10 children’s books that adult readers enjoy

Updated on Nov 14, 2022 07:21 PM IST

On Children’s Day, here’s a list of books for children and young people that also appeal to adult readers

Children and adults immersed in their reading at a public library in Gurgaon. (Parveen Kumar/HT) PREMIUM
Children and adults immersed in their reading at a public library in Gurgaon. (Parveen Kumar/HT)
ByPooja Bhula

This list of recommendations includes picture books, classics, verse and fantasy fiction that touch on everything from war and trauma to human-animal bonds, romance, mythology and humour.

1. Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

32 pp. Enchanted Lion Books (One of the kindest, gentlest aids to help readers cope with death and loss)
32 pp. Enchanted Lion Books (One of the kindest, gentlest aids to help readers cope with death and loss)

Four siblings live with their grandma, who is gravely ill. Death, though, doesn’t want to scare them, so he leaves his scythe out when he visits. But the kids are smart and recognize him. They try befriending him and keeping him busy by pouring him copious amounts of coffee. But he must do what he has come for. What helps them accept the inevitable then is the heartwarming story he tells them that illustrates how life is incomplete without death. In the end, the kids no longer see grandma as someone dear who is being taken away but as someone who is being set free. Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi and translated from the Danish by Robert Moulthrop, this picture book is one of the kindest, gentlest aids you can find to cope with death and loss. Age no bar. The simplicity of the writing also makes you smile even as you grieve.

2. The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

40pp; Philomel (Bringing out how the same experience or object is often perceived in many ways)
40pp; Philomel (Bringing out how the same experience or object is often perceived in many ways)

Duncan wants to colour. But one day, when he reaches for his crayons, he finds a bunch of letters instead. His crayons have gone on strike! Red Crayon complains that he’s overworked and doesn’t even get holidays off because he has to colour Santa’s clothes and Valentine’s Day hearts. Black Crayon, on the other hand, is upset that his potential is underutilized as his role’s been limited to merely making outlines. Beige is offended at being called Light Brown and also that Mr Brown gets all the teddies, ponies and puppies, while he’s stuck colouring boring wheat. What a pickle Duncan is in! Daywalt’s witty text is superbly matched by Oliver Jeffers’ fun-filled illustrations in this picture book that brings out how the same experience or object is often perceived in many ways – like what makes one crayon feel overworked, makes another feel he’s Duncan’s favourite. This book is for anyone who has to manage different expectations, at work or home, and wants to have a good laugh about it.

3. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

464pp; Puffin Books (A masterful coming-of-age story that’s also a proto-feminist text)
464pp; Puffin Books (A masterful coming-of-age story that’s also a proto-feminist text)

Elderly Matthew Cuthbert and his sister, Marilla, need a sturdy hand to help around Green Gables, their farmhouse, outside the fictional town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, Canada. They decide to adopt a boy, but the orphanage mistakenly sends them Anne Shirley, a 11-year-old redhead with a fierce temper. Should they send her back, or keep her? Marilla rather wouldn’t. Mistakes in domestic duties and faux pas in social interactions ensure Anne’s ride is bumpy but she is unapologetic. A curious, imaginative and talkative tomboy, she tries to find family and home, while tackling rigidity and traditionalism with an incorrigible optimism. What unfolds is a beautiful story about navigating human relationships – at home and school, with nosy neighbours and potential friends. Even the Cuthberts see that Anne is special. Set in the late 19th century, it’s also a commentary on looks (she hates her freckles), education, ambition, and how it all affects a girl. Published in 1908, the book was ahead of its times and has also stood the test of time. How the story and protagonist negotiate situations and women’s issues is relatable even after 124 years! A masterful coming-of-age story that’s a must read, it has been adapted with for television and OTT.

4. Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

264pp; Scholastic Press (A story about the human side of animals and how we’re more similar than different.)
264pp; Scholastic Press (A story about the human side of animals and how we’re more similar than different.)

Fourteen-year-old Sophie is off to visit her mother, who’s from Congo, and runs a bonobo sanctuary there. Understandably, Sophie’s never been thrilled that the apes get to see her mother more than she does. But she sees what her mom sees in them when an infant bonobo, whom she names Otto, enters her life. Soon, revolution breaks out and the sanctuary is attacked. Sophie must save herself and the bonobos. As the fight for survival begins, they do it together with Sophie leaning on the jungle experience and instincts of the bonobos to lead her. On the one hand, it’s a story about how destructive humans can be against natural habitats, displacing animals from their homes and communities, the repercussions and also what it means to be safe. On the other hand, it’s as much a story about the human side of animals, the intense bonds we forge with each other, the sacrifices we must make and how we’re more similar than different. A moving and adventure-filled tribute to human-animal relationships, the book evokes emotions similar to John Grogan’s Marley and Me, and that all-time-favourite, Free Willy.

5. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

403pp; Greenwillow (A deliciously layered fantasy romance)
403pp; Greenwillow (A deliciously layered fantasy romance)

Polly has two sets of memories: one – the present; the other, from a past she’s been made to forget – a chance encounter with musician Tom Lynn at a funeral she gatecrashed. She was only 10 then. He was an adult, recently divorced. Polly didn’t know his ex-wife was a fairy queen, or that her gift meant anything Tom imagined would come true, but also hurt him in some way. Nor did Polly know he was in danger – every few years, the fairy queen sacrificed a human husband to prolong her own king’s life. She had unwittingly interfered with his destiny and a spell was cast to erase her memory. It only returned nine years later when she started reading a very old book. Inspired by two Scottish ballads, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, this fantasy romance is deliciously layered. Originally published in the 1980s, it was ahead of its times for having a shero and for the unlikely friendship, and later romance, between Polly and Tom. At first, the child Polly, who is from a dysfunctional home – her father abandoned the family, her mother is self-absorbed, and her grandma is caring but barely speaks – finds in the much-older Tom a suitable sounding board and confidant. On his part, Tom, who can’t share his secrets, gives Polly hints by sending her fairytales and fantasy books. Sadness, anticipation, and the hope of victory keeps the reader hooked to the book’s rousing, dramatic end.

224pp; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (On the little things forgotten in the grind of our daily lives)
224pp; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (On the little things forgotten in the grind of our daily lives)

Cap (short for Capricorn Anderson) grows up in a commune and is homeschooled by his grandmother, Rain. But when she injures herself, Cap, who has never watched television, nor eaten pizza, is forced to leave behind his hippie life and go to a regular, mainstream, school. Cap doesn’t fit in and finds himself nominated the class president by the campus bully as a practical joke. As the story unfolds, it’s inspiring to watch him transform attitudes and bring change by just being who he is. In his graduation speech, for example, he thanks everyone – naming and acknowledging each person. It’s like saying, I see you. How often do we really see people? Following him, we’re reminded of the little things we forget in the grind of our daily lives.

7. Closer to Nowhere by Ellen Hopkins

416pp; GP Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (Juxtaposing not-so-childlike things like abuse, alcoholism and separation with the simplicity of the protagonists’ perceptions.)
416pp; GP Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (Juxtaposing not-so-childlike things like abuse, alcoholism and separation with the simplicity of the protagonists’ perceptions.)

At first, it isn’t clear who the true protagonist of this book is. Is it the popular school girl, Hannah, who aspires to compete in the Olympics, but whose almost perfect life is being increasingly disturbed by her cousin Cal’s antics? Or is it Cal, the misfit, who escapes into books, has only an owl for a friend and plays pranks when he’s not having a breakdown? As Hannah discovers bits of information about her ‘freak’ cousin, whose mother (Hannah’s maternal aunt) has died of cancer, and whose father is in prison, and Cal earns the trust and empathy of his peers and family, you know who’s getting ‘closer to somewhere’. Told from both their perspectives, and unfolding over 358 pages, the story juxtaposes not-so-childlike things like abuse, alcoholism, separation and trauma-healing with the simplicity of the protagonists’ voices and perceptions. A novel in verse with no unessential words, this is an unputdownable read.

8. Thud! by Terry Pratchett

464pp; Corgi (Delving into a variety of human issues in an unreal world)
464pp; Corgi (Delving into a variety of human issues in an unreal world)

Discworld is a fictional, flat, circular world perched on the backs of four elephants that stand on the back of a giant star turtle. Despite its other worldly characters, the Discworld series, in which each book stands on its own, delves into a variety of human issues. In Thud! – the 34th of the 41-book series – dwarfs and trolls, who battled in Koom Valley centuries ago, continue to view each other with animosity. When one dwarf is murdered, City Watch commander Sam Vimes knows that if he doesn’t solve the case, there will be war again. Soon, Vimes realises that more corpses await. Exploring the history of ambush and war, this book reminds you of stories of angst worldwide and old hatreds, of fanatics trying preserve the purity of clans, and histories being corrupted to suit political narratives and agendas. As the reader sees how commoners are affected by these games, and the vital role that community plays in people’s decisions, she no longer views either side as villains, but as misled masses, who are yet to discern the truth. Despite the apparent unreality, the book is very real with Vimes giving readers hope.

9. Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

176pp; Clarion Books (Set in 12th century Korea, the story offers a glimpse of traditional Korean culture, heritage and philosophy)
176pp; Clarion Books (Set in 12th century Korea, the story offers a glimpse of traditional Korean culture, heritage and philosophy)

Tree-ear, a little boy who lives near a potter’s village, has watched Min transform clay into a thing of beauty. For him this transformation is magical. Fascinated by the craft, he has a dream – to make his own pot someday. But caught admiring Min’s handiwork, he nervously drops and breaks a celadon box, inviting the master potter’s wrath. Quick-witted and eager to learn, Tree-ear offers to work for Min to pay for the damage. It isn’t easy to be Min’s apprentice. The labour is back breaking and Min’s temper short. Set in 12th century Korea, the story offers a glimpse of traditional Korean culture, heritage and philosophy. Wanting to learn is not enough, you have to prove yourself. The hard love in this stirring narrative is reminiscent of gurukuls and the guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition in Indian folklore as well as stories about old-style Asian martial arts training as depicted in movies like The Karate Kid. You also find parallels in the emphasis on obedience, duty, humility, hard work, discipline.

10. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

1144pp; Penguin Random House (Journeying from innocence to experience)
1144pp; Penguin Random House (Journeying from innocence to experience)

In Philip Pullman’s trilogy that consists of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, young Lyra and Will go on an incredible adventure to parallel worlds. Here, humans have an outer representation of their inner self – a talking animal called daemon. If it hurts, you hurt too. Pullman told The Guardian that only while writing later books did he think of using the daemon to express the “profound sense of alienation, from oneself and the rest of life” that Lyra experiences in the story and that savagely torments “many in our own worlds”. As Lyra journeys from innocence to experience, what unfolds is a phenomenal epic fantasy filled with witches, armoured polar bears, complex worlds, and a big mystery about an elusive particle that can mean life or death for the realm and the universe at large. The books allude to philosophy, physics and theology and comment on organized religion’s tendency to turn oppressive, encourage blind faith, and suppress truth, and the far-reaching effects of all this. Faith isn’t portrayed as good or bad, but as the trilogy’s religious systems hold similarities to Christian churches, the books have been controversial in some places. As adults can see through layers of betrayal and political intrigue better than children can, their reading experience is possibly richer.

Pooja Bhula is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. She is the co-author of Intelligent Fanatics of India. She is @poojabhula on Twitter.

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