It all began when my cousin gifted me their set of Magic Treehouse books when I was six. From then on, I was hooked on the written word, a bibliophile with a desire to impart my love of books onto anyone who would listen. And now, sixteen years later, I am still talking about books. Below, I have compiled a list of the books I read in adolescence (some of which I still reread to this day) that I would highly recommend to any parent who wishes to instill the same zeal into their children.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Our first book on the list is the classic whodunit originally published in 1978. I recall reading this book for the first time in my sixth-grade classroom, immediately falling in love, and subsequently rereading it an innumerable amount of times, well into adulthood.
The story follows the sixteen heirs of Samuel Westing, an eccentric millionaire who has left behind a mystery for his beneficiaries to solve, rewarding the winner (rather, winners, as Westing randomly pairs them up with each other) with the entirety of his fortune. And what is the mystery? Well, Westing claims he was murdered, and the killer is one of the heirs. Whoever is able to figure out the killer from Westing’s indecipherable clues will get the windfall. And thus, the contentious game begins, with decades-old secrets being revealed and enemy lines drawn.
One thing that’s so enjoyable about this book is its wit and humor. Although this book was written for an elementary-aged audience, it never talks down to its readers like so many others of its ilk. The mystery is twisty and engaging, and our snarky omniscient narrator spins the tale for us while also poking fun at the characters’ flaws.
Which brings me to my next point. . .these characters are fabulous. They’re quirky, they’re misfits, they’re deliciously vibrant. They’re sixteen people thrown together who have seemingly nothing in common. A Chinese restauranter with a penchant for inventing paper products, an evangelical maid with a dark secret, a thirteen-year old badass who likes to kick shins and play the stock market, just to name a few. When these people are randomly paired up with each other, it’s a thing of beauty to watch them argue over clues, scheme against their fellow competitors, and against all odds, find love and companionship with each other.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien
Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse living on a farm with her four children, is faced with a troubling dilemma from the outset of the story: her youngest son, Timothy, is bedridden with pneumonia and cannot be moved from their home until he is fully well again. Spring is quickly approaching, which means the farmer whose land they’re living on will soon begin plowing his field, leaving them in the path of certain death. Desperate, she turns to a colony of rats living under the farmer’s house for help. But these are no ordinary rats; these are highly intelligent escapees from a laboratory. As she spends more time with them, Mrs. Frisby studies their evolved lifestyle and learns of their past, making shocking discoveries about her own deceased husband along the way.
This is an exhilarating story that any child can enjoy, rife with danger and tests of courage. They will tense as they read of the rats’ escape from the lab, of Mrs. Frisby creeping around the family of farmers and their bloodthirsty cat, of the approaching spring and the doom that spells for the family of field mice. By presenting the reader with constant threats that the characters must overcome, O’Brien makes this book positively unputdownable. On top of this, it’s an incredibly heartwarming story, presenting us with a character who embodies the phrase “small but mighty.” Mrs. Frisby may be just a mouse, but she’s also a mother, and watching her fight against all odds to protect her children will fill readers of any age with the warm fuzzies.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
This coming-of-age tale follows Charlotte, who is thirteen in 1832 when she boards the Seahawk, the ship carrying her from England to Rhode Island where her parents await her arrival. She is upper-class, educated, and proper, conditioned by her father and her society to believe in the power of class divisions and that she is inferior due to her gender. It’s this indoctrination that allows her to fall under the power of the villainous Captain Jaggery, betraying the crew’s plans for mutiny and indirectly instigating the brutal lashing and murder of the kindly ship’s cook, Zachariah. The second half of the novel sees her atoning for her mistakes, re-earning the crew’s trust, unlearning the sexist and classist ideals she was taught, and rising up as a heroine the audience can root for.
The main appeal of this novel for me is the main character’s transformation from obedient lapdog, from someone who has been told her place in society all her life, to someone who learns how to think for herself and carves out her own place in the world based on her wants and desires, no one else’s. She develops a strength and moral character that is admirable and typically not something that would have been allowed to flourish in a woman of this time period. In a world where women are often still relegated to a second-class status and forced to fight for their rights, any young girl reading this novel can cheer on Charlotte during her journey.
Holes by Louis Sachar
After Stanley Yelnats is convicted for a crime he didn’t commit (which is blamed on the family curse brought on by his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather”), he’s sent to Camp Green Lake, a reform camp where troubled young boys are tasked with digging five foot by five foot holes in an attempt to build character. Watched over by the sinister Warden, along with her lackeys Mr. Sir and Mr. Pendanski, Stanley learns to survive the abuse and unbearably hot climate, developing a friendship with Zero, a boy who was abandoned by his mother and lived on the streets before being sent to the camp. Together, the two uncover the secrets of the camp, falling inadvertently into a 150-year old treasure hunt.
With a diverse cast of juvenile delinquents and intriguing individuals from the past, this novel presents the young audience with many important lessons on discrimination, friendship, and loyalty. In imparting these lessons, Sachar also manages to masterfully weave the past with the present. Though Stanley’s story is the main focus, there are really three stories being told here — Elya Yelnats and Kissin’ Kate Barlow also feature heavily, each with their own unique sets of trials and tribulations. Yet in the end, their stories come together perfectly with Stanley’s, creating one cohesive and compelling narrative for all to enjoy.
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
When Moose Flanagan’s father accepts a job at the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, he is at first frustrated that his family is moving from their home in Santa Monica to the bleak rock in the middle of the ocean. With his friend pool severely limited (only twenty-three other children reside on the island) and parents whose attention is entirely consumed by his autistic sister, Natalie, Moose must find his own way. He eventually meets and develops a crush on the warden’s daughter, Piper, a feisty young girl with a fondness for scheming. When she ropes him into yet another one of her plots to make money, a plot that hinges on exploiting the labor of the Alcatraz prisoners, Moose soon finds himself at the mercy of one of the most notorious gangsters of all time.
One might think that a novel set during the Great Depression on Alcatraz Island, and named after a notorious criminal, would be pretty bleak, but Choldenko manages to balance the more serious dynamics of the novel with the humorous really well. For instance, at the same time that Moose is stressing over his family issues (particularly, his responsibilities toward Natalie), he is also spending his time outside the prison fence, hoping to catch a stray baseball in a bid to gain acceptance from the other kids on the island (a criminal’s baseball is valuable currency), or planning a hairbrained con with Piper. Filled with charming characters and captivating plotlines, this novel offers a fresh and funny take on the classic coming-of-age tale.
Hoot by Carl Hiassen
Roy Eberhardt is used to moving from place to place thanks to his father’s job in the U.S. government, and as such has developed an impassivity to each new place they relocate to, knowing their time there will likely be short. This all changes upon their arrival in Florida when, while riding the school bus, he sees a barefooted boy running through backyards as though his life depends on it and becomes intrigued. Who is this boy? What is he running from? Why hasn’t Roy seen him at school? Thinking he’s a runaway, Roy chases after the boy with the intention of offering help. What he finds instead is a world of evil pancake house developers, endangered owls, and ecological warfare. Torn between the law and this mysterious, environmentally-minded boy, Roy must decide if saving the planet is worth going up against his parents, the police, and a multi-million-dollar corporation.
A common quality shared between many of the books on this list is a quirky, delightful cast of characters, and Hoot is no exception. Though the main character is fairly average and strait-laced, he is surrounded by oddballs, such as the boy who lives in a junkyard and catches fish with his bare hands, or the soccer player who can easily chomp through a bike tire. It’s these offbeat characters that show Roy that the world he lives in is not as simple and orderly as he once thought, but rather full of corruption. It’s in seeing these kids band together to fight against this corruption that the novel finds its heart. We’re able to root for this ragtag group because they have not yet tainted by the harsh realities of the adult world, are still able to see things through innocent eyes and fight unabashedly for what’s right. Any budding revolutionary with a passion for nature would enjoy this book.