Law and Conversation

June 24, 2011

My turn: Books everyone should read before 21

As I’ve mentioned, The Book Show on Britain’s Sky Arts media channel recently asked a number of distinguished author guests from its shows for their ideas on books that everyone should have read before the age of 21. The resulting list is worth perusing by anyone and tacking up on a bulletin board or refrigerator door.

But the list bothered me, chiefly for what I see as glaring omissions. Instead of including books that most of the broad range of people under 21 could read, the authors consulted focused on the far upper end of the range, including such admittedly great, but mature-themed, books as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

And the book prominently featured at the very top of the list? Erica Jong‘s “Fear Of Flying.”

“FEAR OF FLYING?” On a list of strongly recommended reading BEFORE turning 21????  What’s UP with that??????

Jong’s book is a fun read, I admit. But I’m not sure it’s a classic, and it probably isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not a book for kids, which is what people 21 and under are, whether or not they’re adults in the eye of the law. As David Brooks writes in today’s New York Times, “The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things which young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12.”

I know, and have known, many amazingly mature young people. Certainly, all of the books on the list, including the ones I’ve highlighted above, are capable of being read by mature teens and those in their early 20s. After all, Updike himself wasn’t even out of his 20s when he wrote the first “Rabbit” book. Speaking only for myself, though, and having read it only recently, well after my 21st birthday ;-), I’m absolutely confident I wouldn’t have appreciated it at that age.

So what’s the hurry? Why rush to read adult-themed books before turning 21?

The first two “Rabbit” books challenged me when I read them this year. “Ulysses” is on my list of difficult books to tackle. I’m all for pushing myself, and for others pushing themselves, to read challenging material. But given that everyone’s going to grow up–absent an unfortunate event–why skip over any joys of youth if you don’t have to?

In my adult view, one of those prime joys is reading children’s books and literature classified as young adult (YA). Though writers today generally target their books to specific age groups, I’ve seen a number of books from the 19th century (a literary period I love) that were written for general audiences but are now classified as middle grade (MG) or YA for library and bookstore purposes. (Some of Dickens’s works particularly come to mind.)

Today I’m providing an off-the-top-of-my-head list of wonderful, must-read books that should appeal to just about anyone in the under-21 reading range. The enormous bulk of material makes this a daunting task: it’s really, really hard to come up with a manageable list. For that reason, I’m expanding my usual self-imposed limit of 3 per blog post to 10. But I am limiting my recommendations here to series books, somewhat loosely defined, and excluding marvelous standalone works. If you’re over 21 and haven’t read some of these books–or if it’s been years, since you were a kid, since you’ve read them–do yourself a favor and go read or reread these great stories now.

1) At the top of my list is the entire oeuvre of Theodor Seuss Geisel, known to all as “Dr. Seuss.” My personal favorites are “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew,” “The Lorax,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super.” The first two, along with “Sneetches,” “The Grinch That Stole Christmas,” and “Horton Hears A Who,” carry timeless, serious messages. I haven’t discerned any particular message in “Scrambled Eggs Super,” but, like all Seuss books, its verse and illustrations make up an amazing work. It’s just plain FUN, and, as all of us who love “The Cat In The Hat” should know, “It is fun to have fun!”

2) Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Written by Wilder and edited–some argue partly ghostwritten–by her brilliant, extraordinarily difficult daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, this fictionalized story of Wilder’s life realistically depicts pioneer life in the late 19th century U.S. Though the story of Wilder’s and Lane’s relationship and collaboration has already inspired a few biographies and scholarly analyses, there’s plenty of room for more. Legal topics raised by their lives and work include fascinating probate and copyright issues.

3) The Burgess Books For Children, by Thornton W. Burgess. These wonderful series stories of animals include the adventures of Reddy Fox, Sammy Jay, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Peter Rabbit, and many, many more.

4) Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s books, including “Anne of Green Gables” and its sequels, her lesser known “Emily” series, and the standalone, apparently rather little known “Blue Castle.”

5) L. Frank Baum‘s “Wizard of Oz” series.

6) Lois Lenski‘s books on American life, including “Strawberry Girl,” “Houseboat Girl,” “Cotton In My Sack,” and “Coal Camp Girl.” Like Wilder’s “Little House” books, these books realistically depict life in the mid-20th century, or the 19th century in the case of “A-Going To The Westward” (which is tragically out of print), or the 18th century in the case of “Bound Girl Of Cobble Hill,” for working people and their children in the U.S.

7) J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

8) C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles.

9) L.M. Boston’s “Green Knowe” series, beginning with “The Children of Green Knowe.”

10) Andrew Lang’s fairy tale compilations in every hue of the rainbow, including “The Red Fairy Book,” “The Blue Fairy Book,” and so on.

For many of these books, including not only Dr. Seuss’s but also Lois Lenski’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, the artwork is integral to the stories. That leads me to wish again that more publishers would contract with artists to illustrate more currently published books.

As with any list, I’m certain to have left many fine candidates out. I’m already thinking that Beverly Cleary‘s series depicting Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ellen Tebbits, not to mention Louisa May Alcott’s series, Susan Cooper‘s “The Dark Is Rising” series, and J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter” books are rather glaring omissions. And I see I haven’t included any great, classic science fiction series, or any graphic novel series. Well, that’s fodder for future writing!

What books would you include on a list that everyone really ought to read by the age of 21?


  1. Right on point about decompressing childhood and leaving more adult-themed literature for later, Helen. And your point about taking illustration seriously–please! Harry Potter, with its brilliant and highly anticipated illustrations, reminded us of that timeless appeal.

    From yours, these series would also be on my list: Narnia, Seuss (I think The Lorax is my personal favorite), Green Knowe and Anne of Green Gables. Lloyd Alexander’s Black Cauldron series would probably make my list. Two stand-alone titles would be Where the Lilies Bloom by Cleaver and The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery. I had better appreciation for and understanding of The Little Prince when I re-read it as an adult, though. To be continued…

    Comment by Pat — June 24, 2011 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

    • Pat, your recommendations are also, as usual, absolutely right on. Lloyd Alexander’s series certainly is another glaring omission from my list that only serves to highlight how many extraordinary literary works there are for the under-21 crowd that can and should be read and loved by all ages! And yes, the Cleavers and Saint-Exupery are simply marvelous writers, and not nearly well enough known. But I was pleased that New Zealand writer Kate deGoldi highlighted Vera and Bill Cleaver on “Saturday Morning With Kim Hill,” a Radio New Zealand program that I listen to on podcast, a couple of years ago!

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — June 25, 2011 @ 10:08 am | Reply

      • Helen- Thanks for your response. I am shocked–and thrilled–the Cleavers were mentioned on any program. I also loved the Soup series by Robert Newton Peck and some of the Hank the Cowdog series, but they probably only really qualify as comfort reading. It’s hard for me to discriminate. So much of the enjoyment of reading MG and some YA–for me–is the absence of the darker themes. Having lived through enough of it in my own life, it’s hard for me to go there in fiction. Bibliotherapy. I think books are that for many of us.

        Comment by Pat — June 25, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  2. […] Bemused by the inclusion of such works as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Erica Jong’s “Fear Of Flying” on a list of books that noted contemporary authors urged reading BEFORE the age of 21, I recently posted my own off-the-top-of-my-head recommendations for such a list. […]

    Pingback by Read This: Maurice Sendak « Law and Conversation — July 18, 2011 @ 12:14 am | Reply

  3. A great list! Don’t forget the simply lovely poems by Lois Lenski. The essence of childhood distilled in a line or two. And one of my personal favorites is the lyrical brilliance of Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish:” “Look what we found/in the park/in the dark/we will take him home/we will call him Clark/he will live at our house/he will grow and grow/will our mother like this?/we don’t know…”

    On an tangential note regarding the observation by David Brooks, isn’t it a strange paradox that our children seem both to be growing up too fast and too slowly? I work with young adults and have observed that many of them seem to be very much sheltered from and/or lacking in what I would call “life experience.” And we all know that children are leaving the nest later.

    Comment by S. Anderson — July 20, 2011 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

    • Oh, thanks for the Lenski reminder–and the point about “One Fish, Two Fish.” Your observation about children growing up too fast and too slowly at the same time is spot on! So glad you stopped by, and hope you’ll be back.

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — July 21, 2011 @ 8:15 am | Reply

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