There are so many great options for kids out here, and no matter how old I get, there are some books from my past that just stick with me!
When you ask a nineties kid what books they remember, there are countless classics like The Magic School Bus, meme legend Junie B. Jones, and the Boxcar Children! But apparently my early reads were a little more niche apparently, because I rarely see any talk of these texts!
The Shadow Children by Margaret Peterson Haddix
This is the very first series I remember obsessing over when I was young. There are seven books in the series, and I used to agonize over having to wait for them at the elementary school library! I still remember exactly where they were on the shelves because I always came back to them. The librarian used to scold me for trying to check too many (we had a two-book limit for fourth graders -insert exasperation-).
The Shadow Children is a set of books based around the premise of a world where resources are scarce due to a drought and the world's totalitarian powers have limited the amount of children a couple can have to two to conserve resources. Any third children, deemed Shadow Children, are imprisoned or killed by the Population Police.
This is fairly tough topic for a kid, but Peterson Haddix mostly keeps a light tone to the book. It's not overly detailed and there's nothing graphic (the main instance of violence is behind the scenes), but now that I'm older and educated myself on how China inhumanely upheld their policy, it's easier for me to imagine the mindset the author was in when she wrote the book (since she based it off the One-Child Policy).
One of the first scenes in the first book, Among the Hidden, is a boy named Luke coming out of his hidden room and seeing another child in a house he knows already has two children. Shocked at the idea that he's not the only one, he dares to leave his house for the first time in search of another Shadow Child. What he finds is so much more.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
This is something I meticulously attached myself to during my childhood. I have no clue where this book came from. I don't remember my mom buying it, but it's one of the first books I remember seeing around my house. Written in 1960, that makes me think my mom probably picked up from a garage sale for me to discover on our shelf. It's still part of my book collection to this day.
I didn't know this until recently, but Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on a true story of a girl of a young Native American girl stranded on an island. In the book, it's off the coast of California and her name is Won-a-pa-lei or Karana. In real life, according to a Google search and Wikipedia, her name was Juana Maria, and she was stranded for nineteen years on San Nicolas Island (near California).
I remember a lot of the imagery from this book. I haven't read it since I was a kid, but I remember Karana at the top of a cliff, barefoot, looking out into the ocean as a ship comes into to the island where her family live in their village.
The sailors try to swindle the Native Americans out of money for goods that grow on the island, and ultimately most of the Native American men are killed and the women and children rounded up to be taken from their homes and their island. Karana's little brother, in packing, runs to get his spear, and is left behind as the others are corralled onto a ship by the Russian fur hunters. Desperate not to leave Ramo behind, Karana jumps from the ship and swims back to the island where she and her brother are now alone.
I remember it being bittersweet, with hardships and tenderness written throughout. Karana learns to fend for herself on the island, dealing with predators, hunting, fishing, gathering, building shelter and hiding places should the fur trappers return. I remember crying reading this book, for reasons I'll not spoil, and empathizing with Karana as she survives for many years.
It's something I'd definitely like to read again now that I'm older. For some reason, it reminds me a lot John Steinbeck's The Pearl, in the sense that I remember the imagery from that novella more than anything. The canoe and the oyster shucking. I can still remember the description the stringy oysters and the salt water, the heat and sweat. Lots of ocean and nature imagery in both.
Also, they're both white authors writing about cultures they don't belong in, so that's something. (#ownvoices).
Paranoid Park by Blake Nelson
So this one is more YA than middle grade, but I definitely read it when I was really young (so on the nostalgia list it goes). This one used to freak me out, honestly. I wasn't scared, but it a book that I couldn't shake after I read it. It was something that I thought about a lot, even after I forgot the title, and I always wanted to read it again, but it was out of my hands. I discovered it again a few years later.
Paranoid Park is a psychological drama about sixteen year old skateboarder who accidentally kills a security guard while trying to sneak onto a freight train. He hits him in the head with the wheel of his skateboard and the train runs over him as the officer falls.
This book is like being inside of the character's head. It's a dark book that makes me remember it like a storm rolling in over an old, industrial town. Mike spends a lot of book trying to deal with the secret that he killed someone, and with the reality of it. He's afraid of being caught, but also simply afraid of what he did, what it means about him. The imagery of the death is what I remember the most of this book. It's vibrant, something that I'll probably always been able to see in my head.
It's not an easy subject to deal with, but it's well-written. Every time I thought of this book, I was dunked back into that psychological, "noir," tension that comes with the topic and Nelson's writing style. It's gritty, rough, and Mike is a kid that you feel for but probably don't look twice at on the street. Desperate to impress older friends, bending under the weight of fear, he's someone who gets overlooked and boxed in by the choices he makes when he's too young.
Cut by Patricia McCormick
This is one you might remember well! This was featured in my seventh grade library. I can still picture it there on top next to Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.
Released in 2000, Cut is about Callie, a fifteen-year-old girl who cuts herself and lives in a residential, mental health facility. In the beginning, however, Callie never talks. The story is about Callie finding her voice through the help of her friends and her therapist and discovering how to uncover and face the trauma that led to her self-harm.
I keep saying that these books deal with "difficult" topics, but I'm really amazed with the array of issues I understood and read about when I was young. Cut was released at least five years before I ever read it, but it was really relevant to our middle school life. I remember conversations around the lunch table about who cut themselves and who didn't. I never self-harmed, but it opened up the conversation for my friends to share that part with me, for them to feel comfortable enough not to hide it.
So many of my friends self-harmed when I was in middle school; across multiple states and multiple schools, it was a recurring trend. And books like this gave students an outlet to see that they wouldn't be shamed for speaking up about the things they were dealing with.
It was the start of talking about mental health, and that was really really important for me, because I read it the same year I was Googling the symptoms of depression, trying to figure out "what was wrong with me." Cut made it seem like mental health wasn't something that had to be hidden away.
Looking back at these, I'm kind of stunned that I wasn't really reading fantasy or sci-fi in my early days of discovering books. I never read Harry Potter as a kid, or any of Rick Riordan's series. Instead, I was delving deep into a lot of social issues, and they're what I remember the most.
Nowadays, I'm Harry Potter and Percy Jackson literature, and I adore both sci-fi and fantasy, but I find the books that I love the most are the stories that deal with topics that parallel our world, no matter the genre. I love the complexities and the gray areas and the morality struggles. I loved the dystopian girl-power phase (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) that came right after the vampire phase (I'm looking at you Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, Vampire Academy,and, for me at least, Interview with a Vampire).
It makes me wonder how much of my early reading influenced me today. All of the reading trends of my childhood and teen years, when mashed all together, seem to be a blaring red arrow toward my current tastes, but up until now, I've never thought about that before.
Maybe it'll help me discover what kind of books I want to write, and what I want those books to mean. I'm still working on discovering my magnum opus. Fingers crossed that I'll find it soon.
What are the books from your childhood that stick with you the most? What reading phases did you go through? I feel like my tastes are constantly evolving! I'd love to hear about some of yours!