Books – Revisiting childhood favorites may be the definition of comfort reading. Some children’s books inspire a ‘what was I thinking?’ response when revisited later in life, but some have enough depth to genuinely repay a fresh, or first, look from a grown-up perspective. The following are four children’s classics which I find myself rereading often–not just for nostalgia, but because their messages still resonate and they still make me think even as an adult. (They’re all from the mid-20th century, because I needed some limit or this list would be five miles long). It goes without saying that they’re still great choices for today’s kids, too!
Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid has a stiflingly samey middle-class upbringing and an indefatigable independent streak. Accompanied by her younger brother Jamie, mostly because she needs the financial security of his scrupulously hoarded allowances, Claudia runs away from home to an astonishing destination: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The description of Claudia and Jamie’s escapades in the Museum will never fail to be delightful, but re-reading now, what sticks with me is the depth of the story’s messages about emotional resilience and how life’s challenges teach us who we are.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
I think it’s a disservice to this fantastic mystery to call it a children’s book–and I say that despite thinking that children’s books are for everyone, and despite the fact that it’s a beloved Newbery winner. The mystery at its core is deliciously twisty, but what’s striking about this story is the size and breadth of its beautifully-drawn cast. You could cut out the mystery element entirely and still have a fascinating story about strong personalities thrown together through the simple circumstance of apartment living, not unlike Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series for adults.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I may be one of the two people in the world who loves the movie version of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I still really wish it had been better, because the book deserves the universal fame of better-adapted works like The Wizard of Oz. All the classic portal fantasy elements are there: Milo receives a mysterious package in the mail and is drawn through it into a whimsical nonsense world that needs his help. The Phantom Tollbooth is, sort of, a traditional good-versus-evil story, but it stands out because it’s actually less about outright wickedness and more about the perils of inaction: boredom, not heroism, sets Milo off on his adventure, and instead of moustache-twirling villains he faces enemies like the “Terrible Trivium”, the ultimate waster of time. Juster’s is a deeper, more complex, more contemporary and relevant kind of morality than usual in children’s fantasy, one that could easily be marketed as ‘fractured’ fairy tale were it not so full of genuine heart.
If The Hunger Games is YA lit’s answer to 1984, then The Giver is its Brave New World. I’m as much of a Katniss fan as the next Youth Services librarian, but The Giver did YA dystopia long before, and arguably better. It’s a profoundly political story about every citizen’s complicity in government actions and the high price we pay for a life without discomfort, and it’s as touching, as painful and as thought-provoking now as ever.