My favorite books from way back when

When I was a tween, I lived in the YA section of our local library. Unfortunately, I can’t remember EVERYTHING I read. For example, for years I recalled a story about a girl who was too young to read the subtitles in old movies so after her older brother and sister got tired of reading them aloud, she fell asleep under the movie-theater chairs. I couldn’t remember anything else, and it just killed me because I’d loved this book so much and now I couldn’t share it with my kids. Then one night I was reading them Half Magic and I leapt: “This is it! This is the book!” And guess what – I still love it. So here’s an abridged list of what I CAN remember

Also see recommendations for kids’ books about the Middle Ages! link here >>

The Animal Family

Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. A lovely, timeless story, one of my grandmother’s favorites, then mine, now my kids’. I re-read it every few years, and think about it at least once a week.

The Chronicles of Narnia

C.S. Lewis. In the great scheme of life, there are the Tolkien fanatics, and then there are the Narnia fanatics. I know my clan, and I’m darn proud of it. Although I totally missed that whole religious business.

A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse To Me

WallaceTripp. Astute readers may recognize the illustrator of Play Ball Amelia Bedelia and dozens of other children’s books. Here he’s combined nonsense verse with some of the most charming illustrations I can imagine. I bought it used several years ago, and still love it.

The Dark is Rising

Susan Cooper. True confession: I tried to re-read these last year and had to stop because they were so scary. They're a great mix of Arthurian legend, time travel and contemporary Britain, with kids saving the world from Evil. And they're not that scary; I'm just a wimp these days.

The Devil on the Road

Robert Westall. University student on a motorcycle holiday ends up in medieval England in the middle of a witch hunt. The book stays with me to this day. I re-read it recently and loved it just as much – I can't believe it's out of print.

Dont Forget to Fly: A Cycle of Modern Poems

Paul B. Janeczko. Although – or perhaps because – I’m not a huge poetry fan, this quote-unquote YA book is the best collection I’ve ever come across. The poems are short, clear and at times heartbreaking. Why this book is out of print I have no idea; it should be in every school library in the country.


Anne McCafferty was my favorite author for many years. Now her stories sound a lot less like life on the distant planet of Pern and a lot more like life in repressive 1960s Ireland. But they're still wonderful.

Enchantress from the Stars

Sylvia Engdahl. It’s still in print! Yet another fantasy epic, told from multiple points of view, of a spaceship and a second spaceship landing on a planet of stone-age humans. Which group represents Earth?

Fox Running

Girl Jock Book #1. Good luck finding it, but such a tale about a Native American girl determined to break the four-minute mile. Another great story now out of print . . .

My Sister Mike

Girl Jock Book #2. I loved this along with Fox Running, and I’m told they’re still the classics for girl jocks.

Nightbirds on Nantucket

Joan Aiken. Or anything else by her. Everything I know about eighteenth-century English history, I know from these books. The series has a tough-as-nails girl heroine — go, Dido Twite!

Ozma of Oz

L. Frank Baum. In my humble opinion, this is the best of the Oz books, if only for the lunchbox tree. We love the lunchbox tree. It is the subject of many heartfelt conversations around the kitchen table. Plus the illustrations sent me swooning as a kid, and they still do – much of Princess Ben originated in the pen drawings of Ozma of Oz.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. The world’s tallest short man, a watch dog who must wind his clock twice a day, a whether man dithering about rain . . . just some of the classic characters in this brain-twisting tale of words and wit.

The Sword in the Stone

T.H. White. The first book of The Once and Future King. I find the rest of the series a bit thick, but this is a marvelous introduction to English humor and social history.

Watership Down

Richard Adams. A lapine Odyssey. For years I dreamt of making this into a movie with people instead of rabbits because, let’s face it, that’s what the heroes are. Alas, it has so far come to naught. But DANG, this is a great read.

Where's Wallace

Hillary Knight. I adored this book as a kid. Our library eventually gave me its copy when the book became too tattered to re-shelve. Much to my joy, the book was reprinted in 2000, and I promptly bought a dozen copies for years of birthday-party gifts. It’s far surpasses Where’s Waldo; Knight’s illustrations (he also illustrated Eloise) provide decades of delight.

I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith. Dodie also wrote A Hundred and One Dalmatians, so she knows a thing or two about story-telling. I Capture the Castle is the diary of the 16-year-old girl who lives with her rather starving family in a crumbling castle in 1930s England . . . and then three wealthy Americans move in next door. Funny, romantic, heartbreaking, this is a favorite book of three generations of readers and writers, including J.K. Rowling. And me.