“100 Books You Should Read Before You Die;” “100 Books Everyone Should Read;” “Top 100 Books to Read.”
You’ve probably seen these lists around with varying amounts of recommended books on reading sites and blogs. To be perfectly honest, I cringe a bit when I think about them, because (as I’ve briefly mentioned in a prior post) I created a “100 Books to Read before I Die” list in 2014 and then determined to read them all that year. It would have been a great plan had I died the following year. However, as I write this today a living woman, such was not the case. Embarking upon that restrictive reading regime was a mistake. As I said in that previous post, all the joy was sucked out of reading and I only managed to complete the task I had set for myself by doctoring the list.
Scrolling through a “100 Books List” category on Goodreads, there are a lot more than a hundred. There may be over a thousand entries, with the most voted upon ones getting into the top 100. When I went through looking for material from which to compile my list, I skipped the ones that I’d read and picked and chose the rest to suit my interests, venturing into the land beyond the top 100. Basically, everyone has a slightly different take on what books are “essential” reading. Several years on the other side of that ill-advised challenge to read 100 must-read books in one year, I’m compiling my own list of “Top 100 Books To Read at Some Point in Your Life.” I’m breaking it into sections so that I can say something about each instead of just spewing out a mile-long list of titles with no context. We’re hitting the ground running with 15 classic children’s books.
Many of these are ones that I read in 2014 and will be intuitive, appearing on other similar lists: classics and such like; however, as the list will be limited to books that I have read, it may be lacking some deserving ones that I just haven’t discovered yet or taken the time to read for myself. Essentially, this is from my experience to date, so if you have a different one, let me know in the comments after!
1. Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne—This book cropped up somewhere in the pages of the 100 books list and I, a kid who grew up watching Pooh, was ashamed to realise that I had never actually read the original book. Disgraceful. The bear Milne based the book on lived literally two and a half hours away from my hometown: in Winnipeg, Manitoba (hence the name “Winnie”). There is even a permanent collection of Winnie-the-Pooh memorabilia and artefacts in the Assiniboine Park pavilion there, called the Pooh Gallery, which I had been to. Reading the book for the first time as a near-adult, the writing of this book holds up and its charming nuances make for an easy and entertaining read. If you don’t want to be seen reading Winnie-the-Pooh as an adult, find the nearest child and read it to them; you’ll both enjoy it.
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
2. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame—Keeping with the animal theme, this also came from my original 100 books list. I grew up watching the incredible animated version from 1995 with Vanessa Redgrave narrating (which I would also recommend to anyone), but didn’t read the book until much later. I confess, I had read this prior to adding it to my 100 books list, and used it to replace a book I didn’t get to so that I could still say I’d done the challenge. Underhanded, I know. The delightful tale of riverside friends, Mole and Rat, and the disastrous schemes of the incorrigible Mr. Toad is one for all ages with its mature narration and brilliant characterizations.
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
3. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie—One of my favourite books of all time, this is a must-read for anyone. It is a celebration of youth in all its careless selfishness and utter disregard for the future, while still carrying the consequences of long life and experience in its pages. “And, there are mermaids,” as Peter said to tempt Wendy to fly with him to Neverland. You should go with them. Read this book if you haven’t yet; if you have, read it again.
“Come with me where you’ll never, never have to worry about grown-up things again.”
4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett—The classic story of an orphan sent to live with her reclusive uncle in a mansion filled with secrets. I can picture the realtor’s list of features: “Includes 100 rooms, a forbidden wing, mysterious cries in the night, and a locked, walled garden on the grounds. Charming English neighbourhood with regional accents and domesticated carrion birds.” All facetiousness aside, this is a story of family discovery and recovery that warms the cockles of your heart with its uplifting conclusion and florid descriptions.
“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.”
5. Heidi by Johanna Spyri—Carrying on in the same vein as the previous book, this is another story of an orphan, sent to live with her reclusive grandfather this time. In the Alps, living on pure mountain air and goat’s milk, Heidi finds family as well as her own personal strength to share with others. As an aside, my dad hated this book because he had to read it several years in a row in grade school because, “We have to have a book the girls will like.” I, for my part, am unimpressed that a teacher didn’t know more than one age appropriate book with a girl protagonist. But moving on, I just realised this book has even more in common with The Secret Garden than just the premise—both have a similarly disabled character with essentially the same development in their respective stories. Both of their names even start with the same letter: “C”. Hmmm…
“The happiest of all things is when an old friend comes and greets us as in former times.”
6. AND 7. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll—These were the first chapter books I read. They were both in a Companion Library edition, just floating around our house and I picked it up as a 7- or 8-year-old because I liked the pictures. Reading it was an incredible dip into dreamland. It was also much longer and denser than anything I had read until then. But I pushed through and I look back on it as one of the milestones in my reading development. I’ve also re-read it since with the benefit of being able to recognise irony and dry humour. Through the Looking-Glass is also home to the definitive (although Humpty Dumpty might have a thing or two to say about my word choice there) nonsense poem “Jabberwocky,” which, I regret to report, is falling less and less out of general knowledge—I encountered three people my age in as many days none of whom had ever read it, let alone Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I highly recommend both books.
“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
8. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum—Another great example of portal fantasy, this classic spawned a whole slew of sequels that are equally imaginative, further building the world wherein the land of Oz is situated. Some involve the kingship of the Scarecrow, the fate of the Tin-man, the gender-bent Princess Ozma, revolutions, and a bug that rivals that of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (not that I’ve read Kafka, but I know the gist). But regardless of whether you want to commit to a series, the classic events of Dorothy’s first trip to Oz, falling in with her famous travelling companions, and the clash with the Wicked Witch of the West are a must-read.
“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
9. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers—The original super-nanny brings magic to you, no portals to distant lands required, except those she provides. Having grown up watching Mary Poppins, I didn’t realise it was a book until I saw a collection of several of the series on a friend’s shelf. I didn’t read it until years later, and was quite shocked at the departure old Walt made from the subject material. I have yet to see Saving Mr. Banks so maybe that would help reconcile me to the vast difference. Regardless of the brilliance of the musical movie version, I would recommend leaving behind most of those preconceptions when coming into the book—I particularly remember there being more moments of urban fantasy, with spirits and fairies traversing the streets of London. Let’s face it, even in the movie, Mary Poppins herself is quite a fae character.
“Mary Poppins was very vain and liked to look her best. Indeed, she was quite sure that she never looked anything else.”
10. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling—Another classic adapted for film by Disney, this story follows the man-cub growing up under the Law of the Jungle. The last film Walt Disney ever worked on, it is famously said that, upon entering the writers’ room for work on the script, he held up a copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book and asked if any of them had ever read it. When the writers apprehensively admitted they had not, expecting to be reprimanded, Disney supposedly responded, “Good,” and threw the book in the garbage. He then said, “Here’s how we’re going to do it.” As much as I love good old cartoon Baloo, Bagheera, and the hilarious Kaa, I would recommend following Disney’s advice in reverse and figuratively throwing out the movie before reading this book. With clashes of savagery and civilization, The Jungle Book is laid out like a series of connected short stories in the jungles of India under British rule, mainly centred on Mowgli but branching off in some interesting directions.
“One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterwards.”
11. AND 12. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain—Painting the fence, medicating the cat, wooing Becky, getting lost in a cave, and outwitting Injun Joe. If these incidents are unfamiliar to you, you are missing out on the astonishing repertory of Tom Sawyer, schemester extraordinaire. His down-and-out friend Huckleberry Finn also makes enough of an impression in the story to be considered worthy of narrating his own later Adventures on the Mississippi after a tragic event leaves him without a home. Twain has a flair for atmosphere, ridiculous situations, and characterization that make for a gripping read.
“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
13. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery—A scene change to the east coast of Canada, on the idyllic little patch of land in the Atlantic Ocean known as Prince Edward Island, where a bright little girl with red braids finds a home and “scope for the imagination.” That imagination leads her into many scrapes, fixes, jams, and kerfuffles and that same imagination usually gets her through unscathed but wiser. This book has most recently been the subject of a most shocking discovery about one of my favourite English profs at university: she admitted, publicly, that she taught Anne of Green Gables in a Children’s Literature course and had to try her hardest to conceal from that class how much she hated the book. I was too aghast to question what gave rise to these feelings. I find Anne’s heart, outgoing brilliance, and academic ambition make for a compelling character that drives the sometimes episodic nature of the story.
“I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here forever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted.”
14. Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson—Black Dog. Israel Hands. Captain Flint. Long John Silver. A motley crew of cutthroats and thieves dealing out death and betrayal on every side. The untimely administration of the black spot to one Billy Bones and the inheritance of a treasure map force young Master Jim Hawkins, formerly of the Admiral Benbow Inn, to take to the high seas on an unforgettable adventure. This classic tale of pirates and sailors, marooning and mutiny needs no justification for being present on this list. Who can forget the sinister parrot or the sea chantey “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest”? You certainly won’t once you’ve read it.
“I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views—amen, so be it.”
15. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott—Set in the North during the American Civil War, this is a tale of sisters, dreams, maturation, and finding normalcy during a time of conflict. The first time I read this book I was so enthralled by the characters and the brilliance of the narrative that I remember thinking, “Why am I surprised? There’s a reason this is a classic.” One thing to watch out for when finding a copy to read is that what is usually termed collectively Little Women today was originally published as two separate books: Little Women and its sequel, Good Wives. I found this out the hard way when I bought a nice antique copy second-hand, only to realise afterwards that it ended in what I considered the middle of the story. Lesson learned.
“I like good strong words that mean something.”
Those are my first 15 recommendations for books you should read at some point in your life. I say “at some point,” because pressuring yourself to read books that you don’t have interest in or feel like at the moment is miserable and turns what should be pleasurable into drudgery. However, “someday” too easily turns into “never” if you aren’t intentional. So if a book catches your eye as one you’ve been wanting to read, why not start it now?