The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
I finished the Newbery Medal booklist sometime in fourth grade, thanks to the encouragement of one of my earliest reading mentors, the late Hazel Ray, who was the most amazing librarian I have ever known. This would have been around the early 1980’s; I had been given a bookmark by Ms. Ray with the books through about 1981 (Jacob Have I Loved) and I derived great pleasure from marking off those titles as I finished them. Of course, Ms. Ray insisted that I read them in order. I did. And was rewarded with this fantastic mystery that has the most wonderful twist – I recently read it again before I passed it on to my children, and it was just as witty and smart this time around as it was to my curious fourth-grade mind.
A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time by Madeline L’Engle
My brother still shivers when I adopt Charles Wallace’s voice in conversation; on many, many road trips, the two of us hunkered down in the rear-facing seat in the brown-paneled station wagon while I narrated this entire series to him, basically freaking him out with my interpretation of “It”, Charles Wallace, Meg, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. These characters lived with me for several years as I was completely enraptured with these fantasy / sci-fi stories. I read them again about ten years ago, and some of the theological implications gave me pause. I also did not think them as well-written as I once did, but certainly well-crafted and worth your time if you like fantasy and / or sci-fi. The first book in this series won the 1963 Newbery. As an adult, I am most beset with thinking about Many Waters.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
I read this entire series before I allowed myself to read the 1969 Newbery book winner, The High King, which is the final book of the series; every one of them delights with characters that are fighting against evil in a realm that is rooted in Celtic tradition. Of course, I know this now; then I was simply entranced by Taran, the assistant pig-keeper, Eilonwy and her bauble, the cauldron that spews out zombie warriors, and of course Gurgi. When I read these aloud to my children a few years ago, we all went through a temporary (thank the Lord) phase of Gurgi-speak, rhyming and poking fun at one another All. The. Time. But it was pure magic the first time and perhaps even more fun the second time, sharing this one aloud with my own children. Worth reading them all aloud; however, DO NOT watch the Disney movie; this directive straight from my kids to you. I didn’t bother to watch it but I trust their judgment.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
My mother read this to my brother and me at some point in grade school. We searched in wardrobes in various relatives’ and friends’ houses for years, hoping to gain entrance to this place of magic; alas, we have yet to find it. But we are both still holding out hope, as, I dare say, are many of you. More on Lewis further down the list.
A long-lost book of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel…
Who knows what book this was. But I spent HOURS looking at this huge picture book, wondering who (and what!) the sybils were, why everyone was naked, and how in the world the artist managed to make them look so real. Definitely formative.
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Who hasn’t read this as a child? Who doesn’t love it? I wanted to be Fern so badly, and then I got so angry with her for running off with a BOY and leaving Wilbur and Charlotte to fend for themselves at the fair. Well, that was just my childhood perception…a terrific book about a terrific pig. And perhaps the only spider I’ve ever liked.
The Oz Collection by L. Frank Baum
Again, thank you, Ms. Ray. So – we all know the Wizard of Oz via Hollywood, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the little guys of the Lollipop Guild...but have you ever actually read the real stories about Oz? No? You should stop whatever you are doing, and commence reading. There are literally dozens of books in this series that go WAY beyond Kansas. There’s the real Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok, Scraps, the Nome King…wonderful palaces under lakes, secret tunnels, storms at sea…it’s sort of twisted, actually, but so very imaginative. I haven’t read them since childhood, and part of me wants it to remain that way. But I think these are going to be our next read-alouds…at least a few of them, anyway. Makes for a great gift.
Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
I love this delightful girl that must make her own way in a big world with the help of a few of her friends. As a child, I actually made quite a few of these dolls in the hopes that one would somehow spring to life. Didn’t happen. Still a lovely book, and the 1947 Newbery winner.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Another Newbery book (1978), this difficult story is not one I’d quickly recommend, but I include it here because it was formative. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it (and apparently it’s a movie which I haven’t seen and probably won’t unless it’s playing in the pediatrician’s office some day), but it did make me reconsider my childhood habits in the creek. We live now (at least, for a little bit longer!) right up the hill from the creek of my childhood (and my mother’s childhood), which no longer floods quite as dramatically as it once did. But when I was in about third, or maybe fifth, grade, my dad – being the amazing and perhaps overly adventurous guy that he is – allowed my brother and I to take a raft from the pool and hit the ‘whitewater’ of the creek during heavy rains. We’d start up behind the tobacco barn, and ride like hellions down the swollen creek, holding on for dear life and screaming the entire quarter mile or so, and then grab on to the rope suspended over the water, between two sycamores, and let the raft go on down…we’d pull ourselves out, sopping wet and hearts wild with adrenaline while our dad retrieved the raft from under the bridge…and then we’d head back upstream to do it all over again. After I read this book, I elected to cease this formerly idyllic past time during the spring flooding season.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
I read this on a road trip to Chicago from Kentucky, a gift for the journey that was our generation’s answer for how to stay occupied during a long, otherwise boring road trip. I wanted to be a ballet dancer SO BADLY after I read this, and also Russian, and also an orphan. It was not to be. But it did plant a love for Russia in my soul that probably wasn’t quite normal for an American girl growing up in the 70’s and 80’s.
Maud Muller by John Greenleaf Whittier (poem)
My mother used to recite this to us on long walks in the woods and through the pastures of my grandparents’ farm…truly sentimental and still heartbreaking for my childhood girl’s big heart…why could they have not made it work??!!
Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales
These short fairy tales are true to title – mostly grim(m). But in a most satisfactory way – no sugar-coating here. I loved them and read them over and over again – what child doesn’t like seeing the bad guy / monster / devil get his due? Goodness wins and heads roll, and treasures are lost and recovered, but there is always growth. The names, plots and statuses may change from story to story, but the types remain the same: people who choose good are eventually rewarded, monsters and people who make bad choices are killed off or at least punished, and good wins out over evil. Pure comfort to our collective souls. Don’t be fooled by the naysayers. Read them!
Andrew Lang’s [Rainbow-Colored] Fairy Books at Project Gutenberg
See above description. Perhaps milder and better for a younger audience; there are so many to choose from and they’re FREE. Why not read them to your kids? Or to yourself?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl
Fantastic. Like the fox. Another set of books by an amazingly imaginative author that shouldn’t be missed. I loved reading about Charlie and especially about Willie Wonka, one of (children’s) literature’s greatest characters. What makes him so worthy of this accolade? He’s vague. A little saucy, very mysterious, quite intelligent. Rich, charismatic, and more than a little dark. Perhaps dangerous. But if you ever choose to see a movie over reading the book, pick Fantastic Mr. Fox. The movie is hands-down the best children’s movie out there, thank you Wes Anderson. There is a lot of cussin’ but your five-year old can watch it and will never hear a bad word. Trust me. You will enjoy it more than your children. And if you like subversive humor, try reading his poems about Cinderella and others…
The Tracker by Tom Brown
Totally caught you off guard with this one, huh? Non fiction for fourth graders! My brother read it first and passed it off to me as a training tool. We spent the next three years in the woods and pastures around our rural home in Kentucky, aspiring to be as quiet and as competent as Brown was in this autobiographical account of his childhood in the woods. If you already realize that there really are no more children left in the woods, and you’ve started taking little trips there with yours, this is the perfect gift. They will want to spend the night out there with nothing but a pocketknife and some matches. Now, I wouldn’t recommend that…trust me on that one…but I would recommend getting out into the woods a little more. My oldest two children (at ages 9 and 7) were likely the only children in America that camped out by themselves in the woods on October 31 a few years ago. We don’t do much for Halloween, and that was simply the night they picked for their first solo outing. One last thought on this: I just read this the other day and it really struck me: “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.” Luke 5:16.