A book that you love as a child will likely loom particularly large in your imagination throughout your life. You read it at a time when everything was fresh and fascinating, and when your mind was new and impressionable.
Though you may never forget these youthful favorites, many of them don’t stand up to repeat readings through adult eyes. It can be painful to return to a dog-eared classic 20 years later and find the book has lost all of the magic you saw in it as a kid.
Fortunately, some children’s literature offers just as much to adults as to kids — and revisiting these books years later may leave you with a renewed love for them, rather than a sense of disillusionment. These six books are among those charmed classics that stand up just as well to adult perusals as they did to childhood reads:
The Giving Tree has recently been the focus of a literary tempest in a teapot. Published in 1964, the book has enjoyed decades of comfortable popularity as a sweet picture book with a moral message for youngsters. This year, the occasion of its 15th anniversary has seen the publication of pieces noting the darker edge of its message — the quiet horror of a tree so selfless that it’s destroyed by the little boy it loves. But this tension is exactly what makes The Giving Tree a poignant and challenging read for both kids and adults: Is the story a paean to generosity, or a screed against ingratitude? Is it a meditation on exploitation, or on the beauty of selfless parenting? For children, the sweet message of generosity and selflessness may seem to predominate, but older readers will see how simply and affectingly Silverstein maps the inherent conflict between self-preservation and selfless love.
If there’s one book every age group in the world can love, it’s probably The Phantom Tollbooth. Many of us remember it as the book that introduced us to wordplay, perhaps even to the very idea of reading and learning being fun and adventurous. The humor in the book isn’t dumbed down and rudimentary, however; it appeals to kids in its sly sophistication, and therefore loses none of its charm over time. As Milo, the little boy “who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always,” journeys from Expectations to Dictionopolis and beyond, Juster’s clever exploration of double meanings, absurd use of literalism and fantastical applications of mathematical concepts to life make every page a surprise. We don’t have to be learning anything new to laugh hysterically at his deadpan wit. (Though, let’s be honest, most of us adults would probably learn something from re-reading The Phantom Tollbooth.)
L’Engle once famously said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” In fact, this quote appears on her website’s home page. The implication that her books, though typically classified as Y.A., possess all the complexity and gravitas of adult literature, comes through strongly. Though this seems a little defensive, A Wrinkle in Time— and many of her other books — do retain their spark when read in adulthood. The characters feel distinct and alive, and the stories are wildly imaginative yet full of heart and humor. In an age when science fiction and fantasy are finally achieving more mainstream literary recognition, books like L’Engle’s that were once relegated to children’s sections seem ready for a second look.
In the recent flashy film adaptation of this beloved classic, the plot was made a bit more mature — the main characters were older teenagers, and the protagonist shares a romantic subplot with his friend Fiona. But the book, which contains no romance to speak of and focuses on a 12-year-old boy in the midst of adolescence, has a wisdom and subtlety that transcend categorization. Lowry’s quiet, understated dystopia is gentle enough for young readers, but with layers of insidious portent that make repeat readings, especially with the benefit of added maturity, revelatory and increasingly chilling. The commentary on the tradeoff between societal control and chaos will only resonate more as you grow older and more attuned to political realities.
Roald Dahl had a deliciously morbid sense of humor that allow his books to hold up particularly well as his readers age. Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches also remain great fun for adults. Danny, however, takes on particularly mature topics — perhaps because it was originally a short story for adults. For a child, it’s the story of a kid with an incredible parent who is caring, adventurous, and protective, but willing to include his offspring in his wild exploits. For an adult, it’s a more complicated read; Dahl’s droll humor and joy in tweaking the powerful remains, but Danny’s father’s position seems more fraught with fear and potential disaster. Yet whether you’re closer to being a child or being a parent, the beauty of their relationship still jumps off the page.
Some (ahem, Harold Bloom) may scoff at adults reading the tale of boy wizard Harry, but we’re not surprised there were reports of parents fighting over who got to read a chapter of the new book to their child when it came out. The intoxicating blend of British public school drama, fantasy adventure, and coming of age journey speaks particularly to adolescents, but it also smacks of a nostalgia that is all the more attractive upon later readings. What care-burdened adult wouldn’t want to dive back into the golden memories of Hogwarts, eating Chocolate Frogs and practicing spells by the fire in the Common Room? It’s like every appealing memory of our school days, but ten times better. Rowling’s broad humor and interest in magical history and linguistics make the books even more complex and engrossing — there’s always a new hidden joke or meaning to unearth.