5 Books From Your Childhood That Kick Harry Potter's Ass
The Wild West is one of fiction's greatest frontiers—ever.
I never finished reading the Harry Potter series. My fourth grade teacher read The Sorcerer's Stone aloud to my class when I was 11. The book had just come out, and I jumped on the bandwagon, devouring the novel alongside my classmates. But my excitement waned with each subsequent novel in the series. After reading the fourth installment, I realized that my heart wasn’t in it. The magic of Hogwarts wasn’t the type of enchantment I craved.
The notion of the frontier, the wild west, and the rugged terrain of uncharted territory was much more exciting to a kid who was raised on John Wayne movies and spent her summers exploring the wilderness surrounding her family’s cabin in southwest Utah. The quiet landscape, untamed backcountry, and freedom to roam left a lot of room for a young kid’s imagination to grow. Naturally, books in which nature was a character in its own right were my stories of choice.
So, of course, The Atlantic’s recent headline "Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories" immediately grabbed my attention. More fantastical and magical, perhaps. But better? Though the Atlantic's article lays out a compelling dichotomy between American and British stories, the headline could not have been farther from my experience with literature as a child.
In my rationally biased opinion, here’s a subjective list of five books that prove Americans tell great children’s stories—the greatest children's stories.
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Though I was born and raised in a beach city in southern California, I spent my summers in a log cabin (yes, an actual log cabin) in southwest Utah; so this book resonated with me for obvious reasons. The romanticized descriptions of roughing it on the frontier made me nostalgic for a simpler time and yet made me appreciate modern advancements more than ever (a/k/a toys that were not pig bladders). Most notably, I was inspired by the narrator, a strong female protagonist coming into her own. For me, this nine-book series was the gateway to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, quintessential reading for all American women.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
In this underrated children’s story, 12-year-old Sam runs away from home, a cramped apartment in NYC that he shares with his parents and his eight brothers and sisters, to live on his great-grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskills. As an introverted kid, I strongly identified with the solace Sam took in the solitude of the wilderness. I often longed to retreat into nature to be alone with my own thoughts. This novel let me know that I was not alone in that feeling and let me know that it was okay to embrace and indulge in solitude from time to time, even if it’s not in the wild.
True Grit by by Charles Portis
John Wayne movies were kind of a big part of my childhood, to put it mildly (my brother is named after John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo); so it’s no surprise that this is one of the young adult stories I deem great. But as always, the book is better than the movie. Portis’s True Grit is a pacey westerner featuring a young heroine, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who is determined to avenge her father’s death. When I read True Grit as a kid, the story had all the elements of a great western, gunplay, horses, and outlaws, with the added bonus of featuring a strong female lead. After all, the frontier requires grit from everyone, regardless of gender.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The escapades of Tom Sawyer—swearing blood oaths, frolicking on an island, exploring caves, faking his own death—were fascinating to a kid who always followed the rules. Reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was like glimpsing into what a mischievous childhood could be like; and then reading the parables of why you shouldn’t be like Tom. It goes without saying that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be next on your to-read list after this one.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Nature was never a more apparent and present character than in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The raw power of the wilderness and the primitive behavior it inspires was awe-inspiring in Jack London’s hands. As a young adult, I learned that you can lose your humanity if you measure yourself against nature. I also gained a false sense of security in my survival skill knowledge when Buck learned how to sleep in the snow properly by digging a hole.