In the course of my childhood, I have probably read thousands of books.
I’ve read everything from children’s fiction to YA dystopia to historical biographies to magazines and cereal boxes — you name it, I’ve read it.
I read at home, I read at school. I read in the bathroom, I read in church (sorry!). I read sitting in trees, I read huddled under blankets (when I was supposed to be asleep).
It drove my mom crazy.
But it also allows me to do what I’m going to do today: recommend some underrated children’s books that have been overshadowed by all the Harry Potters and Hunger Games and librarian-knows-what-else that have dominated the market.
The following books are just a small sampling of some of the best children’s books I’ve ever read, featuring plucky characters, laugh-out-loud situations, and powerful life lessons and themes:
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
In this quirky tale, 11-year-old Primrose Squarp’s parents are lost at sea during a storm. When they don’t return, they are declared dead and Primrose is foisted on her chagrined Uncle Jack, an aspiring real estate agent who has dubiously come to Primrose’s small town to care for his orphaned niece.
Over the course of a school year, Primrose must learn to live with her Uncle Jack and the small community’s oddball citizens, while surviving a series of adventures, from accidentally setting a hamster on fire to being bumped from home to ever-more-eccentric home as the community tries to figure out what to do with her.
Why I love it
Everything on a Waffle deals with tough concepts like death, loss, family, and foster care in an age-appropriate yet sometimes snarky manner. It reminds readers not to take life too seriously, even in tough situations, and that sometimes the remotest hopes are not so crazy, after all.
Besides, it includes simple recipes at the end of every few chapters, for those who are culinarily-inclined. Bon appetit!
Sammy Keyes by Wendelin Van Draanen
In this spirited detective series by the talented Wendelin Van Draanen, Sammy Keyes is a high-top-wearing, binoocular-carrying, skateboard-riding 13–14 year old who lives illegally with her grandmother in a senior high-rise. Over the course of one-and-a-half-dozen books, Sammy attempts to survive the death trap known as middle school, and also solves crime in her free time.
And these are not your typical Encyclopedia Brown crimes: Sammy lives in the fictional town of Santa Rosa, a town full of all kinds of rough, mysterious, loveable, and seriously criminal residents, including cat-costume-wearing pro wrestlers, pig-walking old ladies, and rocker nuns.
The kinds of mysteries Sammy must to solve involve not only run-of-the-mill petnappings and thefts, but more bizarre situations involving anonymous babies dumped in shopping bags, stickups at art galleries, and hidden treasures.
And that doesn’t even cover Sammy’s larger-than-life academic adventures, including one backstabbing, sweet-talking, literal-pain-in-the-butt nemesis who goes to extreme measures to attack, needle, and hassle our plucky heroine.
Why I love it
Wendelin Van Draanen is a genius at the long game. Watching Sammy develop and grow through 18 books, and the communities and relationships deepen and change is fascinating for me as an aspiring fiction writer. The way she interweaves Sammy’s school drama with the mystery is also incredible — the multiple plotlines intertwine and coalesce brilliantly in each and every book, leaving readers satisfied and writers mind-boggled with awe.
Besides, Sammy is such a brave, bright, and beloved character. While Sammy’s adventures range from the silly to the serious, through it all, she always demonstrates resilience, compassion, cleverness, and kindness. She’s the best friend I wish I had growing up.
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
Joan Bauer specializes in writing believable, down-to-earth stories about average youngsters (middle to high school, typically) with great passion and unique interests, from pumpkin-growing to shoe-selling. In Hope Was Here, that interest is waitressing.
When they are cheated out of their life savings by a smooth-talking con man, 17-year-old Hope Yancey and her aunt Addie move to a small town in the middle of Wisconsin to start over — Addie as a cook, Hope as a(n experienced) waitress in a small town diner.
However, Mulhoney, Wisconsin is undergoing political turmoil the likes of which young Hope has never encountered before: the local (corrupt) mayor of the town is running for re-election, backed by the powerful dairy company whose money he has been secretly accepting for years, at the cost of the townsfolk’s well-being.
This year, though, GT Stoop, the kindly son of a Quaker woman, is planning to finally step up to the crooked mayor. The only problem: GT Stoop is a cancer patient. Oh, and he also owns the diner that Hope and Addie are working in. Which means Hope has no choice but to get involved in this epic small-town struggle between good and evil.
Why I love it
When I was young, I wasn’t all that interested in politics…until I read Hope Was Here and realized how important it is to not only vote, but get involved in the entire process and stay informed. As Edmund Burke once said:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
But on the other hand, when good people do stand up for the truth, it can make a bigger difference than people know.
Hope Was Here taught me that everyone can make a positive impact in one’s community, regardless of age, health, or anything else. And of course, the book, like the main character’s name and life and attitude, is full of hope.
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen
In this Floridian adventure, Roy Eberhardt and his family has just moved from his beloved Montana to the flat, snowless Sunshine State. Roy has no friends, and to make matters worse, he is also regularly attacked by the local bully on the schoolbus.
But when Roy accidentally spots a barefooted boy running away from the direction of the school, and then meets the boy’s bike-tire-chomping soccer-star stepsister, his life begins to get very interesting, very quickly.
Along with Beatrice, the soccer girl, and Mullet Fingers (the mysterious running boy) Roy finds himself embroiled in a vandalism mystery surrounding a population of little burrowing owls that are slated for destruction to make way for the coming arrival of a new pancake house.
Why I love it
Carl Hiaasen’s love for Florida and nature is evident in everything he writes. Hoot, and another one of my favorites, Flush, teach children (and all readers, really) the importance of protecting the environment for the enjoyment of all.
The Squire’s Tale Series by Gerald Morris
In this creative reimagining of Arthurian legend, Gerald Morris follows Terence, an orphan who becomes a squire to Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew. As they travel to Camelot, Terence and Gawain encounter a cast of oddball characters, human and faerie, as Gawain seeks to become a full-fledged knight and Terence seeks to figure out his own mysterious background.
Why I love it
Gerald Morris’ sense of humor had me in stitches more than once. Morris’ irreverent portrayal of the knights of the Round Table and their rollicking adventures throughout the series is great for a laugh anytime — plus, you get to learn about Arthurian legend! What’s not to love?
The joy of children’s fiction
I haven’t read as many children’s fiction books lately (opting for their more serious nonfiction counterparts). But every once in a while I will take these treasures off my bookshelf and read them again, just for the smiles and memories.
The books above are some of my favorites, but not all of my favorites. There are probably a hundred more books I could add to this list. But then this article would be far too long for you and me. So I will cap it at five. For now.
This post was originally published on Medium