What a time it is to be a children’s book author in the United States.
A lot of people are talking about children’s books these days. Not, unfortunately, about how children’s literature is absolutely booming with creativity, diversity, boldness, and ideas—which it is—but instead because book banning is once again en vogue in the worst parts of society, for all the worst reasons. It’s neither difficult nor particularly interesting to discern what’s motivating proponents of book banning: the political power derived from stoking moral outrage, the chance to bully and threaten anybody they don’t like while pretending it’s about protecting children, and the fear that their children might read something that will make them think, “Wow, my parents are astonishingly bigoted and have very bad ideas about many things.”
It’s unfortunate that children’s literature only makes the news when people are being terrible about it. I think it changes the way we talk about children’s books, and not for the better. When we’re forced to defend books with diverse characters by insisting it does kids good to see themselves in literature, we’re overlooking the value of seeing characters nothing like themselves too. When we’re forced to defend darker, more mature subject matter by referencing how many kids experience similar challenges in real life, we’re overlooking the value of letting kids read about things that haven’t happened to them and might never happen, but still expand their understanding of the world and the people in it. When we’re forced to defend against charges of grooming or indoctrination—well, many of us pour a very large drink and cry, because there is only so much stupid cruelty anybody can take.
It’s regrettable that people who hate children’s literature so often define the terms by which we talk about it, because I think there is a fascinating conversation to be had about the ways children’s books influence and change young readers.
Because they do. Of course they do. Everything we read, at any age, influences us. Changes us. Introduces us to new ideas. Generates new emotions and thoughts. Rewires previously comfortable pathways in our minds. And it keeps happening, over and over again, as we grow and mature and change.
The fact that books change us shouldn’t be scary. It isn’t scary, not unless you are terrified of other people, such as your children, having ideas that you cannot control. Sometimes it’s unsettling, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable. It’s very rarely straightforward. But it’s also splendid, because while we only ever get to live one human life, books offer up infinite experiences to anybody who goes looking. We should be able to talk about this—about ourselves and about young readers—in a way that isn’t dictated by idiots who believe that a picture book about an anthropomorphized crayon represents society’s worst degeneracy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the books I read as a child that still resonate with me today, the books that contain certain scenes or arcs that I still think about, decades later, because of how deeply they impacted me. And I’m not talking about issue-centered books that book-banners are so afraid of. Sure, I read Number the Stars and The Slave Dancer and Maniac McGee, and I took pride in scouring the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books to find new things to read, because I was an extremely bookish ’80s child of a schoolteacher growing up in a house full of heady sci-fi and fantasy, ponderous literary classics, outrageous teen horror, and Scholastic paperbacks.
But, let’s be real, I mostly wanted to read books about people having exciting, strange, mysterious, or magical adventures. That’s still mostly what I want to read and write as an adult, so I like to think about the lasting and unexpected ways they influenced me when I was young. I talk about a few of them below: not just the books that got their claws in and never let go, but the specific scenes that I still think about years later. These are stories full of fairies, dragons, space travel, time travel, battles between good and evil—and much-needed insight into being a person in this world that awkward tween me, braces and uncombed hair and bad attitude and all, didn’t even know she was looking for.
[Note: This list contains a lot of spoilers for books and series that have been widely read for decades…]
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
This 1974 book is an adaptation of the story of Tam Lin, set in the 1550s, about a teen girl named Kate, who is a lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth. The book begins as Kate is sent into a genteel sort of exile because of some political foolishness on the part of her younger sister. But this is not a story about court politics. It’s a story about fairies and how strange and terrifying they can be.
It would probably be categorized as YA if it were published now, because today’s marketing categories would not allow a children’s book to feature a romance that leads to an engagement. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s perfectly suitable for younger readers (and modern publishing’s perspective on the role of romance in stories is deeply flawed, to literature’s detriment, but let’s not get into that right now). It’s a moment regarding this romance that I still find myself thinking about as particularly influential on tween me, some thirty-plus years after I first read it.
At the very end of the novel, after Kate has escaped the fairy realm, rescued her very grumpy Tam Lin, and returned to the mundane world, she does not expect a romantic happily-ever-after, because romances don’t like look whatever she and her love interest have going on. She didn’t save him with fierce devotion alone, after all; she saved him by making fun of him so much that his annoyance broke the fairy spell (#couplegoals). And the Queen of the Fairies, who has been thwarted but not defeated, takes advantage of this, as fairies as wont to do, by offering Kate a love spell.
Kate refuses, because she knows that love must be freely given to be genuine, and almost immediately she realizes that the Lady was not offering a gift at all. It was both a test and a subtle act of revenge. The love is requited, Kate is going to get what she wants—but if she had accepted the love spell, she would have believed it all to be a magical lie. The test she passed, but the revenge she denied.
I think about that a lot not just because it’s a fabulous way to end the book, but because of the sheer insidiousness of what the Lady was offering. I didn’t realize it at the time, when I was a kid, but over the years I have thought a lot about what it says about powerful people who will offer what is not theirs to give, what is perhaps not even in their ability to give, and what it means when they call those gifts generosity when they are, in truth, only a form of control.
Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
This is the first book in a four-book series about a bored princess who runs away from home to get herself kidnapped by dragons, becomes embroiled in dragon politics, meets many strange and interesting people, marries the eccentric king of an enchanted forest, keeps having more adventures, and finally raises a son to send off on adventures of his own.
This is lighthearted fantasy humor at its finest: embracing all the tropes and trappings of fairy tale fantasy, while also poking fun at them in a way that is never snide, always loving. I reread this one the other day, because I was thinking about the premise—bored princess runs away because she hates boring princess things—and wondering why I didn’t remember it as a tiresome example of that pervasive plague of the 1990s: Not Like Other Girls Syndrome. I’m not sure I would have noticed as a tween, and I wanted to see if my memories of the book had been softened by rose-tinted nostalgia.
To my delight, I discovered that it is more or less exactly as I remember. It turns out that even the not like other girls aspect of the story is part of the deliberate subversion. As Princess Cimorene settles into her new life and meets more and more people, it becomes clear that chafing against the expectations and roles assigned by society is something shared by all kinds of people.
This is especially obvious when Cimorene makes friends with another princess “captive,” Alianora. While Cimorene has fought her entire life against being a perfect princess, Alianora has spent her entire life struggling to be a perfect princess—and both of them have failed in the eyes of their society, just as the knights and princes who don’t want to kill dragons are also failures in this social system. It’s a friendly, silly moment in the story, but it still struck me with the realization that no matter what you do to fit in, no matter how hard you try to please, somebody is going to disapprove. So you should just do what you want.
I read this book when I was in middle school, which was, for a thirteen-year-old girl growing up in a 1990s hotbed of toxic American Evangelicalism, essentially a noxious stew of nothing but pressure to fit into predefined roles. It was so reassuring to read a book in which the problem is not with the girls themselves, only with the pressure to fit into roles that do not suit them and do not make them happy. The fact that it did this in such a fun way, without any of the ponderous self-seriousness of an Afterschool Special, only made it better.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
This book was many people’s gateway drug into big-ideas, high-concept SFF, and let us not forget how gloriously weird it is. It is so incredibly weird! Some kids travel across space to an alien planet with the help of some old ladies who are actually stars to rescue their dad from a pulsating psychic brain amidst a cosmic fight between good and evil? Sure, why not.
But even more that the weirdness, what I’ve always loved most is the wonderful creepiness that underlies the story. The very first line is, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but it goes so far beyond Meg Murry feeling furiously sorry for herself in her bedroom. (Which was so relatable to angry tween me!) (And adult me.) The one scene that has always stuck in my mind is the walk through the neighborhood when the kids first arrive on Camazotz.
What they find on this alien planet is a nightmare version of suburbia. A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, and suburban tract housing evolved in the 1940s following WWII, so neighborhoods of the sort found on this evil planet were barely older than the story’s main characters at the time. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin walk through this neighborhood, where every house looks the same, every child skips rope or bounces a ball to the same rhythm, and every mother opens the front door to call every kid home at the exact same time, in the exact same way.
The extreme conformity is unsettling, yes, but it steps up a notch when one kid fumbles his ball and runs inside before retrieving it. When our characters knock on the door to return the ball, the mother and son respond with a powerful, visceral, bone-deep fear. Meg and the boys don’t understand this fear yet, but they recognize it and know it’s a symptom of something very, very bad.
And that’s why it’s such a powerful scene: because the reader is right there with them, not yet understanding, but still feeling the dread of what it means. When I first read this book, I certainly did not comprehend L’Engle’s complex religious and philosophical thoughts on the nature of good and evil, but, boy oh boy, did I ever get the message that absolute conformity enforced by suffocating fear for what anybody claims is the “greater good” is a really bad thing.
A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond
This 1976 novel tells the story of a family that moves to Wales in the aftermath of their mother’s death, where the children become magically connected to the legendary bard Taliesin. It’s an odd fantasy story in many ways, because it’s not quite a time travel book, really, nor is it quite a portal fantasy, but it has elements of both.
The story focuses particularly on teenaged Jen, who joins her family in Wales for the Christmas holiday only to find them more or less in emotional shambles, and on middle child Peter, the one who accidentally stumbles upon a time-bending magical artifact. Their family is not doing well. Their father buries himself in his work; Jen is thrown immediately into a caretaking role that she rightfully finds frustrating and overwhelming; Peter is deeply depressed and copes by lashing out and isolating himself; and their younger sister Becky is trying very hard to make the most of things, which is no easy task when all of the older people in your life are miserable all the time.
About halfway through the book the family reaches its emotional nadir; they’re all frustrated, hurt, and pulling in different directions, without any real idea how to get through it. They spend a night home together during a fierce winter storm, during which they see strange lights on the bog of Cors Fochno. Only Peter knows that what they are seeing is a battle that took place on the bog more than a thousand years ago, and he knows nobody will believe him if he tells them. But there is no denying that they all see it, as do their neighbors and other townspeople. It’s an eerie, unsettling scene, with the strained quietness of an unhappy family witnessing an oddity they want to rationalize away, clashing with Peter’s magic-bestowed knowledge of a terrible battle—knowledge that he clings to so fiercely it’s pulling him away from his real life.
It’s a turning point in the story, and it has always stuck with me precisely because it’s a moment that is shared. The three children, their father, the neighbors who have welcomed them, and the village in which they don’t quite fit, they all witness it together: lights in the darkness, fires where none should be, shadows in a storm that came from nowhere. It’s a step toward breaking down the terrible loneliness the main characters are suffering, in the form of an ancient myth come to life.
I don’t know if the book ever uses the word depression, and it certainly doesn’t use words like parentification and emotional labor, but those elements are all there, even if the vocabulary isn’t. When I first read it, I wasn’t thinking about using fantasy to tell very real stories about very real problems in children’s lives. I didn’t realize it was talking about things I wanted to talk about—even though I didn’t relate to their circumstances precisely—without knowing how to do that. But in retrospect it’s obvious that’s why it appealed to me.
The Grey King by Susan Cooper
Combined with the above, this book convinced me early in childhood that Wales is obviously a magical place, and thirty-some years later I’ve not been dissuaded from that belief. This is the fourth book in Cooper’s Arthurian-Celtic-English-Welsh-Norse-folkloric-mixed-bag The Dark Is Rising sequence, and it’s my favorite of them, because the dog dies.
That makes me sound like a monster. Let me explain.
Series protagonist Will Stanton, who in The Dark Is Rising learns that he is a warrior in the eternal battle between good and evil and handles it with rather more equanimity than most eleven-year-olds would, is sent off to his aunt’s farm is Wales to recover from a serious illness. There he meets Bran Davies, a strange, lonely local boy whose only friend is his dog, Cafall. (If you know your canine pals from folklore, that name might ring a bell.) The boys get caught up in said ongoing battle between good and evil, and there are a lot of escalating magical encounters, culminating in a horrifying scene where, via some magical trickery, the forces of evil delude some local men into thinking Cafall has slaughtered a sheep right before their eyes. One of these men, the local asshole Caradog Prichard, shoots the dog to death right in front of Bran and Will and everybody else.
When I read this as a kid, I wasn’t shocked because the dog got killed. The dog always dies in classic children’s literature! No, what stood out to me was how thoroughly nasty the whole ordeal is in such an ordinary, unmagical way. There might be magical trickery involved, but the sadism and self-satisfaction that drives Prichard to kill a beloved dog right in front of its eleven-year-old owner is entirely human. When talking to Will about it afterward, a neighbor explains the history of hatred between the families involved; it’s a history that involves an attempted rape, a violent assault, and years of seething jealousy. Men like Prichard don’t need to be active agents of the forces of evil, because they’re all too willing to do evil’s work of their own volition, without even being asked.
There another thing that’s always struck me about this scene and its aftermath, and that’s the fact that Bran Davies, like Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, is allowed to be angry. Not angry in the way that fictional children are temporarily permitted in the face of wrongdoing, as part of learning a lesson, but angry in a wild and selfish way, lashing out at the wrong people, wielding their hurt as weapons. That was a powerful thing to read as a child who was often very angry and was just as often told not to be so emotional about everything.
Now, with the benefit of a few more decades of life experience, I recognize that kids often have very good reasons to be angry. I’m glad I had books to tell me that was okay long before anybody ever said it to me in person.
The books we read as children do change us as people, because all literature that we read changes us, whether we want it to or not—and we should want it to. Opening up our minds to fill them with stories outside of our own experiences is one of the best parts of being human. The ways they influence us are not always obvious or straightforward, but that’s part of the joy.
I wish that joy could be a bigger part of what we could talk about, on a broad scale, when we talk about children’s literature. Every one of us is a tapestry of influences, impressions, and ideas that have lingered in our mind for years, challenging us and surprising us in ways that we don’t always recognize until much later—and right there, at the heart of that tapestry, are the books we read when we were young.
Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults, including the 2022 Philip K. Dick Award winner Dead Space. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. Her newest novel is Hunters of the Lost City, a middle grade fantasy adventure out now from Quirk Books. Find her newsletter at kaliwallace.substack.com.