During the summers when I was home from college I used to work at that big B. Dalton bookstore on the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue, which is now a Barnes & Noble, for what that’s worth. Every now and then (far less frequently than you’d imagine) some customer would come up to me and say, You probably hate this, but could you recommend a book to me? And I’d look at them like they were insane, like they really believed that I much preferred to spend my time taking books out of boxes over and over again, putting them on shelves which I’d have to rearrange anyway because someone was always messing with the alphabetical order. (What’s with those Mc authors? We all had differing thoughts on this. Do they get filed before the M’s or just alphabetically after Mb and before Md, if such combinations existed, but you get the point? And then there was always my snooty coworker who insisted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez be filed under “G” because technically his last name was really Garcia and too bad if the customers didn’t know that!) Anyway. My answer always was, Oh, no, I don’t mind at all! And then I’d give them way way way too many choices, too much information, and kind of overwhelm them with lots and lots of book ideas. I think I actually helped people only sometimes.
But now I’m thinking, what with it being the holiday season and all, I might just give some book recommendations right here. You know, for the best books ever!! You don’t think I’ve narrowed it down? Oh, I’ve narrowed it down all right. Just you wait.
However. Since this is such a daunting task, I’m going to start with children’s books, which are a little easier to narrow down. And I guess I’m really talking about chapter books since if I included picture books, well, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop writing. And so. These are chapter books that have been read aloud in our house and then read by one or both of my daughters by themselves. I dare not approach the YA books just yet.
1. The Neddiad: How Neddie took the train, went to Hollywood, and saved civilization by Daniel Pinkwater. Do you know who Daniel Pinkwater is? Because really. He’s only written about a million books! According to Neil Gaiman, he is the “best secret writer in the world.” True. Pinkwater has a particularly absurd sense of humor that I love (“La Brea” in Spanish means “the tar,” so “the La Brea Tar Pits” means "the the tar tar pits.”) and his books are always crazy and science fictiony and often involve chickens and New Jersey. You will not be sorry.
2. Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. Now, don’t get me wrong. Every single book written by Eleanor Estes is pretty much perfect. But this one might have to be my favorite. It’s set in the 1910s or so, around the time of her Moffat books, which are also wonderful. The story itself is great, how Jerry Pye buys his dog Ginger for a dollar and how this “intellectual dog” becomes famous around town and is then stolen and eventually found nearly a year later after a series of clues lead Jerry and his sister Rachel to him. But really, for me, it’s just the way Eleanor Estes writes. Just the details she includes that actually make you stop reading and think, man, that is terrific. You just can’t go wrong here.
3. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. First of all, a book set in New York City in the 1970s and also involving time travel?? What, did someone steal my list of perfect book ideas? As a kid I was always so thrilled to find a book set in New York City (see: Paul Zindel) because I could actually relate to at least some of it. But honestly you can read this book and not get any of the New York references and still love it. However, it might be a little challenging for some, only because the time travel part of it is tricky, but see, this is why adults need to read it too (twice maybe) to help with the explaining and because it’s just so excellent.
4. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Holy cow, this book is great. Callie Vee is an almost twelve-year-old girl living in Texas in the hot hot summer of 1899 when the book begins. She’s got six brothers, but more importantly a grandfather that introduces her to the study of nature and science and things that girls her age are not supposed to have any interest in. The language in this book, a little fanciful at times, is nevertheless so right on, that it is a pleasure to read.
5. I don’t need to mention Harry Potter, right? I mean, you already know those are fantastic books. Or all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books? Yeah, I figured.
6. The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. Really, the title says it all. The four sisters in question spend the summer in the Berkshires with their (widowed) father and have wonderful adventures with a very interesting boy. Here, just check it out: “When our story begins, Batty is still only four years old. Rosalind is twelve, Skye eleven, and Jane ten. They’re in their car with Mr. Penderwick and Hound. The family is on the way to Arundel and, unfortunately, they’re lost.”
7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. What’s surprising about this book is how funny it really is. I’ll admit that I cannot resist anything remotely comic-book-like, but when I picked it up I had only planned to skim through it instead of reading the entire book in one sitting (or lying) on the couch, actually laughing out loud. I think there are now four books in this series. All of them funny.
8. Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers. This book, published in 1972, is also set in New York City, which thrilled me as a kid, and maybe you know about the movie that starred Jodie Foster a long time ago, but really, it’s the book you want. The character of 13-year-old Annabel Andrews is so totally wise and snotty in just the right way. One morning she wakes up in her mother’s body and spends the day having what you might call adventures, which are really pretty hilarious. And actually the sequel, A Billion for Boris, is probably even better since it covers more than a single day, involves a TV set that foretells the future, and includes one scene in which Annabel and her friend go to a vintage clothing store in the Village. How I loved that book!!