One of the questions I get asked the most frequently is: What are your top ten favorite books?
This is akin to asking a food addict about his or her favorite foods. Or asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Meaning, that as a lifelong, voracious reader, I usually have one of two answers for you. First, like the food addict, I might prattle on about two or three dozen choices–so keen am I not to leave out anything good. Or, second, like the parent, I might simply refuse to choose and tell you about my favorites of the moment, a handful of books that have spoken to me lately, instead.
I love my job. Every week I add a new title (or several) to my growing list of “favorites.” The problem is, at what point do “favorites” turn into an indiscriminate mass of books, all of which I just really, really like?
The answer is: Probably long ago. You might argue that I’ve sailed far beyond the horizon of favorites. But to that I say: No, there are still those special few, those rare, exquisite titles, that really are favorites. Meaning, I don’t just like them and swoon over them and talk about them to everyone I know. I also read them, and re-read them, and then re-read them again. And each time I re-read, I get some new enjoyment out of them–like rediscovering an old friend, or returning home to a place I love.
Future Fridays will allow me the opportunity to share favorites of the moment. Today, however, I’m taking a deep breath and offering up my list of my top ten favorite books of all time. There have been a few books that have come and gone from this selection over the years, but for the most part, another testament to the true “favorite” status of these titles is that they’ve endured, and probably will continue to. Without further ado, here they are.
Jenny Sawyer’s 10 Favorite Books (in no particular order)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It’s 1912 in Brooklyn, New York, and Francie Nolan is growing up at the poverty level–though to see the world through her eyes, you’d never know it. Life is hard for Francie, but it’s also beautiful. This book is unusual, not just for its perfect evocation of time and place, but for the way it manages to celebrate the glories of being alive, even in the middle of harsh, sometimes impossible, circumstances. Every time I read this exquisite novel, I’m touched by its celebration of the most simple pleasures–like reading on the fire escape, with a sack of penny candy at hand–and by Francie’s indomitable spirit. Though this book begins during Francie’s childhood, Smith’s writing, as well as the topics she covers, are best appreciated by more mature readers. (Ages 12 & up.)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. What could be more delicious than London, a boarding school, and a generous-hearted little girl with a vivid imagination? Sara Crewe misses her doting father when he leaves her at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies, but she’s a bright, big-hearted girl who makes friends easily, and who enjoys the spoils of her father’s indulgence. But when her father dies, Sara is left with nothing–nothing but a punishing job as a Seminary maid, serving the young ladies whose classes she once led. I first read this when I was around eight and have made it a practice to read it at least once a year since then. Another plucky heroine to look up to, and the “magic” of the way Sara’s circumstances turns around never fails to capture my imagination. (Ages 8-12.)
The Giver by Lois Lowry. Back before the dystopian craze that gave us more (terrible) dystopias than I can count, Lois Lowry wrote a slim book for children set in a world that truly defined this genre. In Jonas’s community, everything is safe. There is no war, or poverty, or pain…but there are also no real emotions, nothing but black and white. When Jonas is chosen to become the community’s Receiver of Memory, his world opens up, even as he realizes the smallness and dyfunction of the one in which he lives. What’s a thoughtful boy on the verge of young adulthood to do? Of all my favorite books, this is the one I wish I’d written myself. The tightness and control of Lowry’s writing, the slow unraveling of Jonas’s perfectly-ordered world, the relationship between Jonas and the previous Receiver of Memory–really, there are no words. (Perhaps why Lowry wrote this book, and not me.) Though this title is often marketed to the 9-12 set, slightly older readers will appreciate its nuances, and be better able to handle some of its shocking revelations. (Ages 11-14.)
A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt. Cynthia Voigt became my favorite writer when I hit sixth grade. I loved her whole Tillerman family cycle, but A Solitary Blue, about thoughtful, sensitive Jeff Greene, stands a head above the rest. A fast-paced plot this book does not have, but the contemplative nature of Voigt’s writing–and the time she takes with each character, both the good ones and the bad–creates a rich story about a boy coming of age and trying to make sense of his relationships. If you love well-drawn characters, settings that spring off the page, and books that tug at your heartsrings, this novel is for you. (Ages 12 & up.)
All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins. This book is a small gem. Not a complicated story–basically, Debbie is “all alone in the universe” after long-time BFF Maureen ditches her for Glenna. But Perkins’ lovely writing and unparalleled metaphor-making are brilliantly on display as Debbie navigates this rocky period and discovers, to her surprise, that she’s not so alone after all. A quick read, to be sure, but also a book to be savored–and one I’ve come back to at least a dozen times. (Ages 11-14.)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, we find ourselves in storybook England, where a nasty plot’s afoot. Cousins Bonnie and Sylvia have been left with a governess while Bonnie’s mother and father sail off to warmer climes for the sake of Mother’s health. But when their ship sinks, and the children’s governess turns out to be behind the tragedy, Bonnie and Sylvia must make their way alone in a world teeming with treacherous adults, ravenous wolves…and some marvelous new friends. I was never a child who liked scary things, but this book was the perfect mixture of suspenseful and cozy. Plus, in the tradition of Roald Dahl, who doesn’t like to see resourceful kids outwit their wretched superiors? (Ages 9-12.)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. This one’s a true classic. Meg Murray is an awkward, gangly sort who’s not sure where she fits in–in her family, in school, or in the world at large. The fact that her scientist father has mysteriously vanished, and that strange things have started to happen in the neighborhood, only makes her feel further off-kilter. What Meg doesn’t know is that she possesses an inner strength and a keen intelligence that will help her navigate a battle far greater than growing up–a battle that will take her through time and space and put her little brother’s life in grave danger. With a synopsis like that, what more can I say about why I love Wrinkle? Perhaps just that L’Engle’s story remains one of the most truly original books I’ve ever encountered, and offers new insights about growing up, finding one’s place in the world, and most importantly, the power of love, with every re-reading. (Ages 9-12.)
Blue Willow by Doris Gates. I went through an obsessive pioneer phase as a child. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lois Lenski, Carol Ryrie Brink, and of course, Doris Gates, all inspired my imagination. In this quiet story, young Janey Larkin, the daughter of migrant workers in 1930s California, faces a grim, dusty, sun-baked existence in yet another temporary home. But Janey, like all children, has a wish–a wish that she’ll someday have a little home among the willows, like the one pictured on the family’s greatest treasure, a simple china plate. I loved this book because it took me to places I couldn’t imagine (the cotton harvest and the San Joaquin valley among them), but I loved it more because it’s a story of wish fulfillment. Add to that a heroine who beats the odds, and you’ve got a book I’ve returned to again and again. (Ages 8-11.)
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Claudia Kincaid has had enough. Tired of being the under-appreciated girl in a house full of boys, Claudia sets her sights on an existence more befitting her station: life as a stowaway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Soon, she and her younger brother Jamie are tucked away at the Museum, but they’re also embroiled in a mystery–one that will lead them to the titular Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Truthfully, the mystery part of this story never struck me as all that interesting (and this from a mystery-lover!) but the sheer wonder of living in a museum, and the magic of making a success of such a childhood escape, always makes for a fun and imagination-inspiring read. (Ages 9-12.)
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. This one’s a no-brainer. Of all the animal-centric books I’ve loved (and there have been many), E.B. White’s classic tale of Charlotte and Wilbur–who forge one of the most enduring, and memorable, friendships in all of children’s literature–is definitely a stand-out. As I’ve grown older and become more discerning (er, critical), it’s hard not to notice the protagonist confusion (first little girl Fern, then Wilbur, and then a bit of back-and-forth between the two), but even that’s not enough to dull my delight with every re-reading. The combination of beautiful, effortless writing, humor (who doesn’t love Templeton, the gluttonous rat?), and poignancy, gets me every time. Artists take note: You also can’t beat the charming drawings by Garth Williams. (Ages 8-12.)