abel's island, children's books, daniel keyes, flowers for algernon, gertrude warner, literature, mrs frisby and the rats of nimh, robert c. obrien, shel silverstein, T5W, the boxcar children, Top 5 Wednesday, where the sidewalk ends, william steig
Some Honorable Mentions that didn’t make the cut: The Berenstain Bears series, The Girl with the Silver Eyes and Swiss Family Robinson.
Henry (14), Jessie (12), Violet (10), and Benny (7) are orphans. Instead of moving in with their grandfather, who is rumored to be frightening and cruel, the four siblings run away to live in and have adventures around the eponymous boxcar.
Y’all, I LOVED this series when I was little, perhaps because I’ve always been independent and a lover of nature. Violet (the sensitive one) was always my favorite, but the youngest, Benny, made me laugh and Henry (the oldest) seemed mad studly when I was a kid. The only character I didn’t much like was Jessie, who draws a pretty close parallel to Susan from The Chronicles of Narnia; she’s mature, motherly and…boring.
There are bits of the first book that are still bright in my memory. The kids going to the dump for household/boxcar necessities is particularly vivid. I’ve been known to dumpster-dive myself, perhaps because Benny found a cracked pink porcelain cup when he went that I have frankly coveted since I was little.
Throughout the series (or at least throughout the ten or so that I read as a child), the siblings support and protect each other. And when they finally meet their grandfather (Violet gets sick, so they have to go to adults for help), they find that he is not only kind, but also rich. RICH! So he moves their beloved boxcar to the backyard of his mansion and only infrequently pops in after to give the kids presents and gentle, loving advice.
Talk about wish-fulfillment! Ugh! These are the luckiest orphans around!
I read this book at age 10, by flashlight, in my tent at Boy Scout summer camp. I couldn’t sleep because it was raining and because my tent was leaking. I could have asked for help or migrated to a drier tent, but I’ve always preferred to “deal” with my problems myself. So I huddled in the one dry corner available to me, abandoning my sleeping bag inch by inch to the growing dirty puddle in the center of my waterlogged tent, and read about Mrs. Nimh, a widowed field mouse, and her desperate attempts to save her family from Dragon the farm cat and Mr. Fitzgibbon’s apocalyptic plow.
The plot is really imaginative – it centers on lab rats that, because of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), are intelligent enough to have developed a literate and technological society under a rose bush. O’Brien was inspired by experiments that occurred at the real-life Institute between the 1940s and 1960s.
This is a great book for any child, but I think the precocious ones might especially appreciate the rats’ struggle to thrive in an environment that doesn’t understand them or their genius. Plus, there’s a (nominally) friendly owl – my favorite character!
Flowers for Algernon began its literary life as a short story published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Keyes then expanded it into a novel that was published in 1966. Both iterations won various awards.
The novel chronicles the parallel experiences of Charlie, an adult janitor with an IQ of 68, and Algernon, a lab rat at at Beckmann College Center. Both undergo an experimental new treatment (Charlie is the first human subject) and achieve startling increases in their intelligence. Algernon races through his mazes. Charlie learns to read and write. As they both progress, Charlie begins to realize that the bakery workers who he thought were his friends actually only demean and ridicule him. His intelligence brings a stark loss of innocence, especially when Algernon’s intelligence eventually regresses and the rat abruptly dies.
I won’t ruin the ending, but let me tell you: it’s not a happy one. Though there are some adult themes in this book (Charlie develops a sex drive as his intelligence increases), it is the heartbreaking ending that makes me think this book is more appropriate for teenagers than children. Plus, this is a great tool for helping teens expand their empathy and appreciate their blessings. Themes include society’s treatment of the mentally handicapped and intellect’s impact on happiness. Stark, yes, but also beautiful.
William Steig’s middle-grade book, a kind of Robinson Crusoe for children, was published in 1976 and promptly won a Newberry Honor. It’s a rousing thriller about a pampered mouse named Abel who, chasing his wife’s silk scarf during a freak storm, is swept by the rising water to a deserted island.
Upon crawling from the roaring river, Abel must teach himself how to survive a long, brutal winter without any help and very few resources. In addition to the basics (food, shelter, warmth), Abel must also contend with a massive and genuinely terrifying owl. Through it all, even though his own fine clothes are reduced to rags, Abel takes scrupulous care of his darling wife’s scarf so that he might return it to her once he gets back home.
This book is charming and sweet. Abel is a strong role model for children: relatable, kind and (eventually) hard-working. If you’re looking for an uplifting read with a happy ending, this book is for you!
I debated all the other entries for this list, but Shel Silverstein was locked in as #1 from the minute I saw the topic. I can’t think of any other books I reread as often or enjoyed as much as Silverstein’s when I was a child.
The illustrations are a big part of the appeal, as is the generally simple vocabulary and fun, driving rhythms. This is a great book to read to children – it’ll make them laugh. But it’s also a good choice for young kids to read by themselves. The rhyme scheme often helps with pronunciation of larger words.
This is my favorite of Silverstein’s books, but any of them would make great gifts to the young or young at heart! Fair warning, though: The Giving Tree will make everyone in the family cry. Hell, it’ll make the whole neighborhood cry!