Tell me about your most-read childhood book, and I'll tell you who you are. The indelible impression that a favorite book makes on a young person is impossible to overestimate in its importance. The characters with whom we identify most intimately become as familiar as close friends. The different places and times to which we travel become favorite escapes. Even as adults—long after we've graduated from reading under our covers with flashlights—the exact same exuberance that we experienced as children rises back to the surface at the mere mention of a beloved childhood book. When a friend told me recently that he too cried at the end of Bridge to Terabithia—which, what kind of monster wouldn't cry at the end of that book?—the jolt of recognizing a kindred literary spirit was enormously satisfying. Hopefully, you'll feel that same sense of pleasure and recognition when you see what books some of our favorite authors remember as being life-changing for them, and even important to their own children. Who knows what books this next generation of kids will treasure long after they've moved on to more adult fiction? The only thing we can know for sure is that they won't need a flashlight under the covers—iPads don't require an external light source, after all.
Jami Attenberg, author of THE MIDDLESTEINS out in paperback June 4
I remember being fascinated with D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, and other books of mythology, but that book was the gateway. I was a pretty dreamy kid and I liked to believe that there was something very real and dramatic going on up in the clouds.
James Boice, author of the novels MVP, NoVA, and THE GOOD AND THE GHASTLY
If you'd like to scare the holy hell out of your child: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. And I mean the original edition from the 1980s that's now out of print, which has beautiful, horrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammel. The editions currently in print have unfortunately replaced Gummel's with sanitized, harmless illustrations—and it is just not the same. I still have not a reading experience as vivid and memorable as the ones I had reading these books as a little kid.
Maris Kreizman, Slaughterhouse 90210
The Truth About Stacey, Babysitters Club #3 by Ann M. Martin
When I was 8, I had a total girlcrush on the coolest member of the babysitters club, Stacey. She was the sophisticate, the one who had moved to the suburbs from the city and brought with her a smart fashion sense and an appreciation for culture. She was good at math, but she was also boy-crazy. So basically, she was an ideal role model. When I was 9, I was diagnosed with diabetes. The idea of having to give myself shots and monitor my blood sugar was a little less scary because Stacey was also diabetic (that was the titular "truth about Stacey"). If she could do it and be cool, I could do it, too. I was never a great babysitter, but thanks to Stacey I had the confidence to not let my health distract me from the most important things, like culture and education and friendship. And boys.
Emma Straub, author of LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf
As a sedentary child, I always loved Ferdinand. He didn't want to fight—he just wanted to sit under a tree and smell flowers. A big-boned pacifist! Ferdinand is still my role model.
Nell Freudenberger, author of THE NEWLYWEDS
"A House Is A House for Me," by Mary Ann Hoberman, is still the best first poem written for children. The gorgeous, intricate illustrations and the insanely inventive rhymes are so mesmerizing that I found I still knew much of the book by heart when I started reading it to my daughter, more than thirty years after my mother last read it to me.
Amy Waldman, author of THE SUBMISSION
My husband brought home Benny's Brigade (McSweeny's) a couple of months ago because it featured a girl named Theo, and we have one, too. It's since become a household obsession: an uncategorizable, beautifully illustrated tale of a tiny walrus named Benny who is trapped inside a nut, then rescued by Theo and her sister Elsie. They dispatch him to sea with a brigade of slugs (the book cover has great tactile slime). Our two-year-old twins have favorite pages; can recite lines; notice something new in the pictures every time we read. What a strange story, we thought the first time we read it. Now we can't remember why we ever found it strange at all.
Meghan O'Rourke, author of THE LONG GOODBYE
Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea—marvelous, complex works that never pander to the young reader; each has a real philosophical weight and inwardness that makes them stand-up all these years later.
John Haskell, author of OUT of MY SKIN, AMERICAN PURGATORIO, and I AM NOT POLLOCK
HOW BIG IS BIG. The title just about sums it up. This thin yellow book taught me, before I knew about microscopes, telescopes, or the existence of things I couldn't see, a lesson in relativity. It starts with a child's human body and moves up, past enormous elephants to mountain ranges to solar systems and then back down, past fleas and protozoa to the atoms that at time were the smallest things imaginable. It gave me a sense that there was always something else, something bigger or smaller, and it put the whole process of comparison in perspective.
Benjamin Percy, author of RED MOON
The House with the Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs. This is the first chapter book that I fell in love with, that I reread until the pages fell out. The Edward Gorey illustrations, too, enchanted me, and I sketched out my own imitations of them. Witches, warlocks, cemeteries, and a clock hidden in the walls of a grand old house, beating like a pulse.
Ben Dolnick, author of AT the BOTTOM of EVERYTHING
My Teacher Fried My Brains, by Bruce Coville
This book is a sequel, apparently, to the better-regarded My Teacher is an Alien, but I had a child's happy indifference to convention (as well as a child's happy ignorance of the meaning of the word "sequel.") The scene that got me was when Duncan, the book's hero, gets taken onboard an alien ship. There he encounters a device that turns each of his thoughts instantly real—he imagines a bowl of ice cream, and there one is. This didn't occur to me as a metaphor for reading or for imagination, despite the fact that I was right then clutching just such a device. For the first time in my reading life, my brains had been happily fried.
Lisa Hanawalt, author of MY DIRTY DUMB EYES (forthcoming)
My older brother and I were obsessed with Cream of Creature from the School Cafeteria when we were little. The story is about a school lunch that gains sentience and won't stop growing and terrorizing the kids—it's super disgusting and the drawings are hilarious. And I won't completely spoil the ending, but I always loved that the hero of the story is a fat dorky kid.
Josh Henkin, author of THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU
William Steig's Doctor Desoto, like any good book whether for adults or children, takes character seriously and doesn't condescend to the reader or offer easy lessons. It's the story of a mouse dentist who risks his life to treat a fox with a terrible toothache and how the mouse and his wife outwit the fox (and glue his mouth shut). It has a sense of humor (I love the use of that word "shabby" as the fox contemplates eating the dentist) and as is always true of Steig, what brilliant, wry illustrations!
Adelle Waldman, author of THE LOVE AFFAIRS of NATHANIEL P. (forthcoming)
My favorite book was Mr. Pine’s Purple House, a story that, for an adult, is hard to read as anything other than a cautionary tale about conformity. Mr. Pine lives on a street of 50 identical white houses. Every day, coming home from work, he gets confused about which one is his. He decides to plant a tree in his front yard to set his house apart. But his neighbors see his tree and like it. Pretty soon everyone has planted a tree in his or her front yard, and Mr. Pine is no better off than when he started. The title suggests that he eventually finds a solution—but there is a twist that even now I am reluctant to reveal. It’s surprising to me now that I liked this book so much because growing up I loved conformity. I spent years being mortified by what I saw as my bookish family’s weirdness. I wanted nothing more than for us to live in a development full of identical houses, hoping, I think, that if we made our external environment the same as everyone else’s our eccentricities would fade away. So I doubt I liked Mr. Pine’s Purple House for its deeper implications. I think I just found it funny that Mr. Pine couldn’t find his own house.
Austin Ratner, author of IN the LAND of the LIVING
Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home is a perfect children's book. The first story in it has Owl welcoming the Winter into his house only to find that Winter is a terrible houseguest, blowing his drapes around and dumping snow in his fireplace and freezing his soup. That Owl naively expected better, more humane behavior from Winter is supremely comic, but the story contains great pathos in it, too. What's so hard about being a kid—and a grown-up—is that you're constantly having to lay aside your assumptions that the world is a congenial, human place, and what's so great about this book is that it cheers you on your way to dealing with the indifference around you; Owl shows you how to make a separate peace with life and helps you laugh about the whole dilemma too.