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What 17 Adults Learned From Rereading Their Favorite Childhood Books

It's never too late to go back.

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1. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I think the mark of a truly great book for kids is that it seems, in retrospect, so rich or subtle or smart that it must have been wasted on your tiny child brain. That's how I felt rereading The Golden Compass (for, I think, the third or fourth time). It doesn't run dry; it always has more to offer than I realized the last time I read it. Pullman's world is magical and gorgeous (The shape-shifting daemons! The hot-ass witches! The father figure who just happens to be a talking polar bear!) and not at all safe. You can't tell exactly who's good or bad, because they don't quite know themselves. Parents lie, children die, and Lyra's reward, in the end, isn't being transported home to live happily ever after. It's just walking alone into a vast, unknowable new universe. I mean, that's deep shit for adults, let alone 11-year-olds. But the thing about 11-year-olds is that they know when they're being told a story that's generous with its goods, and they remember it, and they keep coming back. —Rachel Sanders

2. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

There is a very good chance that I have read Harriet the Spy 12 or 13 times. I was an obsessive rereader, especially when I was younger, and I would return to my favorite books the way some people return to their favorite order at McDonald's. This is why I was pretty much floored to see how much I missed during those first dozen or so readings. There's the contextual stuff, for one thing: So much of what Harriet observes is about money and class, even if she herself only faintly acknowledges this in passing. She doesn't yet have the lexicon for it, like so much of her emotional life. Her family owns an entire brownstone on the Upper East Side, employs a nanny and a cook, and sends Harriet to a private school where she is one of something like eight kids in her class. When I was small, this seemed normal, a viable way for someone to live; now that I live here (and, in fact, once sublet a practically windowless basement apartment around the corner from the Welschs' fictional home), it's far more striking, and not at all neutral.

The other thing I missed, that maybe I too didn't quite have the language for at the age of 11, is that in the book Harriet is still becoming who she is. Her notes to herself change timbre even over the course of 200 pages; she's not doing any overt soul-searching (the book's lack of proselytizing is, I think, part of why it's stood up so well) but firming up her edges, figuring out what she does and doesn't want to do, how to work well and write well and live well. Maybe when you are young you see everyone who you admire or want to emulate as fully formed. It's only upon revisiting that you realize maybe they have only a glimmer of an idea of what the hell they should do, and that's fine. —Alanna Okun

3. Matilda by Roald Dahl

Here is a sampling of words that Roald Dahl used in Matilda: skulduggery (page 108), parabola (page 116), pustule (page 120), exalted (page 171), and carbuncle (page 168). So did I read this book as a child, or did I watch the movie and just *think* that I read the book? I honestly don't remember, but what I do know is I still don't know what "skullduggery" means.

One huge LOL while (re?)reading this book though: Miss Honey — the bright, sensible teacher who ADOPTS Matilda as her child at the end of the book — is 23 years old. Twenty three. Years of age. I literally can't keep plants alive. —Erin Chack

4. Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson

Moominvalley in November is my favorite in Tove Jansson's series of whimsically illustrated, perfectly weird books and comics set in the beautiful and imaginary Moominvalley. The books are originally from Finland and in that part of the world (and in Japan), the series is a huge deal — there are theme parks, collectible merchandise, TV and movie adaptations, and they're a part of most people's childhood. How they became such a big part of mine is a little bit of a mystery to me. I think my mom found one of the books at our local used bookstore and once I read one I was hooked.

Moominvalley In November is kind of unusual within the series because the stories usually focus on the Moomin family, but in this book they are at sea, and their house is populated by friends who've traveled to see them. There are six friends in total: the pipe-playing musical vagabond Snufkin, the extremely fussy Hemulen, the conservative Fillyjonk, senile old Grandpa Grumble, Snufkin's mom Mymble, and my favorite — the lonely, reclusive, shy, but secretly magical Toft, who wants desperately to be part of the Moomin family.

I reread this book at least five times as a child and teenager, but it has sat dusty on my shelf for a decade. It is beautiful — moody, evocative, lovingly detailed, and dotted with charming illustrations. I kind of can't believe that I liked this book as a kid, and it makes me give my kid-self and kids in general a bit more credit. It's really a slow-moving, thoughtful book and not at all a page-turner. It is mostly about coping with the complex sensitivities of other creatures, learning to live together, and loving the world around you. Everyone in the book is a bit prickly and broken and, together in someone else's house, they learn to spend time together, to make their own fun, and to feel a little like a family. Maybe this book prepared me for adult life more than I ever realized. —Summer Anne Burton


5. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

I might be going a little further back into childhood than other people, but even though I read it when I was super, super young, I still think Harold and the Purple Crayon is the best book from my childhood. When I was younger, I just really liked that Harold could make up everything he wanted, and was super jealous when he made himself a picnic with nine types of pie. I wanted pie. Now, even though I still want pie, I think there's something more to the book — a tinge of melancholy, wonderment, and curiosity all mixed together. Although sometimes frightened by his own creations, or drawing himself into confusing and isolating situations, Harold ultimately realizes that his life is for him to forge, and him only. It's kind of nice to think that, even in the toughest times, you still have the ability to draw your own path forward. Harold might only be a child, but even now that I am an adult, his story resonates strongly. —Adam Davis

6. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

My memory of reading Alice in Wonderland as a kid is a bit of a blur. I remember enjoying it, and I can still recall the dreams that it influenced, but that's about all. So I decided I'd reread it and see if, as a 23-year-old, I could hold more of it. The edition of Alice in Wonderland that I picked up had an introduction that basically sums up everything you need to know about the book. It said that Alice is known as a children's book but it never really was meant to be. It was written for Lewis Carroll by Lewis Carroll as he dealt with his feelings about religion, overwhelming nostalgia for his childhood, and his obsession with both math and linguistics. It went on to say that it takes a "particular child to feel an attachment to the story." It makes sense, since the story is basically total nonsense at first glance. It seems impossible to me that children actually understand this book. I think they understand that it is fantastic. The characters are vivid and magical and the structure is constantly changing, which makes it fun to read. But I imagine the book feels more like a giant inkblot of color. As an adult, I was able to pull a bit more out of the story, but still felt as though the book had layers I would need more readings to unlock. —Mackenzie Kruvant

7. Claudia and the Sad Goodbye by Ann M. Martin

I was obsessed with The Baby-Sitters Club as a kid. I chose this one to reread because I remember going back to it the most. I connected with Claudia and the closeness she had with her grandmother, and her grief at losing her at such a young age. Losing my gran was something I was incredibly afraid of, and she died when I was 10. I think reading this book at the time helped me feel a lot less alone. Revisiting it, all I could think at first was how bad the writing was. But then, as the book delved into the aftermath of Mimi's death, I was struck by how realistic the depiction of grief was, and how I could relate to aspects of it now. It was like getting a hug from an old friend. —Jenna Guillame

8. The Twits by Roald Dahl

I read everything by Roald Dahl as a kid and he was definitely my favorite author growing up, but The Twits was probably my favorite book because the humor was so out there and dark and grotesque, which I wasn't too used to seeing as a kid. I loved the part in the beginning when the narrator explained that Mrs. Twit used to actually be pretty but, because she thought mean thoughts, her ugly personality eventually shaped her physical appearance. It always stuck with me that a negative mind-set will change you more than you could ever expect. Rereading the book, I love how it deviates from traditional story structure — nearly half of the book is Mr. and Mrs. Twit being mean to each other via a set of elaborate and fantastic pranks, and then the narrator pretty much says, "OK, so enough of that," and the story shifts to become this awesome revenge tale involving Mr. Twit's caged monkeys. Everything about this book is so creative and risky and hilarious. I still have no idea how Dahl came up with half of these ideas, but I sure am grateful he did. —Julia Pugachevsky


9. Frederick by Leo Lionni

When I was a tiny kid, my parents used to read me Frederick by Leo Lionni, the story of a dreamy, sleepy-eyed mouse who lives in a group of mice who are more industrious and task-focused than he is. As they're busily preparing for the winter by gathering nuts and grain, Frederick appears to be lazing around, not helping. Frederick tells the other mice that he's busy storing things in his imagination to help them get through the winter, but they scoff at him. As the winter months pass and their supplies run out, it's Frederick's stories about colors and the sun and the seasons passing that get them through. As a child, I loved Lionni's sweet, cut-out illustrations, but I think the message also spoke to me. I was probably going to be more of a storyteller than a harvester. Years later, my girlfriend was pregnant, and we were trying to decide what to name the baby — a boy fetus — when he was born. Our friends had a million suggestions, and we went through baby-name books and websites — it's a pretty fun part of having a kid. One day, my mother-in-law sent us an email that said, "What about Frederick?" And that was basically it: We loved it, Frederick was born on Aug. 18, 2010, and when we took him home and got him settled, I read him Frederick as his first book. We still read it to him all the time. And now when it gets to the end, and the other mice say to him, "But Frederick, you're a poet!" Frederick knows that it's his turn to say the last line: "I know it." —Kate Aurthur

10. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar & Six More by Roald Dahl

As a child, I probably read this book at least once every six months. I loved it so much, and in retrospect, I think it may have been because I truly believed that every one of Dahl's stories was real. Possibly it could be because they're mainly all written in first person, or maybe it was because of his matter-of-fact tone. Either way, I honesty believed that I could see through cards if I tried hard enough. Though rereading the book now, I was sad to find that I didn't enjoy it quite as much. Sure, it was a fun read and I didn't dislike it, but I've come to the realisation that (unpopular opinion alert?) Dahl is a great storyteller, but isn't that great a writer (though maybe it's just a style of writing I'm not used to). Henry Sugar is a great book for kids but I definitely wouldn't say that it's on par with some of his other great and classic works.Jemima Skelley

11. The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

I first read The Egypt Game during my later elementary school years as a child with a vivid imagination, so the main thing I remembered was that it was a group of kids who had a fantastical journey in ancient Egypt. As I reread it almost 20 years later, I realized the premise I so clearly remembered was a totally exaggerated memory. It's really a story about finding friends in unexpected places (in this case the elaborate fictional Egypt the motley crew of six created), encouraging curiosity, and celebrating individuality. It's a story kids of all ages can get something out of, and one I can only believe my 11ish-year-old brain absorbed on some level to allow me to hold it in such high regard all of these years. —Erica Futterman

12. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I read it for the first time when I was 9 or 10 and I remember being so in love with it that I cried when I finished it, because I didn't want it to be over. I'm not sure what exactly appealed so much to me — I think the idea of a mysterious package showing up and sending me on an adventure with a talking dog was a Big Deal at the time. Rereading it, what I was surprised at was how vivid and distinct the voice for each character is in my head. Normally, when I read, I read character voices in slightly different pitches of my own voice; for The Phantom Tollbooth, I have a couple different actors and actresses going on. It's weird! And delightful! I still love it so much — I had forgotten how funny it is, and how it balances how sad reality can sometimes be with how important hope and courage are. I'm glad I still like it, or the tattoos of Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason I got last month would be a little bit of a bummer. —Kaye Toal


13. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

I read Bridge to Terabithia for the first time in the third grade, and its distinction then was that it was the first book to make me cry. I assumed, remembering the general scope of the plot, that I would finish the book a little teary-eyed, think about it fondly for a moment, and move on. In reality, I had to excuse myself from the train one stop early because I was worried my sobbing was causing a scene.

How did I understand death as an 8-year-old? Not how was it possible, but in what manner did I comprehend it? I would have guessed as an abstraction, the sort of ever-present reward (or threat) promised to good (or bad) Catholic kids. But this wasn't just death; it was loss. A person was there, and then she wasn't, and I remembered, as rereading, that I was angry when I first read it because: how pointless. And it still is pointless — death, life, all of it — but somewhere along the line I'd come to believe that this was learned knowledge. But I knew that shit back in 1994, when I read a book about a girl who died for no reason other than the fact that the rope was weak, the river was deep, and her friend wasn't there to help her. So I guess what I'm saying is that when I reread my favorite childhood book as an adult and felt basically the same way, I realized either that a) children have a remarkable capacity for processing loss, or b) none of us do. —Arianna Rebolini

14. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

I first read Anne of Green Gables when I was 12. I found in Anne a kindred spirit. Like her I was overly talkative and I had had my share of imaginary friends. She was the first heroine with whom I ever identified. Reading it today was like catching up with a childhood friend but I also realized how brilliant this novel is. It allows young readers to identify with Anne and older readers to be entertained and delighted by her imagination and wits. And Gilbert Blythe is still charming as fuck.Marie Telling

15. The BFG by Roald Dahl

I loved Roald Dahl so much growing up but The BFG was my absolute favorite. I didn't remember a lot about the plot of this book before rereading but I did remember the first chapter when we first see the BFG vividly — the dark, warped streets, the BFG with his trumpet and suitcase, and the little girl getting carried through the night to his cave. In retrospect, it's really wonderful how Dahl is able to accurately capture the way kids see the world at night: full of shadows that make everything look warped and spooky, like it's a completely different world than what exists during the day.

I loved reading his joyful commentary on human behavior but one thing in particular stood out to me when I reread it: Sophie knows the BFG isn't a human but she makes a point of saying he's definitely a person. This, coupled with the fact that the BFG is the only giant who does not eat humans, makes me wonder if these tidbits laid the groundwork for me to become a vegetarian later in life. The BFG is also super liberal with farting and I'm probably too comfortable with bodily functions... can I credit/blame the BFG for my current adult self? Maybe not, but I'm going to. —Chelsea Marshall

16. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

As a kid who spent 85% of my free time doing puzzles, I felt like The Westing Game was made especially for me. It's a "puzzle mystery" revolving around a diverse group of "heirs" who are called to the reading of Samuel W. Westing's will, which turns out to be a game where each team has to analyze a set of clues and solve Westing's murder. I'd forgotten many of the details of the elaborate ending, so I got to marvel again at how everything wraps up so neatly. Rereading it as an adult, I can see that there are plenty of clues hidden throughout the book that guide the reader to a solution, but it still feels like an elegant mystery even now.

Looking back from adulthood, there doesn't seem to be a main character, but when I first read the book it was definitely Turtle. Besides being a young girl, Turtle is everything I wasn't: brash, un-self-conscious, risk-taking (I totally forgot about the stock market action scenes), and liable to kick people in the shins. I admired her, and I loved that she got the best ending.

But what I may have taken for granted when I was younger is the fact that all the characters have surprisingly complex, sympathetic storylines. In some cases we hear the inner dialogues of the characters wishing people wouldn't reduce them to one trait (the Chinese cook who doesn't speak English, the teen birdwatcher in a wheelchair). In retrospect, I appreciate that this book teaches young readers that it's important not to judge people by one characteristic, and that everybody has good qualities and deserves a happy ending.Sarah Willson

17. Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss

I named my first car after Horton, a decision I'm still proud of. The mantra "I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant's faithful 100%" really stuck with me over the years. But I'm a little shocked I had no recollection of the story's darkest moments — while incubating Mayzie's egg, Horton nearly gets shot by hunters before being dragged to a circus. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Seuss' message holds up over time, and I wish I had taken it to heart more growing up. Keep your promises, no matter how outlandish, and pay no mind to those who make fun of you for it. I'm not sure the resulting bird-elephant hybrid baby would stand up to a biology teacher's scrutiny, but it was a damn cute and uplifting way to end a bizarrely sad story. —Julie Kliegman