Top Children’s Chapter Books of All Time!

Betsy Bird of Fuse#8 is running a poll to assemble our collective top 100 children’s chapter books (books for kids under 13 who can read chapter books on their own). No YA here, strictly children’s books. Her method is to have everyone submit a hierarchical top ten, which she will weight and combine with scores from everyone else to produce the final list. I am very excited to participate, but of course narrowing it down to ten has been really, really tough.

What makes a book a top book? For me, of course, I need to have read it. Anything I’ve read more than once will probably stand out more than the rest, although there are a few exceptions to this. When I finally had created a list of books that are important and well-loved (definitely longer than ten), I created a hypothetical scenario for myself. A friend is having a baby soon, and she asks me to recommend ten books I think her future kid might enjoy and that are “don’t miss” books to make sure she at least has on hand, even if the kid turns out to be a Captain Underpants type rather than a “great junior classics” type of reader. I don’t know yet if the baby is a boy or a girl, if it will love fantasy or historical fiction or “just like me” stories, but I figure this list of ten is at least worth having around to shove under his or her nose every so often because if Junior does pick it up, it’s guaranteed to be a great and worthwhile read. So here’s the list I’m submitting to Betsy as well as my runners-up and a list of the authors whose whole oeuvre I would tell my friend to gravitate towards on library trips.

  1. The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
  2. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konisburg
  4. Holes by Louis Sachar
  5. The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis (obviously you would start the series with Wardrobe, but this is the best of the series)
  6. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  7. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  8. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  9. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  10. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron

There are two books on that list you’ve probably never heard of, The Pink Motel and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. When I was a kid, I decided I would read my way from start to finish through my small library’s entire children’s chapter book section. But I loved some of the books I read so much I would go back and read them over and over again. That’s why so many of my favorite children’s authors are from the beginning of the alphabet!

So yeah, my pick for the top children’s book ever published is one that very few folks have ever heard of, first printed in 1959 and now out of print. But it isn’t nostalgia that makes it my #1 choice. It really is the best. I’m not even going to try to describe why – just read it. Hopefully your library still has a copy! (And hopefully with the original cover. Check out the hideous reprint from 1993. Interestingly, I guess enough people know about and love this book that even that crappy paperback reprint is selling for over 30 bucks now used. Thank goodness I snagged my own copy – with the original cover – on eBay over a decade ago!)

I feel like the books on this list have a good balance of male and female protagonists, all of them complex and interesting enough that kids of any gender and temperament would find something to identify with or at least to intrigue them. I believe the only one on here from the past 30 years is Holes. Obviously my selection pool is going to be biased because I read a lot more kid’s books published during and before the 1980s, when I was a kid, but I do try to keep up with the latest chapter books. The stuff I read now isn’t going to have that same intense emotional impact it did back then, though. (Which shows how amazing Holes is that it had that kind of impact on me at age 25.) I don’t know if Island of the Blue Dolphins would make the list if I read it now among all the other adventure/survival/dystopia books out there today. But back when I read it (again and again) it positively blew my mind with Karana’s incredible degree of self-reliance. I would always read with awe the little paragraph at the end about how it was  based on a true story.

Okay, without further ado, my runners-up for the top ten and my list of authors who have written many great children’s chapter books (these are not in ranked order):

    Half Magic by Edward Eager
    Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
    Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
    The Once and Future King by TH White
    The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
    Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth
    The All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
    The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
    A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
    Edward Bloor
    Carol Ryrie Brink
    Frances Hodgson Burnett
    Eleanor Cameron
    Roald Dahl
    Edward Eager
    Nancy Farmer
    Ursula K LeGuin
    CS Lewis
    EL Konisburg
    Robin McKinley
    Farley Mowat
    Richard Peck
    JK Rowling
    EB White

It was something of a relief to put these lists together. It was nice to remember these books I’ve loved so well and read so many times. But even more it was a nice break and palate-cleanser from the generally dark tone YA has taken on these days, whether it’s in the form of grim dystopian worlds, angsty supernatural heartbreak, or no-holds-barred malicious high school gossip.  Hopefully I’ll make friends with some new children’s chapter books when the Top 100 list comes out!

Best of 2009 – *My* 2009, that is ~ Children’s & Middle Grade

Almost all the books I read are from the library. People give me books sometimes, or I pick them up for free out of boxes on the sidewalk, but those don’t tend to be the ones I read. I am constantly amazed at how many people who live here in the city don’t realize that you can order books through the public library website and have them delivered to your branch.

(On a side note, I think this function of the library is the best cure ever for late-night-internet-shopping syndrome. Do you know the thing I’m talking about? Late at night when you’re surfing the web, slightly sleepy, defenses down, and cute jewelry from Etsy or marked-down T-shirts from Threadless are just a PayPal click away? What I do is read book blogs and reviews and bestseller lists and Amazon, and then I make a list of all the books I want to read. Every delicious, enticing story and vibrant, juicy cover. And then I buy them ALL. Except when I “order” them, I’m submitting a reserve to the library, and, far from there being any shipping costs, in a few short days they arrive a couple of blocks from my house, free of charge and all mine for the next three weeks. What could be better than this?)

I keep of list of everything I read, and I have a pretty simple rating system: an asterisk next to the title of a book I enjoyed. Eventually I had to create the “1/2*” and the “**” for those books that either don’t quite rate or totally transcend the single star. Because I get all my books from the library, the books I read aren’t always the most recently published. Partly this is because it’s somewhat random how a book catches my eye – rather than a bright display of new releases at the front of the bookstore, it might be a friend’s recommendation, an older book by an author I’ve just discovered, or just something that looked interesting on the shelf. And partly this is because there can be quite a steep waiting time for popular new releases – my library has in total 48 copies of The Hunger Games with 54 people waiting in the queue to read it. And this for a book that was published last year! But I am clever at reserve-list management, creating a good mix of popular titles I’ll have to wait for and titles I’ll be able to get right away, so that my book supply remains steady at about 10 books every two weeks.

Which brings me to the Best of 2009. Since I’m not particularly following publication trends, I’m referring to the best of my 2009; the books I read this year that most impressed me, moved me, kept me up all night turning pages. I’ve split my “besties” into categories, and I’ll start here with books for children/middle graders, since there aren’t too many on the list.

My favorite books for children/middle graders read during 2009:


Eva Ibbotson – The Star of Kazan (2004)

Last year I read a great memoir by David Sheff called Beautiful Boy, and in it he writes about reading to his daughter a book by her favorite author, Eva Ibbotson. I had tried reading Ibbotson before – her book Island of the Aunts – and found it too silly for my taste and not very engaging. But something about how Sheff described the book they were reading made me want to try again. So I asked my library for The Star of Kazan and thus began my love affair with Eva Ibbotson.

When I talk about Ibbotson I find myself using sentence after sentence of exclamatory facts. She’s 84 years old and still writing books! She wrote her first book at age 50! Since then she has written 14 books for children and 8 books for teens and young adults! She was born in Vienna fled the Nazis as a child! She writes equally compellingly about old Austria, WWII-era British society, and the refugee experience!

The Star of Kazan is set in old Austria and is one of her children’s books, though it’s a sturdy, well-crafted tale that I think could delight a reader of any age. It’s a mystery and a “girl on her own figuring out which adults to trust” story, with classic themes of longing for home and finding your real family, whatever that looks like in the end.  The book has a magical feel and a sense of wonder and possibility, though it contains no actual fantasy or magic, that reminds me very much of The Secret Garden. After I finished Star of Kazan I immediately set about reading nearly everything else Ibbotson has written (there are still some books that aren’t for me, but it’s amazing what variety she has in her genres!).

Trenton Lee Stewart – The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007)
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (2008)

The Mysterious Benedict Society was destined to be an instant classic. Like The Dream Merchant, one of last year’s favorites by Isabel Hoving, and like countless books before it, The Mysterious Benedict Society books contain a special school for gifted children, a world in which certain skills and abilities only children possess allow them to go places and do things adult cannot, and of course chapter after breathless chapter of dangerous quests, puzzles to solve, and mysteries to unravel. What child could resist?

The books are also smart. When characters are meant to impress us with their clever solutions to puzzles and problems, their solutions actually are clever. The mystery part of the plot gets a little convoluted at times since it depends heavily on science that exists only in the world of the book, but the author rarely if ever uses that science to move things along in ways that are obviously just convenient or contrived. There’s a third book in the series already out, and I guess I’m totally hooked since I was considering adding its title to the “Best of” list even though I won’t read it until next week!


Kirsten Miller – Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City (2006)
Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb (2007)

I’m a sucker for underground cities. Particularly in New York. If you write a book or make a movie about people living or adventuring in the vast network of tunnels and cells and abandoned chandeliered Victorian subway stations underneath a city, I’m probably going to read or watch it.

So when I picked up a book about a spunky group of talented teens exploring the “shadow city” beneath New York, author Kirsten Miller really didn’t have to much more than possess the ability to string words together in vaguely readable fashion to have my devoted readership. Happily she can do more than that, including creating a fun cast of characters, each with their own special skills and quirks, and a fast-moving plot full of unexpected twists. These aren’t the best books out there. I don’t know if I would recommend them to other people, which is usually a good indicator to me of how good I really think a book is. But they’re not guilty-pleasure bad either. (“Some people have their bodice-rippers, I have my underground cities books,” she said primly, blushing as she tried to slide the battered book beneath the folds of her skirt.) I think the first book is definitely worth checking out and, if you enjoy that one, know that the sequel is even better.

Shannon Hale – The Goose Girl (2003)

The Goose Girl is a classic fairy tale. All the themes are there – lonely childhood, betrayal, royalty in disguise, coming of age, discovery of magical powers, tests of faithfulness and kind-heartedness, special bonds with animals and the natural world. The tale is told in a straightforward manner, well-executed but without a lot of writerly tricks or flourishes. But I could not put this book down. When I was away from it, all I could think of was getting back to it. I never felt like I knew what was coming or what direction the story would take, so it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I’ve since tried to read the sequel, Enna Burning, and was so bored I was unable to make it through the first half, which of course makes me totally question my passion for The Goose Girl, but I know what I felt. I wish the next book had been as heart-stoppingly compelling, but at least as a stand-alone, The Goose Girl will always have a special place in my heart.