For a nostalgic generation like mine, I can hardly think of a better topic for Top 5 Wednesday than Children’s Books. It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of recommending the same favourites week after week, so what a refreshing change to take a trip down memory lane and discuss some of my childhood favourites! In fact, I loved this topic so much that I’ve cheated (a little) and counted down my top 5 children’s series and listed my top 5 books that standalone as well. In no particular order, here are my selections:
Top 5 Series
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
This quartet of books that turns fantasy tropes on their heads is one of my favourite childhood series. In it, Princess Cimorene, who is everything a princess isn’t supposed to be (tomboyish, tall, black haired), tries to infuse her life with more exciting pastimes than embroidery and dancing lessons by eliciting instructions from the kingdom’s chef, fencing instructor, latin instructor, and court magician, but when her parents decide that she must marry, Cimorene takes her destiny into her own hands by running away to become a dragon’s princess. Featuring secondary characters like Kazul, the intelligent female dragon Cimorene lives with, Kazul’s assorted dragon friends, Morwen the practical witch and her several cats, and later the somewhat preoccupied but good King Mendanbar, these books are a delight for any unconventional girl who would much rather live a life of excitement with a dragon than be a proper princess. The final book in the series, told in first person perspective (rather than third) with a different narrator, is a bit of a let down, but it’s still a great series overall.
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
It’s still baffling to me that other than the terrible Disney adaptation, no one has made these fabulous books into a feature film yet. Based loosely on Welsh mythology, the first novel in the series, titled The Book of Three, features Taran of Caer Dallben, an assistant pig keeper who wants to be a hero. Over the course of this coming of age saga, he grows up, seeks out his heritage, and confronts the Horned King and his terrible Cauldron-Born. The characters in this series are fabulous. Taran is a believable youth, rash and full of ideas about what it means to be a hero that he slowly sheds as he matures, the Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair is one of my favourite characters in literature, outspoken and honest she speaks mostly in unusual similies and metaphors, and beloved other characters like loyal Fflewddur Fflam, wise Prince Gwydion, and even Doli the dwarf. It definitely reads like a middle grade Lord of the Rings, but the elements of Welsh mythology are really interesting and I loved these characters and the journeys they go on together.
Redwall by Brian Jacques
Redwall was one of my favourite childhood books. I devoured this series about English woodland creatures for a couple couple of years at least before losing interest. I was also fortunate enough to attend a reading and signing in my hometown by the author Brian Jacques, before he passed away. I remember being impressed by his ability to recite multiple paragraphs off of a randomly chosen page of his novel verbatim. The first book in the series, Redwall, features a young apprentice monk mouse named Matthias, and his quest to recover a legendary lost weapon and save his tranquil home Redwall Abbey from the savage bilge-rat warlord Cluny the Scourge. I have no idea how these stand up years later, and I remember finding some books in the series stronger than others, but they were a huge part of my childhood and at the time I loved them.
The Silver Brumby books by Elaine Mitchell
I read a lot of horse books as a kid, some of them probably less objectively good but enjoyable to a girl going through a horse phase, like The Saddle Club by Bonnie Bryant, and the Thoroughbred books, and other genuinely really good books like Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, and this more unique take on the genre. The Silver Brumby is part of a series about the wild brumbies of Australia, and particularly a rare silver brumby stallion named Thowra (“the wind”) who eludes capture by man through his speed and strength. I’ve seen another goodreads reviewer describe it as a bildungsroman – but for a horse – and I think that’s very apt. If you too were once a horse girl (or boy) I imagine you’ll enjoy this series about the wilds of Australia and the wild horses who use their knowledge of the land to evade capture by man.
The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery
I know I just wrote about these books for Canada Day but, like many Canadian girls, they played a large role in my life. I was about eleven when I fell headfirst in love with this series about a precocious orphaned redhead named Anne with an “E” who is accidentally sent home with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who wanted a boy to help out on their Prince Edward Island farm. Anne’s presence livens up their farm, bringing shy Matthew out of his soul as these two “kindred spirits” form a bond, and even practical Martha grows to love Anne. The rest of the series follows the maturing of this intelligent, dramatic, and adventurous girl as she becomes a teacher, falls in love, has a family of her own, and experiences heartbreak as World War One intrudes on their lives.
Top 5 Standalone Books
The Grand Escape by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Animal lover that I am, young me was enchanted by this cute story about two indoor tabby cats, Marco and Polo, who can’t resist the temptation of an accidentally left open door and escape into the outside world. Their search for food leads them to the cats of the Club of Mysteries, but before Marco and Polo can become members of the club, they each have to prove themselves by learning the answer to a great mystery, such as where do humans go when they’re not going to the vet? Or what is inside Betram-the-Bad’s dog house (Bertram is a cat-chasing Mastiff). Told entirely from the cats’ perspectives and illustrated, this is definitely meant for the younger set and I don’t know that it would hold any interest as an adult, but I loved the feline perspective on the human world and the adventures of Marco, Polo, and the Club of Mysteries cats.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire, Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
I think I was about ten when I received this book as a gift, and I can honestly say that it changed my life. My beautifully illustrated copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is quite literally falling apart it is so well loved. This was my introduction to Greek mythology, a love that has stayed with me even now, at age thirty. I remember being a shy first year University student who, at the suggestion of a particularly kind professor, a woman who valued participation but understood that not all students were as comfortable with speaking out loud as others, said she wasn’t comfortable with speaking, and then I learned that the first book we’d be doing in class was The Odyssey. Up shot my hand for lecture after lecture. This book is why. I can’t think of a better introduction to mythology for children and I wish I had a more intact copy to flip through nostalgically from time to time!
The Borrowers by Mary Norton
I first read The Borrowers as a child, but had the happy chance to return to it as an adult for a Children’s Literature course I took in University. The Borrowers falls into that wonderful category of fantasy where, as children and sometimes even as adults, we long for something hidden to be true. That desire to find an entrance to Narnia at the back of a closet, or a family of little Borrowers living under the floor. Focusing on Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter, Arrietty, The Borrowers sparks the imagination by imagining that little household items that go missing may, in fact, have been “borrowed” by a tiny family. In the Clock household, matchboxes double as roomy dressers and postage stamps hang on the walls like paintings. Although the life is comfortable, daughter Arrietty finds it boring and wishes she, like her father, could venture into the human world, but borrowers who are spotted by humans are never seen again…
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
An obvious choice certainly, but it’s hard to put together a list of childhood favourites without Charlotte’s Web on it. I’m pretty sure this was a book that my mom read aloud to me and my younger brother, and as much as I loved reading independently, I always really enjoyed listening to my mom read to us. The book tells the story of a spider named Charlotte who decides to save her pig friend Wilbur, the runt of the litter, from the slaughterhouse by spinning words of praise into her web. Some Pig. Humble. Radiant, she writes, and Wilbur gains renown within the county. It’s a beautiful story of cross-species friendship and one that deserves its place among the classics of children’s literature.
The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks
When a rebellious fairy named Tiki accidentally meets Jan, a human woman who desperately wants a baby daughter, Tiki finds it impossible to resist fulfilling Jan’s wish. But the Fairy Queen has strictly forbidden fairies from using their magic powers on humans. Already in trouble for breaking the rule against wearing jeans, Tiki risks the wrath of the Fairy Queen to grant Jan’s wish, and becomes the girl’s godmother. Every year on her birthday, Tiki leaves Bindi a special magical present, but this can’t continue undetected forever and Jan and Bindi must go to war with the repressive Fairy Queen to rescue Tiki. I remember being delighted by the special magical presents that Bindi receives each year, and by the magic of this story, which advocates individually.
Did you read any of these books as a child, or as an adult? What are some of your favourite childhood books?