For as long as I can remember, I have been a reader. Even before I actually learned how to make sense of the alphabet, I already identified as one. Wandering through the bookstores of every mall my family visited in search of the next fifty-pager I planned to ask the nearest adult in sight to read aloud was good enough for the title, at least in my eyes.
There is little surprise, then, in the fact that I’ve encountered all sorts of books. This is especially true because I’m the type of person who enjoys reading 10 of them simultaneously. Most were pleasant and surely furthered my love for the pastime in one way or another. Some were pretty terrible— both the “Did not finish” kind and the “I can’t believe I finished that” sort.
Others, however, stuck with me, even years after putting them down. Their writing and plots didn’t even have to be amazing— it’s just that I found myself enjoying each and every reread, that I could be listening to a song or witnessing something funny happen in a coffee shop and think, Hey, Fictional Character X would totally love this.
It’s these books I cherish the most, and alongside a handful of jabs at my younger self, they’re the ones I’m going to be sharing with you today. Because if there were one thing sure to help us get through the onset of a new school year, it's a good dose of comfort and nostalgia.
1. Matilda by Roald Dahl
“Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world."
Courtesy of Amazon
- Type: Standalone
- Age Rating: 7+
- Focus: Humor, Fantasy Fiction
- Goodreads Rating: 4.33 of 5
There’s something to be said, surely, about the work that inspired Harry Styles’ trending song by the same name. Published in 1998, Matilda follows the story of a precocious young girl whose brilliance and affability are scorned by her bitter family and ruthless principal. Finding refuge in her studies, friends, and kind teacher, she manages to simply keep her head down and nose buried in books— that is, until she discovers that she possesses telekinetic abilities.
I first picked up my now well-worn copy of Matilda on a Thursday— June 6, 2013, to be exact. Yes, I did put down the date on its title page, a mark that, in my own library, sets apart the best reads from all others. I remember bragging in the weeks that followed to anyone who would listen about my unprecedented feat of flipping through its 232 pages in only a day and a half, then repeating the act at least five other times by the New Year.
This humorous tale will always feel like home. It is the first that showed me the power of literature, the excitement of learning, and the importance of standing up for oneself and for others. It is in Matilda that Roald Dahl achieves all that children’s authors strive towards in their works: warmth, hope, the beauty of being young and alive, and, of course, a little bit of magic.
2. Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
"If my life is going to mean anything, I have to live it myself."
Courtesy of Online Read Free Novel
- Type: Series
- Age Rating: 9+
- Focus: Fantasy, Found Family
- Goodreads Rating: 4.28 of 5 (Book 1)
Rarely does there come a series the internet deems comparable— or even on par— with the international sensation that was Harry Potter, but here Percy Jackson and the Olympians stands.
Featuring lovable characters and unparalleled humour, its first instalment, The Lightning Thief, sees the charismatic and ever-so-loyal Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, uncovering and interacting with the dangerous yet captivating world of Greek gods and monsters all around him. Readers can’t help but devour each chapter at record speed as Percy first arrives at Camp Half-Blood, the designated training centre and sanctuary of demigods, and finds himself embroiled in a quest to rescue his mother from Hades and prevent a war between the gods.
If Matilda is home, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is vitality. Over the years, I was fortunate in that it and its various complementary series, such as The Heroes of Olympus and The Trials of Apollo, served as companions during my family’s various summertime getaways. I kept the pages that detailed Percy’s expedition across the Sea of Monsters tucked under my arm as I navigated my own sea of passers-by at Shibuya Crossing, and, as I lent an ear to the audiobook that narrated his gut-churning ride aboard Apollo’s Sun Chariot, I found myself amused at how it so juxtaposed the tranquillity of Switzerland unfolding before me on the Bernina Express.
To me, then, Rick Riordan’s works are a wonder and an adventure both in plot and in context, and will always remind me of freedom, of discovery, and of the platitude that life begins at the end of one’s comfort zone. It is here that you will find the perfect blend of adventure with sharp wit, a touch of history, the most compelling of character dynamics, and the underlying heartbreak of children who were forced to grow up too soon. In addition, the casual first-person writing style and plot that could keep anyone on the edge of their seat makes it one I always recommend to those who wish to dip a toe into the world of recreational reading.
3. Cupcake Diaries by Coco Simon
“Maybe if everyone baked more cupcakes, the world would be a happier place."
Courtesy of Goodreads
- Type: Series
- Age Rating: 7+
- Focus: Friendship, Coming-of-Age
- Goodreads Rating: 4.22 of 5
There is no shortage of middle school anxiety on both paper and the screen; everywhere, this particular period is portrayed to be rife with confusion, awkwardness, and the making and breaking of friendships. The Cupcake Diaries is surely no exception.
Over the course of 34 books and counting, readers witness the blooming friendship between Katie Brown, Mia Velaz-Cruz, Emma Taylor, and Alexis Becker, girls with vastly different personalities and interests who form a small-scale cupcake business as a means of navigating the peculiarities of adolescence and simply having fun.
This, above all other works presented here, is likely the least known by fellow readers. I, ever the infamous and unapologetic Judge of a Book by its Cover, only picked it up in the first place because I was drawn to its pinkness.
I remember the shrill ring of a bell signaling recess, the thundering of footsteps as my best friend and I barreled down the stairs from our classroom, and the beeline made right for the book fair set up in our school gym. We scoured the place for nothing in particular, probably leaving more than a few frazzled employees in our wake. The moment our eyes landed on the last two copies of Katie and the Cupcake Cure, however, our fates were sealed.
“I’ll get it if you get it,” she had told me. And when you've just begun the second grade, no deal gets any better than that.
Ten years after the fair, four since said friend moved abroad, and two since we were last in contact, that same book now sits at a place of honour on my best shelf, its spine cracked and pages yellowed with age and affection. My fondness for the series may be greatly rooted in sentimentality, but I have no doubt that any teen willing to read a few years below their grade level would appreciate it just the same. A whole lot of love, batter, and drama is usually just the warm hug I need whenever I feel down or under the weather.
4. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
"The things we do outlast our mortality. [They] are like monuments that people build to honor heroes after they've died... Only instead of being made of stone, they're made out of the memories people have of you."
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
- Type: Standalone with Complements
- Age Rating: 8+
- Focus: Friendship, Identity, Coming-of-Age
- Goodreads Rating: 4.39 of 5
Still holding fast to the stubborn nature of my childhood, there are many things about which I will never concede that my parents were right and I was wrong. That impulsive haircut I gave myself when I was five? People stared because they were jealous, Mom. That time in preschool when I stuffed all my toys into my Dora the Explorer backpack and declared that I was going to run away forever? I didn’t change my mind because I was scared, I did it because I was hungry and wanted dinner.
But every so often comes a situation that’s black and white, wherein no excuses can be made and wherein I can do little but admit defeat. Picking up Wonder was one of those times.
Hey, I was in the third grade and staunchly refused to buy anything that didn’t have illustrations, or, at the very least, really pretty cover art. R.J. Palacio’s international bestseller, now decorated not in images but in accolades, didn’t even have a synopsis at the back! But my parents insisted I give it a try, so I cracked open its first page and haven’t looked back since.
Wonder follows the story of August Pullman, a young boy with facial anomalies who dives headfirst into not only his first day of middle school, but his first day of public school ever. Anxious but armed with an undyingly supportive family and a big heart, he interacts with all sorts of people, from wise teachers to bullies and kind-but-human classmates. In what may be a pro for some and a con for others, the plot is carried out from a first-person point of view that shifts from one character to the next, capturing varying temperaments, sentiments, and perspectives in a manner that makes the novel, in my perspective, one of the most unique literary treasures of 21st century adolescence.
Although directed towards younger audiences and written from the perspective of a child, readers of all ages are sure to question and reshape their perspectives of the world around them and those in it, as well as learn more than a few valuable lessons in identity, friendship, and living a life beyond the superficial along the way.
5. The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer
"If you spend your whole life worrying about getting hurt, then you aren't really living. You dont want to shield yourself so much from the bad stuff that nothing good gets to you, either.”
Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly
- Type: Series
- Age Rating: 8+
- Focus: Fantasy Fiction, Adventure
- Goodreads Rating: 4.25 of 5 (Book 1)
Upon first glance of his chaotic yet enthusiastic rendition of Beyonce’s Single Ladies on Glee, which has since been rightfully enshrined in cinematic history, it was clear that Chris Colfer was one to keep an eye out for. He, of course, did not disappoint, because less than three years after the iconic episode’s premier came the publication of the first instalment of The Land of Stories, AKA irrefutable proof that, whether it be on the page or on the screen, the young performer would absolutely kill it.
Alex and Conner Bailey, twins who seem to have nothing in common but physical features and their shared love of fairy tales, are the definite amalgamation of everything we could hope for in the adolescent leaders of a fantasy novel: witty, endearing, bright-eyed, and ever-so-easy to root for. The Wishing Spell follows the two as they venture into the most unexpected but sublime of places: a world wherein all their beloved stories… come to life. And in a rush to scavenge the eight ingredients of the spell necessary to return home, they find themselves embroiled in a tale of bipedal frogs and evil queens, broken hearts and fairy tears, and mysterious journals and blurry pasts, learning more about themselves and those around them than they thought there ever was to know.
My journey with The Land of Stories was a rough one: logic was not a mechanism on which my younger self chose to operate, and I ended up insisting on reading the second book before the first because its purple cover looked a lot better to me than the first one’s green one. Once I got everything sorted out, however, I became as much of a “book hugger” as Alex, often stumbling around the house with my nose buried in A Grimm Warning or violently shoving An Author’s Odyssey into a tote bag wherein there was clearly no extra space.
For anyone in need of a home within the pages of a book or even just a simple push to go and find magic in their own lives, Chris Colfer’s masterpiece of a series is the one for you.
6. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
“But the more I focused on my interests, the more it brought out things I liked about myself."
Courtesy of Paper Plus
- Type: Series
- Age Rating: 7+
- Focus: Family, Friendship, Identity
- Goodreads Rating: 4.25 of 5 (Book 1)
There are various reasons for which Smile is a rather unique addition to this list. For one, it is autobiographical; its storyline is based on real events that took place in the author’s life, and it therefore doesn’t quite follow the usual progression from introduction to climax to resolution that others do. Second, it is actually a graphic novel, with each page filled with enough adorable illustrations and hilarious dialogues to entice even the polar opposites of bookworms.
Lastly, and in large part for the second reason, it was the book to have back when I was in elementary school. Over here in the Philippines, landing a physical copy was more difficult than scoring yourself a role in the main cast of our school’s annual Christmas Play. Only one of my classmates managed to get her hands on one, and once she finished with it, I vividly remember the class writing up a sign-up sheet so we could each take it home with us for three days and devour it.
In general, Smile tells of the day-to-day life of author and main character Raina Telgemeier, a normal eleven-year-old who finds herself stumbling down a long path of dentistry and orthodontics after an accident knocks out her two front teeth. Along with her recovery, Telgemeier gives readers a glimpse into her familial, platonic, and blossoming romantic relationships, never once shying away from all the awkward and cringeworthy bits that are so distinctively middle school.
Smile, to me, is the epitome of a comfort read and the manifestation of a hug from your past self. I find myself returning to its pages even as I prepare to graduate high school (truthfully, more so nowadays, being an official #SentiSenior), and whenever I do, I can’t help but reminisce on the first time I read it and reflect on how much times have changed since then. It’s perfect whether indoors in the winter with a cup of hot cocoa or out in a hammock with a glass of cold, summery lemonade; whether in need of perking up or of cooling down; and whether you’re out for a lighthearted coming-of-age tale or a reminder of the importance of not taking life too seriously.
7. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
"I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn’t want to belong."
Courtesy of Culture Project
- Type: Standalone
- Age Rating: 13+
- Focus: Identity, Coming-of-Age
- Goodreads Rating: 3.68 of 5
Alright, in all honesty, this isn’t exactly a “childhood” read of mine, since I’d literally never heard of it until I was forced to pick it up last year as part of my AP Literature curriculum. Because we were tasked with reorganising its vignettes in a manner that highlights a particular theme and explaining the new arrangement in an essay, I even largely disliked it at first, and probably spent more than a healthy number of hours cursing its name into the dark sky of an all-nighter.
Getting over my petulance was what ultimately allowed me to approach the text with an open mind, and it was then that I learned to appreciate its plot and embrace what I had initially cast aside as “weird.” Over the course of forty-four non-chronological vignettes, The House on Mango Street, based in part on the personal experiences of author Sandra Cisneros, follows the coming of age of Esperanza Cordero, a young Mexican-American from Chicago who struggles with her own identity in its various aspects: name, race, age, gender, sexuality, language, economic class, and more.
While the writing is, at times, rather ambiguous, and the shifting timelines may be slightly confusing, The House on Mango Street is a work I would recommend to anyone, particularly those who relate with or wish to know more about the lingering effects of postcolonialism and of the struggles that come with feeling as if you can only be valued and worthy if you manage to fit yourself into society’s neat little box.
It is important to note, however, that, despite its juvenile language and point of view, this work is not lighthearted. It deals with real-world issues including, but not limited to, racism, sexism, and sexual assault, and I strongly advise anyone considering giving it a try to first consult the provided list of trigger warnings.
To all the readers out there who fell in love with fictional lands, the crispness of a new paperback, and the smell of old books, with the Rory Gilmores and Hermione Grangers and Elizabeth Bennets of the world, and with the feeling of finding a home in a thousand different places, as well as to those who still hope to fall or need to fall once more, I hope that on this list is a work that brightens your day, makes you question what you know, or even changes your life.