The best children’s books that don’t condescend to children

The Books I Picked & Why

Harriet the Spy

By Louise Fitzhugh

Book cover of Harriet the Spy

Why this book?

I read this book over and over as a kid, and it became one of my primary inspirations when I wrote Matasha. Harriet is a twelve-year-old living in New York City who spies on her neighbors and then writes about them in a secret diary. Harriet isn’t “nice.” She’s observant and judgmental and feisty and expressive (boy, is she expressive), and author Louise Fitzhugh, bless her, thinks that’s just fine. Harriet learns a lesson about compassion at the end, but it isn’t a treacly one. 

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The Phantom Tollbooth

By Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer

Book cover of The Phantom Tollbooth

Why this book?

I discovered this book at age ten in a doctor’s office, waiting for my mother. It’s pure fun for younger kids, while older ones will start to catch onto its endless puns, jokes, and philosophical conundrums (in that way, it’s like Alice in Wonderland). Milo, a very ordinary boy, is whisked off into an adventure in Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, the warring kingdoms of numbers and words. There he discovers things like Subtraction Soup (the more you eat, the hungrier you get) and the land of Conclusions (which you get to by jumping). The Phantom Tollbooth will keep a curious kid’s mind busy and delighted for hours.

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Charlotte's Web

By E.B. White

Book cover of Charlotte's Web

Why this book?

This classic about Fern, a girl growing up on a farm; Wilbur, the piglet runt she saves from the axe; and Charlotte, the wise spider who saves Wilbur again once he’s grown, is unsparing about the realities of the life cycle: creatures live and then—at some point—they die. Death is a unique loss and true cause for grief, and yet new life emerges in its wake. Crisply written and full of the feeling of rural life, it’s one of the first books I remember crying over. 

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Little Women

By Louisa May Alcott

Book cover of Little Women

Why this book?

Many bookworms report that they identified with tomboy, scribbling Jo when they read Little Women as children, but I didn’t. I wanted to be Meg, the pretty and sensible one. The good thing is there’s no wrong March sister to identify with. They each represent very different but equally valid ways of managing the challenges of growing up. And for the sisters, there are many challenges: an absent father, strapped finances, and the eventual premature, heartbreaking death of one of them. Little Women doesn’t play down life’s difficulties but also shows family and friendship and love in all its richness.

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Millions of Cats

By Wanda Gág

Book cover of Millions of Cats

Why this book?

An elderly man goes in search of a cat to make him and his wife less lonely. He comes home with not one but millions of them: how to choose which to keep? The cats solve the problem by fighting among themselves until “they must have eaten each other all up.” But one unexpected little kitten is left…. 

I couldn’t have articulated this when I first sat raptly turning its pages, but Ga’g’s fable, with its handwritten text and charming 1928 black-and-white drawings, acknowledges both the ferocious and the vulnerable in children’s natures.

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