In Which We Recap the Best Childrens’ Books For Your Young Ones


We are full of useful advice. 

Books for Little Kids

by Alex Carnevale

I did most of my heavy reading when I was a kid. I had glasses by kindergarten. My vision kept getting worse and worse. I don’t know anyone who has worse vision than I do, and if I did meet this person, I would be mad because I would no longer be as original.

It must have sucked to be a caveman and be like, “That was a bison?! I thought it was a fucking squirrel! Why did I look at those friggin’ cave drawings in the dark?” That, and no hygiene.

Here’s mainly what I read, and really, what all children should read.

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10. The MacDonald Hall Series, Gordon Korman

One look at that cover sends me back to the maudlin Canadian boarding school world of Bruno and Boots, where headmasters spoiled the most genius plans. The best part of this book was that there was always some massive plan at the end that was going to explain everything that went on. The characters were also very real. Boots was practically a member of my family.

9. The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

One of the greatest books for young adults ever written, The Westing Game makes it clear that the best thing to do is to fake your own death, appoint tons of people as your heirs, and then put them through psychological torture until they learn to really appreciate you.

It’s amazing how many characters Raskin keeps track of here, and how the book balances suspense, comedy, horror and pathos in one complicated package is wonder to behold. Turtle Wexler is our girl for life.

I had read this on a teacher’s recommendation before it was introduced to us in school. Instead of making us read it, they just showed us the TV movie. Nice.

8. The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman

Phillip Pullman hates religion and C.S. Lewis. He cast a girl as the central hero of his book, which is a nice touch. There’s not much more you have to do to endear yourself to me. The Golden Compass is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. His titles aren’t that great–for instance, it’s not actually a compass–but the material in this first one makes me wish I had read it when I was a chile. The subsequent ones are also good, but the storytelling here is just off the page. Get excited for the movie (Chris Weitz is an underrated director) but not too excited, as Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig spell nothing but sexual confusion and weird accents if you ask me. So you didn’t.

Once again, though, the book is totally worth it if you’re an adult and will be one of the best things you’ll read all year. It’s that imaginative and interesting. It makes Children of Men look like, well, Children of Men. That is the last time we will use this construction until our last albums of the year post.

7. The Great Brain series, John D. Fitzgerald

Set in a small Mormon town with an impossible boy-genius who took everyone’s money through sleight of medulla oblongata, The Great Brain made it safe for every boy-genius tale that follows. The brilliance of this series started with the message–being smarter than other people is important and gives you a lot of power–that stuff like Harry Potter doesn’t. (I’m not demeaning Harry Potter, just pointing out that do your homework isn’t exactly its main message. Not that it even should be.) If you want to talk about books holding up, the Korman books may be a lot dated, but Fitzgerald has an immortal tapestry, and he’s really, really funny. My personal favorite was the one where they send the Great Brain off to boarding school. To say that I was freaking would have been a colossal understatement.

6. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

As you can tell, I’ve always liked heroines. For instance, I found the girl in Number the Stars extremely appealing. I mean, look at that cover. Hot. This one’s pretty much a classic, so there’s no need to explain, but damn was this confusing when I read it. In hindsight, what kind of crack was L’Engle on? Perhaps more importantly, how is she still alive?(Thanks to our commenters for informing me that Mrs. L’Engle is dead. We regret the error.)

5. Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl

All this saccharine kids stuff really got me going in a different direction once I was able to be a little more choosy about my own reading.

As I got older, I learned some tough stuff about the world. For instance, that there was no Jack in the Box on the east coast. I still don’t get that.

Dahl was an anti-Semite, making it all the more inappropriate that my parents permitted me to read his books. Many of his books have outrageous Jewish stereotypes, and I’m sure this one is no different (it’s not kind to Gypsies either), but at the time, it was a simple story of revenge and wonder, plus the nature element. It’s the best of his books and it’s not particularly close, although the Henry Sugar novella always will hold a steely place in my heart.

4. Incident at Hawk’s Hill, Allan Eckert

For a kid’s book, this was some pretty dark shit. This was the assigned reading in Mr. Z’s sixth grade class. Mr. Z himself was a psychotic local Republican who somehow was permitted to teach children reading. In hindsight, this book was wholly inappropriate, as were his frequent stories about how he once had a leg cast as a kid and he kept shoving food down there and he got maggots. I’ve carried that with me long enough.

3. Books of Blood, Clive Barker

After a bad experience in 1994 when I had to run into my mother’s arms because Jurassic Park was way too real for me, I realized I had to toughen up. Fortunately or unfortunately, I decided to toughen up on one of the greatest collections of horror stories ever written. Barker’s a native Englishman perhaps most familiar for the Hellraiser series.

He’s a capable novelist–Weaveworld and The Damnation Game are both mighty enjoyable for what they are–but Books of Blood, which brought Barker onto the scene as a master of the genre, blows anything he ever did after BOB away. This stuff is still scary to me today, and it’s flat out fun to read. It’s probably available as a dollar paperback at any decent used bookstore.

2. Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

The first book in the series, the universally acclaimed Ender’s Game, is the ultimate kid’s science fiction book in that it’s wonderful throughout, but once you know the end, it’s friggin’ pointless. If that doesn’t summarize childhood, we don’t know what does.

South Park parodied Ender’s Game with an episode that had Kenny playing the PSP against Satan’s Army. Having delivered one decent book that gained a massive audience, Orson Scott Card-whose politics leave something to be desired-had it in him to write one more great book before resigning himself to a lifetime of mediocrity.

That book is Speaker for the Dead. The two books have very little to do with each other besides the same central character. SFTD holds up quite well–it’s a philosophical intrigue that even young people can digest, and the mystery behind everything is fun and enjoyable to grasp. In many way it reminds me of Joe Haldeman’s far superior All My Sins Remembered (one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written) and any comparison to Haldeman is high praise from me.


1. Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

I didn’t read Harry Potter when I was very young. The first Potter came out in 1997 (I was 14), and it wasn’t very good. It had some great world building and plenty of memorable characters, not much of a plot. The Potters are hardly my favorite children’s books, but they are wonderful, and since they’re going to be far and away the first real influential books of this century it’s worth thinking about what they might be doing for our culture and whether or not they’re actually bad or good.

People who don’t read Harry Potter irritate me. If something is going to hold this kind of thrall over young people, who are digesting 600 page novels as if they were Pop Tarts, I’d say it’s pretty important to get your hands on a copy.

In short, if you really care about reading, and what the future of prose literature might be, you have to have read this.

I wrote more about Harry Potter here

The chief benefit of this phenomenon seems to me to be that people are reading, and that it doesn’t really matter what. Overall, after taking the interweb into account, it seems that people are reading as much as ever, if not in exactly the same way that the publishing companies would like them to. This is a notable change in world culture, and for us to process what it really means will take some time. For now, who cares what children read? Why bring taste into a discussion that already has babies in it? Babies only know what tastes good.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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