Grown Up Lessons I Learned From My Favorite Children’s and YA Books

Recently, Laura Sackton wrote a great post about childhood favorites that lose their magic over time. And while I definitely agree that some books from childhood just don’t hold up in the daylight of your adult days, I have also found a wealth of knowledge and insight that I return to year after year in the pages my favorite childhood and teenage books.

I’m the woman who rereads her favorite childhood books once every two years or so to see which lessons they reveal to me at this time and in this place of my life. One author I turn to whenever I need that feeling of comfort and wisdom is Cynthia Voigt. So I am going to start this list with a shout out to my personal childhood and teenage author fav:

Loving yourself and, more importantly, enjoying being yourself, is critical to making it in this cold world. My absolute favorite book from my teenage years is Cynthia Voigt’s Come A Stranger. To this day, my mind boggles that a middle aged white woman from New England managed to pen such a captivating coming of age story about a young Black woman in 1980s Maryland, but she did. As a teenager, I felt intimately connected to the story’s protagonist, Mina Smiths. She’s a gregarious firecracker of a human who struggles through the typical coming-of-age angst plus the added pressure of feeling like a token in the mostly white world of ballet, to which she aspires. Mina learns over the course of the book how to overcome the reality of a world that is simultaneously captivated by her and determined to break her spirit. If that’s not a metaphor for being Black in America, I don’t know what is. In the end, she learns not only to love herself, but to delight in herself, to embrace the fullness of who she is, and to soar when people would ask her to crawl. Mina is my forever hero, and even in my mid-30s I return to Come A Stranger from time to time as a reminder to myself that thriving in this world is centered on self-love, the only place from which an abiding love for others can grow.

There are times when you have to leave the places and people you’ve always known to find your own happiness. Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson won a Newbery award in 1981, and this masterfully rendered story deserved every accolade the ’80s and ’90s could give it. The story centers Sara Louise and her fraternal twin sister, Caroline. The title alludes to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, in which God basically chooses favorites and hates Esau (for real, the Bible says God hated this man). Sara Louise is the Esau of this twin scenario. The things that Caroline does to her twin sister throughout the book are foul. And don’t even get me started on Sara Louise’s best friend, Call—complete trash. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Sara Louise has to find her own way, her own life, her own triumphs, her own failures, and she has to stop comparing herself to her sister to chart her own path. When Sara Louise leaves behind a community that sees her only as the foil to her shining sister, she does so out of a feeling of desperation, but she is also doing what too many of us never manage to do: she is choosing herself. She does some wandering and that wandering leads her to a life so different from the one she once had and anything she imagined for herself that it’s not until the last page of the book that she realizes that she’s made herself free. As she is looking up at the night sky, wondering at nature and her life, from the depths of her memory, she can hear the sound of her sister’s voice singing and finally, it’s okay that it is beautiful. Chills, all chills.

You’re not going anywhere if you don’t know where you come from. When you do, you can fly. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales was required reading in my house. I read those gorgeously illustrated stories more times than I can count. Thank goodness for writers like Virginia Hamilton, who spent their careers telling the stories of Black people to children. In so doing, she was giving Black children like me something we didn’t even know we needed: access to our own rich cultural heritage.

Sometimes, the only person to do the job is you. When I talk to non–Harry Potter fans (gasp, they do exist) I always tell them about the moment in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry is attacked by the dementors in the Forbidden Forest. For me, it is one of the most profoundly adult moments in all of the HP books (and this is way before the dark turn we take in Goblet of Fire). Harry is in the forest being attacked by dementors, which utterly terrify him, and out of nowhere, the ghost of his father appears and saves him with a stag patronus. Cool. Fast forward and Harry is time traveling and he sees this moment happening from a distance, looking at himself being attacked, he is horrified when no one comes to his rescue, because he knows the ghost of his father saved him. Watching himself on the edge of death and realizing that he has no other choice, Harry conjures a stag patronus and saves his past self. It’s an amazing moment. I have cried almost every time I’ve read that passage and when those moments happen in my real life, when I’ve looked around waiting for some adult to intervene, someone else to save the day and they don’t come, I remember Harry. It’s a dark time in America, a time when children are being caged, families are being separated, gun violence has reached a fever pitch, and our civil rights are being eroded daily. Sometimes it can be tempting to look around, waiting for someone else to step up and fix things. But we must have the courage to be the heroes (or the change) we want to see in the world.

You need a squad. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and its sequel Let The Circle Be Unbroken were the books for the elementary and middle school aged Black girls in the early ’90s. The fact that those books were written eight and four years before I was born, respectively, speaks not only to their amazing writing, but also the dearth of authors of color in the national publishing scene then and now. Anyhoo, my major takeaway from the Logan family is that sometimes, to do seemingly impossible things, you need a team of people on your side. You need the folks you came with not just to maintain, but to thrive. I don’t believe in self-made people (maybe in part because of all the times I was read this book as a child); families, friends, and communities build success.

Maniac MageeMake Way for Ducklings, The Egypt Game, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and the list goes on. I can think of a million more books from my school days that still speak to me. The magic of childhood favorites is not only the joy they gave us then, but the ways they continue to whisper lessons and truths into our adult lives. Even if you’re not a rereader of books, I would encourage you to peek back into the classics that brought you joy as a young person and consider how their beautiful illustrations, thoughtful characters, or incredible adventures have shaped your life.