Matilda and Other IMPORTANT Books

About this time two years ago, wonder librarian, School Library Journal blogger, and certainly my most referenced and trusted children’s book reviewer, Elizabeth Bird, posted poll results for the Top 100 Children’s Novels and Picture Books on her blog, A Fuse #8 Production. The outcome was fun and interesting, as polls tend to be, but they were also researched. She included a timeline of covers, and quotes from readers about why they love each book, amongst other details. It’s a really excellent list. And now she’s gearing up to do it all over again, with a new fangled ratings system. If you, your kids, students, etc. want to cast votes, read how here. Submissions are due before midnight on April 15th.

Making my own list got me in the celebratory, love-o’-reading spirit, so I decided to illustrate a quote from my personal #2, Matilda by Roald Dahl.

In her call for entries, Elizabeth used the word “important”. Important books. While I’m limited by what I’ve read, I didn’t approach the task of choosing my top ten children’s book from the perspective of “which ones are my personal favorites?” If I had, the list would have consisted of the same top three plus anything by Frances Hardinge, Joan Aiken, or Polly Horvath. And those Nicholas books I’m always going on about. Great books that I wholeheartedly recommend you read, but that aren’t necessarily what I’d pack any random 10 year’s overnight bag with for a desert island stay of indeterminate length. Entertainment value is important, good writing sets stories apart, and lasting power counts for something as well. With all that in mind, I asked myself which had the most overall value; which ones make you think or make you better for having read them, and are still absorbing or beautiful or fun? Which dispell the greatest, most lasting truths and still make you want to keep turning pages? If you told me to pick 10 books for a kid to get them through life (or at least middle school), this is what I’d give them:

  1. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne – There is no point in life when this book isn’t funny and touching and perfect.
  2. Matilda by Roald Dahl – The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches would all make great introductions to the work of Roald Dahl (and Quentin Blake), so why Matilda specifically? I mean, aside from the fact that she’s one of the smartest, kindest, bravest girls you’ll ever encounter? Because this book kind of has it all. It has the customary humor and bits of vileness that all of Dahl’s children’s books have that make them so fun and so true to life. It has loveliness and celebrates knowledge and reading. It has enthralling writing that you just want to devour and wonderful illustration. But most of all it has somebody to cheer for. Yes she has supernatural power, but in the end it’s Matilda’s sensibility and thoughtfulness, it’s just doing the right thing that leads to the take down of a horrible villain and encourages all the kids around her. She’s someone to root for. And it’s like eating candy, reading this book. One of the best storytellers of all time. You must read him, so why not start here?
  3. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – the first book is one of the most generic in a series that becomes increasingly (and rewardingly) complex in it’s study of humanity, but it’s an essential beginning, and still a great one. Seeing Hogwarts for the first time is as satisfying in rereads as it was the first time around. Harry Potter is a pleasure that, once having, you never want to give up.
  4. Wonder by R.J. Palacio Put this in every school library everywhere, please! Every library anywhere, really. A story about an otherwise average 10 year old boy with severe facial deformities attending school for the first time. It succeeds in teaching empathy without being overly sentimental or Beaches-style manipulative in pulling your heart strings. What I think it does best though is create a magnifying glass that shows us how we react to difference through the frank and honest perspective of various kids’ voices. It’s a bit shaming at times, but with the power to change and open minds. It’s very readable and the rotating narrative adds perspective and keeps things moving.
  5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – I still remember the day I finished this book, laying on my parent’s family room couch on a bright, sunny summer day. I would have been playing outside in the sprinkler had I been able to put it down. Instead I was SOBBING on the couch as Aslan died. I finished it and read it again. And again. I don’t always think the oldest, most classic version of a tale is the one that kids should keep rending. If someone else comes along and does the tale better, by all means, let’s read that one… but has anyone done this better?
  6. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – This is a book you can give to any kind of kid with any kind of interest and they will probably like it. Adults too. It’s such a strange but expertly written sci-fi meets mystery meets… something else. It’ll also make you scratch your brain a whole lot thinking about destiny and free-will.
  7. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai – One of the greatest lessons in empathy a kid can read, yet the protagonist is feisty as hell. When I think of what it means to be an IMPORTANT book this one quickly comes to mind. Especially crucial story for American children. We live in a nation of immigrants. We all need to understand what it feels like to be foreign and unaccepted so that we can better understand how easy but silly it is when we misjudge the person and intelligence of others because of a language barrier. Plus it’s written in a really approachable style of poetry.
  8. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder – My inclusion of this one even surprises me a bit. I admit to being bored out of my wits by Little House on the Prairie, but I also remember devouring Big Woods in a truly bonnet-head (see The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure) fashion, and being a bookseller taught me the unbridled love kids have for this series. They transport you. Curled up in a blanket reading this I fantasized what it would be like to be barricaded inside that little cabin, playing with corn husk dolls instead of Barbies. A story that will always be fascinating in the way it details a past way of life in America while at the same time being a sweet and funny tale of family life. There are few examples of historical fiction (or nonfiction) that have turned so many kids on.
  9. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh – There are certainly dated elements, and elements that are so NYC-specific that I think my fifth grader brain must have rolled right over them when I first read it. Even so, there isn’t a girl who could read this an not immediately want to grab a notebook and start up her own neighborhood spy route. There’s a lesson about gossip and secrets and friendship and just plain old growing up at it’s heart, but’s it’s Harriet’s self imposed “job” that’s so thrilling. Harriet M. Welsch was a take charge gal, and I wanted to be just like her. I think, or at least I hope, kids still feel that way reading it today.
  10. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt – A beautiful story about mortality. Gets you thinking without being morbid.

RUNNER’S UP:

  • The Real Thief or Abel’s Island by William Steig – It seems a shame to leave him off the list when he produces sentences like “One by one, Gawain’s friends took him aside to ask his forgiveness, and he freely forgave them. He was able to love them again, but he loved them now in a wiser way, knowing their weakness.” (From The Real Thief). I know he’ll make it on to my Top 10 Picture Books list though, and that relieves me of my guilt.
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – Friendship and sacrifice and humor. This remains one of the first chapter books many kids concur on their own, which only makes it more memorable.
  • Holes by Louis Sachar – I just think this is one of the most undeniably fun books you can read. If you can get kids to read it when everyone’s already seen the movie. Hmph.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – It’s just good old fashioned scary nonsense. And I love it. And kids love it.
  • The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by MaryRose Wood – I haven’t had the pleasure or reading the third installment in the series (just released on Tuesday), but it’s quickly become one of my favorite series of all time just in the first two books. It’s main protagonist, a young governess to three howling children that appear to have been raised by wolves (though there’s clearly a mystery to be solved involving their adopted but neglectful father), is one of the freshest, most likable heroines I’ve encountered. You’ll chuckle so much as the kids and their shenanigans (not to mention all of the fantastic and highly quotable words of wisdom from Agatha Swanburne, fictional headmistress and sayer of such things as “there is no alarm clock like embarrassment” and “‘If it were easy to resist, it would not be called chocolate cake”) that the sophistication of the stories will sneak up on you. Then you’ll love it all the more. I didn’t include it on the list because the series stills has a lot of developing to do, and the first book is a bit too open-ended to stand alone. Still, I have great hopes for this and aside from being fun and wacky and well written, it’s quite wise. An important little series, if you ask me.
  • Now to whittle down my list of picture books…

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4 thoughts on “Matilda and Other IMPORTANT Books

  1. i look forward to your list of hottest characters in children’s literature. johnny tremain being number one, of course.

  2. ha! that sounds like an excellent way to alienate whatever audience I may actually have. i honestly can’t think of anyone else who would make the cut. i never had crushes on characters, there were just girl characters i wanted to BE. crushes are for YA.

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