adults. People will read into the story what they bring to it. But Lowry delves into difficult questions about pain, love, and memories. Can we have one without the others? How far would/should we go to exclude and rid pain in our lives?
Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
What I liked most about this book was the closeness of the relationship between Danny and his father. Perhaps it is because I am a father myself, but I like stories that further that bond, strengthen it, and don’t always present the father as a deadbeat.
Like other young adult/children books, Dahl presents his villains as bad… disgustingly so! And his heroes are loyal and good. There is a clarity there that will not confuse children. It shows them a path to take, but in a well-written, humorous, and subtle way.
Scott Keen is the author of three young adult fantasy novels, Scar of the Downers, Rise of the Branded, and War of the Downer King.