Not Just For Kids (Part 2)

Last month, you may remember, we chatted about picture books.  This month we’re going to round off our discussion with books for older children, say fourth grade or so and up.  These are favorites of mine, and I hope you’ll share favorites of yours.

Two of the books on today’s list won the Newbery Medal.  The Newbery is named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newberyand goes to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” in a particular year.  It’s awarded by the Association of Library Services for Children, a division of the American Library Association.  A complete list of winners and honor books, which receive recognition but not the Newbery medal, is on the ALSC website.

Unknown-2The first Newbery winner on tonight’s list is one of my all-time favorite books, Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s about a young girl who is marooned on an island off the California coast.  She bonds with the wild dogs on the island (I remembered them as wolves, but I don’t think they actually are) and learns to hunt, make clothes for herself, and do whatever else is necessary to live alone.

It’s a bit grittier book than I generally leaned toward in those days, but I think I was fascinated with this brave, self-sufficient girl. I lived a very conventional life, but I was drawn to characters who did not.

The cover at left is the one I remember from the edition I read.

Unknown-3Fourth grade was a big reading year for me because I read the other Newbery winner on today’s list, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, that year.  Here again is a take-charge girl, Meg.  With the help of a mysterious stranger who introduces them to tesseracts (portals to other dimensions), they go in search of their missing father. The search is neither simple nor safe, and much ultimately depends on Meg’s ingenuity.  I loved this book and read the others L’Engle had written.

I still don’t entirely understand what a tesseract is, except that you can travel to other dimensions via one.  The book doesn’t really explain it, and I didn’t get around to looking it up until years later.  It has something to do with squares and cubes, shape-wise, but that begins to evoke math, so I just went with the inter-dimensional travel and called it done.

Series books had a particular appeal.  I loved seeing familiar characters have new adventures.  The Bobbsey twins and Nancy Drew were particular favorites.  I wanted the Hardy boys, too, but my mom squelched that on grounds of my being a girl. *sigh*

The Bobbseys kind of fell by the wayside as the years passed, but I stuck with Nancy Drew well into junior high.  She had great friends, a cool boyfriend, and a knack for solving mysteries.  Below are the original cover for her first adventure, The Secret of the Old Clock, and the one I remember reading.











Before we move on, let me just say that if you also were a Nancy Drew fan, you might be interested in Melanie Rehak’s Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. It’s a look at the rise of series books in general and Nancy Drew in particular in the 1920s and follows Nancy’s different incarnations going forward.  The writing style is clear and engaging.  I was sad to discover, though, that Carolyn Keene was not actually a person at all but a name made up by the original publishing house.

Unknown-5Another series I liked, though they were hard to find in this country, was Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.  I discovered them in junior high, I think, when I stumbled across Five Run Away Together at the library.  Left in the care of a mean housekeeper with a nasty son, the four children and the dog run away to a nearby island.  To their surprise, someone else has been living there.  They resolve to find out who and stumble across a dastardly plot in the process.  As was their habit, they foiled the bad guys and saved the day.

I remember thinking it would be so cool to have an island to run away to and a cave to hang out in.  Though I probably would’ve filled it with books or comics, which might’ve mildewed in the damp air.

But that’s grownup common sense looking back.  At the time, I just thought it would be great fun.

One book that’s part of a series, though I got a chance to read only one of the other books, is The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.  The edition we have belonged to my mother, and I know she got it for Christmas the year she was nine because she wrote that, in big, loopy, penciled letters, on the front leaf.

The Peppers first appeared in print in 1881, so they added a historical note to my reading.  They were reissued when I was in grade school, so I got a chance to read The Five Little Peppers Midway.  I understand there are two or three other books, but I’ve never seen them.

In the trivia department, did you know that Margaret Sidney, who created the Peppers, lived for a while in a house called the Wayside, which had also been occupied by Nathaniel Hawthorne and, when the house was called The Hillside, Louisa May Alcott?  There must’ve been something in the walls….

UnknownAnyway, speaking of historical fiction, there was a series I absolutely loved.  Written by Manly Wade Wellman, it was about the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas.  The hero, Zach Harper, joined the Colonial cause.  He lived on the South Fork River, which was actually the South Fork of the Catawba River, which we crossed every time we drove to Gastonia to see my grandfather’s siblings.  The first book was Rifles at Ramsour’s Mill.

Aside from Yorktown, history books concentrated mostly on the war in the New England states.  I was thunderstruck to discover, via these books, that there had been battles fought in the Carolina Piedmont.  The series’ second book, Battle for Kings Mountain, spurred my interest in visiting that battlefield.  I still like to go back every few years.

I read the four books in this series over and over, checking them out of our local library.  When the boy got into grade school, I found Rifles at Ramsour’s Mill in the special collection of our main library, the last copy in the system.  I went and read it to see if I still loved it, and I absolutely did.  The dh tracked down a copy for me for Christmas, and I read it to the boy.  We then set about finding the rest of the series.  He enjoyed them all, but without quite my level of fanatical repetition.

Wellman wrote a lot of YA historical fiction.  Only as an adult did I learn that he was also a highly successful science fiction writer.

Unknown-6Finally, a YA series I discovered as an adult sucked me right in and had me devouring them all.  It’s Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.  If you saw the movie adaptation, please know the book is nothing like it.  They changed so much (moving it from England to California, for starters, severing it from its roots in British folklore) that just seeing the trailer convinced me the movie would be too different from the book I loved for me to enjoy it.

On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers that he is among the last of an ancient race who must fight against the darkness for the light.  He must travel through time to find the six symbols of the light that can bring victory as the darkness threatens his village.

I was reading The Dark is Rising just before bed one night, and the last sentence of the first chapter sent a chill down my back. I was tempted to call the dh to come walk me back to the bedroom.  Then I remembered I was, you know, supposedly an adult and took myself off to bed.  But I was looking over my shoulder.

The third book in the series (fourth if you count the prequel, Over Sea, Under Stone), The Grey King, won the Newbery medal for 1976.

When the boy was old enough, we read him these books and some of Cooper’s others.  The Boggart was particularly funny.  Going back through books we loved and discovering new ones with him was something we all enjoyed together.

Are any of these books or series favorites of yours?  What books for young readers did you enjoy when you were growing up or discover recently?






  • Helen says:

    Is he staying with me

    Have fun

  • Helen says:

    Hi Nancy

    I must say I loved The Famous Five and The Secret Seven they were favourites of mine and I have just been and bought books for all of my grandchildren for Christmas and I got Hayley the Secret Seven first one I hope she enjoys it as much as me Jayden is a big reader and loves the Diary of a Whimmpey kid books and the first 3 of the Harry Potter books I will let him read the rest during the holidays I must look up some of yourvrecommendations for him

    Have Fun

    • Helen, I’ve never seen the Secret Seven, unfortunately. On my first trip to London with the dh, in the giant maze of bookshelves at Foyle’s, I found a copy of Five Run Away Together. I bought it for when we had kids someday.

      The timing of the Wimpy Kid books was off for us. By the time they appeared, the boy was too old to be interested in them. They sound fun, though.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Ah, Helen, I read “The Diary of a Whimpy Kid” to my grandchildren Preston and Ellie when they were little. They could read it themselves, but loved to hear the series read aloud.

      Good times!

  • Jane says:

    Hello Nancy,
    I enjoyed reading a few Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. I became a huge mystery fan because of those books. I think if the Wimpy Kid books were around when I was a kid I would have liked them.

    • Jane, I also enjoy mysteries. When I look back, I can see traces of my early reading habits in both my reading and my writing. Except for thrillers, which arguably are mysteries on a bigger scale, I can’t think of any type of book I read now that I wasn’t reading by the time I left high school.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Yes, Jane! I think that’s where my love of mystery-suspense stories were born, too. My first one was “The Secret of the Old Clock.”

      I still remember the thrill of finding and reading that first book!

  • Shannon says:

    Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorites when I was in junior high. I can still remember the older character talking about a fold in time using clothing. To this day, I’m a sucker for time-travel.

    I don’t really remember it but the Five Peppers also sound familiar.

    By the time I hit junior high in my hometown of > 2500, I had gone through much of our young adult section, and I moved into the adult section of the library. That section was about 2-3 bookcases. I marvel over the choices available today, and the internet to make it easier to find books because of columns like yours. I can remember our librarian reading some journal on out-coming books and asking her regular readers, “Do you think you would like this?”

    • Shannon, I still like time travel stories, too. I have a collection of short stories by the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, whom I actually got to hear speak when I was in high school, and I remember that at least one is about time travel.

      My hometown was also small, about 2500 people when the college was in session and the students were there. I progressed through the stacks in much the same way that you did. My dad was a regular at the library, and the librarian always had recommendations waiting for me.

      I think most librarians, and especially those in small towns, have an eye out for kids who are avid readers.

  • Amy Conley says:

    of course I love Little Women and I’ve read it many times overand even got my daughter to read it and she is not a reader! as for series books I read all of the Henry Higgins and of course the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. Bobbsey Twins I read when I was really young, I found them in my grandmothers basement when I was about 8.there is also a series about a girl with horses and her name was Morgan and I thought that was so cool she had the name of a boy. In my grade school library there is a whole section of biographies and I read every single one of them. They’re pretty simple but it got me interested in history.
    when I was in college I had to read several of the Newbery winners but I don’t remember what they were. I dunno I’ve read many of them and I bought them for my grandchildren.

    • Amy, were those biographies hardbacks about the size of Nancy Drew and bound in orange? Our library had a shelf of biographies of famous Americans in the children’s section. Many were written by Augusta Stevenson. The whole set were, I realized as an adult looking back, kind of docudrama-ish.

      I mean, a “biography” of Virginia Dare, who vanished in the Carolina wilderness within a couple of years after her birth and about whom nothing really is known?

      Regardless of historical of biographical accuracy, the books fed my interest in hstory, too. They were good stories, regardless of whatever else they were or were not.

  • flchen1 says:

    I’ve read most of those, Nancy, and my kids have read maybe half of them. Some others that I remember reading and my kids have read now are The Indian in the Cupboard and the whole Laura Ingalls Wilder series. They’ve also all read at least some Beverly Cleary (The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Henry Huggins, etc.) And DD has read Ballet Shoes, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, etc…

  • Fedora, I also loved the Beverly Cleary series you mentioned. One of my favorites was Beezus and Ramona. We read those books to the boy, and he had a particular fondness for Ramona. Reading it to him, we just howled with laughter.

    We discovered The Indian in the Cupboard with the boy, reading it to him. I read most of the Little House books, and the dh teaches them as well as The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables.

  • Jo Robertson says:

    Great trip back in time, Nancy, to remember the books of our youth. I was a great Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and Hardy Boys fan; I think my mother was quite forward thinking for her time because she never censored my reading.

    I remember developing a love of Zane Grey’s westerns when I was about 10. I spent most of the ship’s long voyage from Germany to the U.S. lying in the upper bunk of my cabin reading his books.

    • Jo, my dad loved Zane Grey. I think I might if I went back to them as an adult.

      My mom was more conventional about gender roles than my dad. If he hadn’t said he saw no problem with the comic books, I’m not sure how long I would’ve been reading them. And he never said a word when I read Boys’ Life at the library. I wanted a subscription, but my mom said no because, again, I was a girl. *sigh* He also told me to use a saw, drive a nail, and not only recognize but use different types of screw drivers and pliers.

  • Hi Nancy –
    Such a fun post! I’ve read some of the titles you mentioned, not all, but several. A couple of things struck me as I was reading –
    1) bumped into tesseracts fairly recently when trying to come up with a time-travel related project for my hero to research. Based on your blog, I’m going to include the word “Tesseract” in his title. It’s such a cool word 🙂
    2) I met someone who wrote some of the Nancy Drew series. She was paid a lump sum and received a series bible to use in the writing. That’s when I learned that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person. I was crushed as I had thought one person had written them all.
    3) And finally, I’m reminded that many authors have digits dipped in many pools. 🙂 Which all goes to say a good story is a good story. An author can write in multiple genres quite successfully. Have to remember that.

    • Donna, thanks! I totally agree that tesseract is a cool word. If only I truly understood the concept! *g*

      The woman you met wasn’t Margaret Wirt Benson, was it? She wrote many of the early Nancy Drew books and was rather intrepid herself.

      As for different pools, I’ll follow an author I like anywhere. If that author doesn’t seem to grasp the genre s/he’s writing, though, I’m done with reading his or her books in that incarnation.

    • Deb says:

      But, Mildred, from Ladora, Iowa (see my post), did start to write the books, then company writers followed a formula. But, I think that was popular for a lot of those books? Like, Trixie Belden, etc.?

      • I don’t know about Trixie Belden specifically, but the dh says all series books were done that way in their early days. There’s no Laura Lee Hope and no Franklin W. Dixon either, alas.

  • EC Spurlock says:

    What great memories! I was a big Nancy Drew fan and wrote my first mystery story at age 10 under her influence; to this day there’s always a little mystery in everything I write. I remember the Peppers and the Bobbseys too; DH was also a fan of both of those and between us we had several of those books. (Although I tried to read them to the boys when they were young and was shocked at how ridiculously dated, politically incorrect and just plain inappropriate they seem now!) I’m still a big Alcott fan and have a complete set of a 1901 edition in my collection. I also loved animal stories like Black Beauty (which I remember hiding behind the Christmas tree and reading one particularly fraught Christmas) and Beautiful Joe.

    My kids’ favorites were Richard Scarry, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.

    • EC, how great that you have that Alcott set! I don’t know why I never got into Little Women. I loved Eight Cousins although it was a bit preachy. As an adult, I discovered A Rose in Bloom and loved that too.

      You know, I’ll bet those series really are politically incorrect. Like episodes of older TV shows, I think they have to be considered within the context of their times, which is not easy for young readers to understand.

      I’ve had some fraught Christmases that make hiding behind the Christmas tree with a book seem like a great idea.

      The boy loved Richard Scarry, Redwall, and, of course, Harry Potter.

  • catslady says:

    I started out with Trixie Beldon and then moved on the Nancy Drew. For my two girls I remember The Babysitters Club for my oldest and R.L.Kline for both of them.

    • Catslady, I enjoyed Trixie Belden when I saw them. They weren’t as easy to stumble across around here as Nancy Drew.

      I know The Babysitters Club is hugely popular, but I’m guessing having a boy means i missed out on that.

  • Deb says:

    Nancy, what another great post! A lot of your faves were mine. Nancy Drew, The Five Little Peppers, the Bobsey Twins.

    Fun fact: Carolyn Keene, N. Drew author, grew up and lived in Ladora, Iowa, only 6 miles from where I live now in Victor.

    Trixie Belden mysteries were, by far, my faves, then Nancy Drew. I also liked The Boxcar Children, and The Trolley Car Family.

    As an adult, I found and love these books: NUMBER THE STARS, about a young Danish girl who helps with the Resistance during WWII; ON YOUR HONOR, about a boy whose friend drowns in a river after they have promised, on their honor, not to go swimming.
    BLIND FLIGHT, about a 13-year-old blind girl who must bring down a plane after the pilot passes out. HATCHET, a young boy’s survival in the Canadian wilderness after the pilot dies of a heart attack and the plane crashes. THE WAR with GRANDPA, a boy wages war against the grandpa who takes over his room. THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER, the awful Herdmans take over the church’s Christmas pageant. DANGER on PANTHER PEAK (sometimes titled Shadow on the Snow), a boy hunts a dangerous and menacing cougar.

    Seriously, I could go on!

    Thanks for the blog today!

    • Deb says:

      Carolyn Keene was just the pen name, but her real name was Mildred Benson. I think it is sad, though, that the little town doesn’t try to establish a plaque or memorial to her.

      • Deb says:

        I also want to add that I liked ME’s WIT as well as her book MANY WATERS, about twin boys who are thrown back in time to help Noah build the Ark. My daughter won’t even pick up WIT, and that makes me just sigh.

    • Deb, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the update on Benson. I felt like Margaret was the wrong first name, but I couldn’t think what the right one was.

      I also enjoyed The Boxcar Children. Some of the others you mentioned are familiar, and I think we gave them to various young friends as Christmas gifts at some point. I’m sure we did with Hatchet.

      I’ve never read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but I believe I’ve seen it performed at Children’s Theater.

      I’ve never seen Many Waters. I’ll have to check it out. I’m sorry your daughter doesn’t want to read WIT. Maybe she’ll change her mind one day. It’s frustrating when you want to share a book you loved and the other person won’t even try it.

      It would be nice if there were a plaque to Benson. The original publisher of Nancy Drew was the Stratemeyer Syndicate. When the founder died, his daughter took over the business–unusual in those days–and decided she was going to write Nancy Drew. Benson had a nondisclosure agreement, so the truth about her involvement didn’t come out until there was a lawsuit between Stratemeyer and a subsequent publisher (I forgot what it was over).

      You might really enjoy the Melanie Rehak book. I did.

  • Nancy, I really enjoyed both of these posts – thanks so much for doing them. Was a little surprised that Enid Blyton wasn’t generally available in the US. She was standard childhood reading fodder here. I just devoured her stories – like you, I loved the idea of running away to a lighthouse or an island or a ruined castle. I had a very loving family – odd how the running away thing appealed! Were the Silver Brumby books available in America? I absolutely adored those – and they’re not just for horse mad kids. They featured wild horses in the beautiful Australian Alps down in Victoria.

    • Anna, thank you! There’s some snobbery over here toward series books for children in general and Blyton in particular, but I fail to see why. They get kids to read–and to want to read MORE–so why isn’t that a good thing?

      I don’t remember seeing the Silver Brumby books, but I tended to avoid stories featuring animals. I read one too many where the animal died heroically, and I swore off of them after that. So the books may have been available but not on my radar.

  • Oooh! I loved A Wrinkle in Time! Haven’t read it in ages. Now all I have to do is find my copy. Did I mention I NEVER throw books away?

    When others were reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys I was reading Enid Blyton. I love ALL of her books!

    I’ve never heard of the The Dark is Rising series! I need to find these for those days when only a childhood favorite will do. I read Black Beauty several times a year when I am having a bad day or simply want to be a child for a while!

    • Louisa, I don’t throw books away either, though I’ve come to the point of realizing I needed to pass some along to find new homes. 🙁

      I hope you like The Dark Is Rising. We thought it was wonderful.

  • Mozette says:

    Oh! I loved reading as a young child… absolutely adored it.

    I drove my parents nuts when we went past bookstores… well, you couldn’t get me past a bookstore. We had to go inside the place and I nearly burst into tears when I wasn’t allowed a book from the place.

    Yeah, I was one of those kids… while other children wanted Matchbox Cars and Barbie Dolls and Nintendo, I wanted books for Christmas… and my Birthday and Easter… well, until I hit my teenaged years and I discovered vinyls/albums. 😀

    Anyway, my all-time favourite books were:

    ‘The Mystery of the Tolling Bell’ by Carolyne Keene
    ‘The BFG’ by Roald Dahl
    ‘The Faraway Tree’ by Enid Blyton (yes only book 3 as my folks couldn’t afford to buy all 5 books of the series).
    ‘Dips’n’Doodles’ – this was about skiing … something I never got to do until I was 13 years old.. such fun!
    ‘The Neverending Story’ by Michael Ende
    ‘The Secret Garden’

    There’s others, but I don’t recall them off the top of my head… these are the ones I do remember. 😀

    • Mozette, the dh loves Roald Dahl, and The BFG is a particular favorite. He regularly teaches The Secret Garden. I’ve never seen or read The Neverending Story, but I’ve heard great things about it.

      I don’t think there has been a single Christmas in my life when no books came to me. I wanted other things, too, but always books. 🙂

      • Mozette says:

        This year, I treated myself to a copy of Frida Kahlo’s diary from the last decade of her life… I bought it on Amazon and it arrived today! Yay! I got them to gift wrap it so I don’t start reading it tonight. 😀