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It’s entirely normal for books to take on new meanings for us as we age. As we experience more things and our worldviews become our own and not just a reflection of our parents’ or guardians’, we can find that even the stories with seemingly universal themes can hit us differently.
For me, I see this happening in three general categories: First, the books that I couldn’t appreciate fully because I was just too young to grasp the entire message. I grew up in a Catholic family that, compared to others, may have been considered “strict” or “sheltered.” There are many books I have re-experienced as an adult and had that “OH!” moment of realization.
Second, are the books that we loved as kids (or to be fair, may have been told to love) that now as an adult feel weird and manipulative. I included an example in this list of one that has rung true to me — but there are bound to be more.
And third, books that are straight bangers at any age and are worth picking up whether it’s a reread or your first time. I mean, let’s be real. Books are for everyone and all age groups. I hope this list includes some titles you read as a kid that you are willing to dive into again or books that you are interested in no matter your age. Let’s dive in.
The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
When Thomas and his family move into their new home, he can immediately tell there’s something off. Maybe it’s the local legend that it had been a station on the Underground Railroad and some horrible things happened to both the traveling fugitive enslaved people and the owner, Dies Drear. When I first read this in 4th grade, it was the book my class took turns reading aloud in class. We were all focused on the “haunted house” aspect and not the Underground Railroad part. Rereading only a few years later gave a whole new perspective.
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
No matter your age, The Polar Express is an atmospheric read that really puts you in the mood for winter. The illustrations are gorgeous and, in my opinion, the book paints a more vivid picture than the movie. The message rings (ha) true for all ages. I hope that we all never stop hearing the bells.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Taking place during the Great Depression in Flint, Michigan, 10-year-old Bud Caldwell has been in and out of orphanages and foster homes following the death of his mother. He has no idea who his father is, but he believes his mother left a clue: a flyer for the band Herman Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression. After the prospect of a new foster home becomes a reality, he decides to take off on his own in search of Herman and potentially find his family. Bud is a fantastic character and the realities of the Depression (and Hoovervilles) feel even more poignant today.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Growing up, most of us read this story through the lens of unconditional love. Now as adults, this book is worth a reread (or multiple) and seen from a different angle. Reading The Giving Tree got me thinking about the importance of setting boundaries and maintaining those boundaries.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Part of the Logans series (which Taylor based on her own experiences), this installment is easily the most well-known of her works, and it’s a piece of work that stays with you. As you age, you appreciate even more the tenacity and strength of the Logans as a strong Black family during Jim Crow. Our story focuses on 9-year-old Cassie, who is beginning to experience injustice and bullying from her peers and has come to recognize it as racism. After hearing local news of Black villagers being burned, she begins to fear for her family’s safety.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Jess and Leslie are best friends who spend most of their time in the land of Terabithia, an imaginary world they created for themselves. But one day Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess, and he’s forced to come to terms with what this means. When we read this book as a kid, sometimes it’s hard to grasp the themes of loss and grief and friendship, if only because we haven’t had enough life experience to truly relate. (Although it’s worth recognizing that absolutely some children, unfortunately, do experience this.)
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
When I reread this book, I regretted not being able to fully appreciate this book when we read for the first time in elementary school. Also set in Depression era, Esperanza and her family are forced to move from their home to California after a tragedy befalls. Experiencing new things for the first time, including prejudice and financial struggles, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances to be there for her family.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Full disclosure — this book scared me as a kid and I put off reading it for a long time. I reread it in my late teens and completely understood the love that many of my peers had for this book and the rest of the quintet. Told through the perspective of Meg, we learn that her family has been grieving after the disappearance of her father. One night, they are visited by a trio of mysterious women who tell them it’s time to rescue their father.
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono
Kiki is a half-witch, and it’s a rite of passage for young witches to spend a year in a new town and bring her magical services. Along with her cat, Jiji, Kiki sets her sights on the seaside village of Koriko. Unfortunately, she finds that the villagers are suspicious and don’t immediately welcome her into the fold. Despite their misgivings, Kiki settles in and chooses to learn the trade of — you guessed it — a delivery service. Before the Studio Ghibli version, we had this book, and it’s worth reading whether you are interested in anime or not.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
When a pilot wakes up stranded, he meets the titular Little Prince who begins to regale him with tales from his many travels and the lessons he has learned. Considered a classic by many, this book is definitely one that enchants us as children and then takes on different meanings as we get older.