Books That Taught Me to Love Reading

Reading is the ultimate frugal pastime. It is one of the few things in life that manages to be healthy and enjoyable while costing very little. I learned to love reading long before I actually learned to read. My love of reading, and flood of words and ideas that I consumed, through books, as a child have been extremely beneficial to me at every stage of my life. Teaching a child, not only to read, but to love to read is one of the greatest services a parent or teacher can perform.

These books have stayed on my shelf since childhood.

I was my parents’ third and final child. My two older sisters were seven and ten years older than me, respectively. 

I was an odd child (or so my sisters tell me), extremely quiet, with an unsettling tendency to fixate on whatever topic or idea interested me. When I began kindergarten, my teacher gently broached the topic of autism with my parents, asking if they had ever considered having me tested. My parents were startled and, understandably, concerned. “No,” they said. “Why? What is he doing?” (Notice the instant assumption that I was up to no good…)

The teacher, who was a truly sweet-natured lady, with my best interests at heart, explained that I was constantly trying to evade the other children. She told my parents that she often found me sitting under a table during sessions of free-play, covering my ears and looking uncomfortable. My parents weren’t very keen on the idea of having me tested for Autism. When they indicated this viewpoint to my teacher, she accepted their decision without arguing, but encouraged them to socialize me with other children as much as possible. At this point, my mother burst out laughing. “He’s TOO socialized,” she said. “He is always stuck in a group of kids. That’s why he’s hiding under the table, here.”

It was true. My parents, especially my mother, loved (and still love) children. They organized and conducted all kinds of activities and outings for children in a variety of community groups. My mother taught sewing and craft-making classes for children in our home. For at least 12 years, my father used the majority of his vacation days from work to take my older sisters and as many other children as our family minivan could hold, to multiple week-long summer camps 400 miles from our home. While my sisters and the other children spent the week playing games and attending group events, he and my mother volunteered their time at the camp, often working in the sweltering camp kitchen for 8 or 10 hours at a time. 

It seemed as though I was always in the middle of a thundering herd of other children of all ages. My deeply introverted soul was longing for a little peace and quiet.

And so, I turned to books to escape from the loud and hectic swirl of juvenile socialization that engulfed my childhood. 

Both of my parents love to read, but it was really my father who got me truly hooked on books. For nearly my entire childhood, I had a loosely imposed “bed time” of 9pm. This meant that at 9pm, my mother would tell me to go to bed. Whereupon, I would go upstairs, change into my pajamas, and slip down the hallway to my parents’ room. Mom would usually stay downstairs for at least another hour, probably enjoying a little time to herself. Dad would usually be in bed by then, reading.

I would crawl into bed next to him, and he would read to me. Often, he read me books that were intended for me. Our mutual favorites were a miniature series of “Illustrated Classics.” They were tiny paperback books, about 4 or 5 inches square and 1 to 1 ½ inches thick. The books were abridgements of classic literature, intended for children, with excellent black and white illustrations on every other page. When I was a child, they could be purchased at the grocery store for $0.50. Over a few years, Dad bought me a lot of them, and we read many of them over and over again.

Just as often, Dad would simply read aloud to me from whatever he happened to be reading. I was exposed to a lot of Charles Dickens in this way, before I even entered school.

Besides the reading aloud that I enjoyed with both of my parents, I was exposed to books, early on, through audiobooks. I grew up in a very rural area, and my family spent a great deal of time in the car. We occupied this time by listening to audiobooks together, which, at that time, were recorded on cassette tapes.

We listened to so many audiobooks together, that we exhausted our personal stock of tapes, as well as the local library’s, and relistened to the ones we enjoyed, many, many times. For one very early birthday, I remember my parents giving me a small rectangular cassette player of my own. It instantly became one of my prized possessions, because it allowed me to select my own audiobooks and listen to them privately. Without the moderating influence of my parents and sisters, I can remember finishing an audiobook and immediately starting it again. Before I entered kindergarten, I could quote lengthy stretches of my favorite books, verbatim.

The many books that I consumed with my ears, before entering school, made me desperate to learn to read, and, after I had gained the necessary level of literacy, I began reading everything I could lay my hands on.

I have always been an enthusiastic re-reader. If I enjoy a book the first time, I am very likely to enjoy it even more the second time. (This tendency is probably an artifact of my pre-literate audiobook habits.) I read thousands of books before graduating from high school, but there are still some books from my childhood that stand out to me. Those books, above all of the others, laid the foundation for my life-long love of fiction.

Here are some of my childhood favorites. If you have young children, I encourage you to enjoy some of these books with them. If you don’t have children, I encourage you to try some of these books for yourself. The best books for children can be enjoyed at any age. I have not included the abridgements of classic novels that I enjoyed so much in this list, but they also left an indelible, happy imprint on my childhood.

30 of My Favorite Childhood Books

(in no particular order)

A few of my favorites
  1. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
    • This book was a source of constant enjoyment in my childhood. It is the quintessential pirate story. 
  2. Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
    • This is Robert Louis Stevenson’s other masterwork. It is a fast-moving, enthralling adventure, set among 18th-century rebels in Scotland.
  3. Hank the Cowdog – John Erickson
    • This is a series of books about the bumbling adventures of a rather dumb dog who lives on a ranch in Texas. He narrates the stories and takes his job as “Head of Ranch Security” very seriously. There are a lot of ridiculous, but clever songs in these books. They have permanently warped my mind.
  4. Matilda – Road Dahl
    • Roald Dahl is a master storyteller, and this account of a brilliant, quiet girl who finds peace and escape in books resonated deeply with my childhood self.
  5. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken
    • I and my sisters adored this book. When I grew up, I was surprised to learn that it is not very well known. It should be. It involves wolves, trains, an orphanage, and a snug cave filled with geese, and secret passages. I don’t know what else to say.
  6. My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George
    • A city boy runs away to live in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. He builds a house in a tree trunk and learns to live off the land. This became my childhood dream. 
  7. The Borrowers – Mary Norton
    • Tiny people live, hidden inside the houses of regular people. They subsist on what they can “borrow” (steal) from the big people. It sounds a little creepy, but it makes for a wonderful read.
  8. The Redwall Series – Brian Jacques
    • Including a whole series in this list might be cheating, but it’s my list, right? This is an enchanting series of books about the inhabitants of a medieval abbey. They are filled with epic battles and long journeys. Good and evil are clearly defined. The characters are all animals. Mice are good. Rats are bad. You get the idea. I like all the books, but these were my favorites:
      • Martin the Warrior
      • Mossflower
      • The Bellmaker
      • The Long Patrol
  9. The Boxcar Children – Gertrude Chandler Warner
    • This is a lovely book about a family of orphaned children who have an endearingly optimistic outlook on life and live together in an abandoned boxcar.
  10.  Big Red – Jim Kjelgaard
    • This is a classic boy and dog story, set in Appalachia. It made me desperate for a dog of my own.
  11. Stormy – Jim Kjelgaard
    • This is another classic boy and dog story, set in New England. It fueled my love of boats and camping, and made me feel an urgent need to acquire a packbasket. I still don’t have one. Maybe someday…
  12. Far North – Will Hobbs
    • This is a survival story about boys who end up stranded in the northern wilderness and must fend for themselves. I loved it.
  13. Rascal – Sterling North
    • This is a classic boy and dog story, except the dog is a raccoon. The setting is very reminiscent of where I grew up, and, since both of my parents had once kept raccoons as childhood pets, I found the story quite relatable.
  14. Caddie Woodlawn – Carol Ryrie Brink
    • This is an American frontier coming of age story. I practically wore out the audio version in my local library. My sisters still tease me about this book.
  15. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
    • Every child should experience this book. It is a wacky and wonderful tale starring small English animals.
  16. Henry Huggins – Beverly Cleary
    • This book and the whole accompanying series are authentic tales of mid-20th century American childhood. I haven’t met a child who doesn’t enjoy them.
  17. The Secret Garden – Francis Hodges Burnett
    • Two lonely children find peace and friendship in a secret garden. Thus the title…
  18. Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie
    • This is the original tale of the boy who never grew up. It is darker, but better than the Hollywood version.
  19. Black Beauty – Anna Sewell
    • This is the tale of a horse, told by the horse. It made me think differently about animals and how I should treat them.
  20. Just So Stories – Rudyard Kipling
    • Although I enjoyed The Jungle Book, I enjoyed these stories about exotic animals even more. They are whimsical and comforting.
  21. The Indian in the Cupboard – Lynn Reid Banks
    • This is a charming story about a boy whose miniature figures come to life when placed in a magic cupboard. For some reason, my father never approved of this book. It was a semi-secret vice.
  22. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
    • This is a story about children and farm animals, starring a pig and a spider. It’s wonderful.
  23. Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
    • This is another survival story, set in the extreme northern end of North America. After a plane crash, a boy learns to survive with nothing but a hatchet. For years, I stared at the hatchets in our local hardware store. My father said “No.” That was probably a good decision.
  24. Mr. Tuckett – Gary Paulsen
    • A boy is semi-adopted by a one-armed mountain man in the early days of the Wild West. Adventures ensue. I loved it.
  25. Holes – Louis Sachar
    • Boys dig holes at a sadistic juvenile correctional institution. I know it doesn’t sound good, but it is.
  26. A Long Way from Chicago – Richard Peck
    • A brother and sister are sent away from Chicago to a rural midwestern town, to live with their eccentric grandmother during the Great Depression.
  27. A Year Down Yonder – Richard Peck
    • Several years later, the sister returns to the rural town to liver with her grandmother during World War II.
  28. Cheaper By the Dozen
    • This is a tribute to a unique father, written by two of his twelve children. The story is touching and hilarious.
  29. Belles on Their Toes
    • This is the second half of the story of the same family of twelve children. It is just as funny as the first half.
  30. Tom Sawyer
    • A clever 19th-century boy in a southern American town meets wild adventure and everyday monotony with the same excitement and good cheer.

What books did you read as a child that sparked your love of reading or shaped your outlook on life? 

– James


2 replies »

  1. This is such a wonderful description of learning to love reading as a child. My favourite books as a child were the Narnia stories, anything by Robert Westall, and quite a few from your list too. One of my favourite things about being a parent is watching my own daughter discover the joy of reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hear you! I’m the eldest of 4 kids and books gave me a place to escape to, somewhere quiet. I read all the Enid Blyton’s, Nancy Drews etc and there was an Australian series called The Silver Brumby that I adored. I remember filling and refilling library cards. My father isn’t a reader but my mother always has been. My daughter (now 22) is like my husband and only picks up a book on holidays. I despair of them both.

    Liked by 1 person

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