the Baby-sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin
The library of my elementary school was pretty well-stocked with these books. If you've ever read this once very popular kids' series, then you know that it centers on an ever-expanding cast of pre-teen girls who run their own small business babysitting neighborhood kids. And then there are sub-plots with typical pre-teen problems. For some reason, every one of these books basically opens with a twenty-page summary of the characters, their families, their interests, their medical histories, etc. I know some kids were probably reading these books as stand-alones, but for an old Babysitters Club veteran like me, I remember trying to skip ahead past the character summaries to the action. Such as it was. I was never really into kids or babies or babysitting, and preferred books and little dinosaur toys to baby dolls, but for some reason these books held an attraction for me, along with probably millions of other young girls and some boys. To give credit where credit is due, the characters are likable and diverse enough that most kids can find one to relate to. My favorite was Claudia. As a kid, I decided to emulate her habit of hiding candy and snacks around the room so her parents wouldn't catch her eating junk. This led to a mouse briefly moving into my bedroom...oops, they didn't mention that in BSC #19, Claudia and the Bad Joke.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Coraline was put on display in my middle school's library, and I remember regarding it warily for a few weeks before finally checking it out. The cover is pretty darn eerie and, accordingly, so is the story. I remember that I wasn't quite sure whether I liked this book or not. It scared me a little. In retrospect, I can appreciate Coraline for the gem of uncanny children's literature, in the tradition of Oz and Alice, that it is. Coraline is the book that eventually kick-started my absolute adoration of Neil Gaiman and all his work, though I don't think I actually picked up American Gods, the novel that really won me over as a Gaiman fan for life, until high school. I definitely recommend this book even for adults, because like a fairy tale it is the sort of story that can be read and enjoyed at any age, the tale of a bored young girl who wanders into an adjoining flat which resembles her own flat, but is magical and apparently "better."
the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
Given their robust size (and I mean, robust, the entire series consists of nearly 3,000 pages), I probably spent a good chunk of my pre-teen and teenage years reading and rereading this dragon-themed fantasy epic. Paolini was only sixteen when he published the first book, Eragon, and it does show a little, but his writing improved with each of the next three books. Having now read The Lord of the Rings, it doesn't escape me that these books, um, borrow more than a little of their mythology, world-building, and plot from Tolkien. Even the name Eragon...well, it sounds and looks almost exactly like Aragorn. Not so subtle there, Paolini. On the other hand, dragons! Who doesn't love dragons? We need more books about dragons, please, and no, I don't mean books about people who turn into dragons... I have hardcover editions of all the books in this series, and they are some of the most gorgeous books in my library.
the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine
Did anyone else have nightmares as a child about being repeatedly slapped by a nightmarish little dummy with the charming and very fitting appellation of Slappy? I chose the Night of the Living Dummy cover because the monster in that book bothered me the most as a child, but I actually read (and re-read and re-read) every book in the original Goosebumps series while in elementary school. Iconic and nostalgic though they may be, R.L. Stine got away with a lot, in my retrospective opinion. Slappy from the Night of the Living Dummy= Chucky from Child's Play, watered down for kids. Deep Trouble...sounds like a junior version of Jaws. The Barking Ghost, that was basically Pet Sematory. Phantom of the Auditorium...do I really need to go on? However, since (most) kids don't have access to these classic horror films, the material seems fresh and exciting to young readers. I loved, loved, loved these books, even if they did give me the occasional nightmare! Overall, I appreciate that these books first got me hooked on the horror genre, which I just enjoy more and more as time passes. But in retrospect, how did R.L. Stine avoid being sued for some of these very familiar stories?
the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I don't have much to write about this series that hasn't already been written by myself and thousands of others. The Harry Potter series were the books that initiated my life-long love of reading and learning at the age of six. If I feel differently about them today, it is only because I appreciate them for their magic and powerful themes of friendship, humanity, and fighting against oppression even more than I did as a child.
the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
Readers may be more familiar with the first book, The Golden Compass or the Northern Lights, than the trilogy as a whole. As children's books go, these books are the utter opposites of series like Goosebumps and the Babysitter's Club. The universes (yes, plural) constructed in this series are complex and strange enough to rival that of Harry Potter. The dangers that the protagonists Lyra and Will face and the often difficult decisions they make mean that the books hold an appeal for younger and older readers. Older readers can read into the more philosophical tone and elements of the novels, while younger readers can enjoy the fascinating and unique adventure story. I still consider these to be really formative books for me as a reader and as an individual.
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
I probably checked out Inkheart from my middle school's library a dozen times. It's a hefty adventure tale about a man who has the magical ability to "read" characters and things out of books, and the not so pleasant consequences of this ability which any reader would love to have. When the 2008 film with Brendan Fraser was released, I was so excited, and then so disappointed! The characters were, with the sole exception of Paul Bettany's Dustfinger, incredibly flat. Only a few years ago did I pick up the book again and realize that the source material may have been partially to blame. The concept is fantastic, the homage to classic books enjoyable, but the plot and the characters do leave much to be desired. I think the thing I loved most about this book as a kid was that it was about books, and people who love them as much as I do.
the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
I first tried to read the Fellowship of the Ring in the seventh or eighth grade, and ended up being put off by the slightly slow part at the beginning wherein the hobbits are introduced and Bilbo plans his birthday party. Only in high school did I try it again and absolutely fall in love with this timeless trilogy. The films are remarkable, but for me the books are among the few in my library about which I feel really emotional. I always worry frantically for the hobbits when they are walking through Mordor, right past orcish enemies, grin like an idiot when Gandalf (spoiler alert) turns up alive as Gandalf the White, and the Return of the King in particular has made me cry on more than one occasion. I even like the parts with Tom Bombadil...gasp!
the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz
Do parents actually monitor their children's reading habits, at all? I think not. I remember that as a kid my parents were always sensitive to what sorts of TV programs I might be watching, but books...well, it's great to have kids that read of their own volition, isn't it? Except when your kids read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark! I really want to do a full review of this series of scary story collections (and, oh yes, there are several, so many that they have actually been collected into a treasury, as though they were treasures), so I will keep this brief for now. Perhaps it suffices to say that I was never able to look at my childhood Shetland Pony the same way again after seeing a horrible illustration of a horse skeleton in one of these books. The stories themselves are succinct, disturbing, and occasionally silly. But the illustrations! Yes, I think I need to do a full review. Once again, I think it is odd that I have become such a huge fan of horror rather than recoiling from the genre, considering how much these scary stories scarred me in elementary school.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Some people really like these books, and some people quite detest them. I loved them as a child, even though the plots are quite repetitive: the Baudelaires, our three young orphan protagonists are pursued by the evil Count Olaf, who takes on all sorts of disguises and invents all kinds of evil plots in order to kidnap the children and steal their family fortune. The "unfortunate events" these children encounter are truly dark and frightening situations, which is one reason why some people so vehemently dislike the books (the other is that pretty lackluster movie starring Jim Carrey, I guess). But Klaus, Violet, and Sunny are the most resourceful young people imaginable, and always manage to save themselves, though usually at the cost of losing their clueless adult caretakers or acquaintances to Olaf's machinations. Oddly, I just realized that these books have had a huge influence on me that I had never considered before. The Baudelaire children begin maintaining commonplace books, notebooks filled with quotations and important information, after the sixth book in the series. I began writing in what is in effect a commonplace book last year, basically on a whim, and I have found that it has transformed everything about the way I read, write, and think for the better. The author also uses and explains lots of great vocabulary words (along with such unique insults as "cakesniffers") in each book, so this series is actually educational as well. Those who were disappointed with the 2004 film will be pleased to know that the series is being adapted into a television series starring none other than Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf! The first episode is scheduled to air in August, and I cannot wait!
Wow, this post has ended up being a bit long, but I did enjoy reminiscing! I'd love to read what you remember or think about these books from my (er, and a lot of other people's) childhood, and please feel free to leave the link to your own top ten list so I can check it out.