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When we asked you last week about the childhood books that you still think about, we had an outpouring of responses, both from readers of this newsletter and from Atlantic readers on Facebook. Many people described how the stories they grew up on shaped their understanding of the world: The Phantom Tollbooth taught you new ways to use your imagination; The Boxcar Children showed you skills such as teamwork and resourcefulness; and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret guided you through puberty. Some books fostered a lifelong love of animals, and others gave you dreams of running away to museums, even in adulthood.
We were so delighted by your recollections that we decided to make this second issue of more childhood favorites that we didn’t include in last week’s edition. Many of you mentioned books we’ve written about, like The Hobbit and A Series of Unfortunate Events, that illustrate how the themes of children’s classics carry over into adulthood—and how they take on new meanings as readers get older. A new book by the scholar Anne Boyd Rioux reveals the complicated history behind Little Women’s idyllic family portrait. And an essay by E. B. White recounts an experience he had as an adult—making friends with a pig—that preceded his writing a similar story in the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
Check out past issues here. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.
What We’re Reading
“I was always drawn to stories where children escape the confines of adult supervision, but I was absolutely enchanted by the mature, practical, and sophisticated protagonist of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Even in her rebellion, Claudia was interested in culture and education. Every time I’m in New York I think about running away to the MET and sleeping in the exhibits.” — Abigail, a Books Briefing reader
“The High King was the first time I read and mourned the death of a character whom I truly loved, feeling the loss of Prince Rhun so deeply that The High King stood alone un-reread among Lloyd Alexander’s series because I simply could not bear it as a 10-year-old. It was the first time I felt inspired by a book to write to the author. Much to my thrilled amazement, he sent me a note back. I am certain it helped to cement my love of reading and career as a teacher of literature.” — Kathy Patterson, a Books Briefing reader
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit still matters 80 years later
“Although the short and whimsical book is considered lightweight compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s still in many ways the best that literature has to offer. Tolkien is first a linguist, and it’s not only his creation of elvish, dwarvish, and orcish languages out of whole cloth that impresses, but also the way he toys with English and illustrates the power of language itself to create.”
Postmodernism for kids
“For an example of postmodern hallmarks—such as metafiction, the unreliable narrator, irony, black humor, self-reference, maximalism, and paranoia—look no further than [A Series of Unfortunate Events].”
📚 LEMONY SNICKET: THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Lemony Snicket
📚 THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK, by Jon Stone
📚 BLACK AND WHITE, by David Macaulay
“Black Beauty. It’s probably what started my love of animals and led me into my life as a rescuer. The current animal tally is seven dogs and three cats, with more coming and going as they are pulled from shelters and re-homed through a local group. Even as an adult, I can’t help but wonder if they have some of the same thoughts that Beauty did.” — Jenna Stephens-Austin, via Facebook
“Dominic is a good person (er —dog) but not without his flaws. But the book is built around his kind soul, and what is gained by doing thoughtful things for no reward, and the far more priceless value of friendship. When my best friend had her daughter, I gave her a copy of that book, because her kindness and friendship reminded me so much of the good person Dominic was, and that I’d always aspired to be.” — Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda, via Facebook
The quotidian brilliance of Beverly Cleary
“The genius and charm of [her] early books lies in the way Cleary fully and leisurely entered and articulated the workings of a child’s mind. ”
📚 BEEZUS AND RAMONA, by Beverly Cleary
📚 RAMONA THE PEST, by Beverly Cleary
📚 A GIRL FROM YAMHILL, by Beverly Cleary
📚 MY OWN TWO FEET, by Beverly Cleary
“The Anne of Green Gables series taught me that the most perfect thing was to marry your best friend. Which I did.” — Danielle Jackson, via Facebook
Little Women is misunderstood
“The more Alcott’s admirers seek to update her novel, drawing on her life as context, the more they expose what her classic actually contains.”
📚 MEG, JO, BETH, AMY: THE STORY OF LITTLE WOMEN AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS, by Anne Boyd Rioux
How E. B. White came to love, and lose, a pig
“I found myself cast suddenly in the role of pig’s friend and physician … He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.”
📚 CHARLOTTE’S WEB, by E. B. White