Top Ten Most Underrated Childhood Books

This is a rendition of Top Ten Tuesday by the This week was top 10 underrated books in a genre, and I have chosen to do Childhood Books because frankly, there are too many wonderful books that no one else seems to have read and/or are out of print. So, if any of you have also enjoyed these works, please tell me!

Most Underrated Childhood Books

-Picture book section:

1. The Keris Emerald by Mary Parke Johnson

This is a fairy tale about a Russian lad who wants to gain the attention of a princess by giving her the greatest of all emeralds, hidden in the forest of the Keris fairies and guarded by a snow leopard…It’s gorgeous, and strange, and lovely.

2. The Princess on the Nut by Michelle Nikly and Jean Claverie

This is the tale of the son of the princess on the pea and his search for a bride who isn’t so “perfect” or princessy as his mother. The pictures are gorgeous and give a lot of extra information, too!

3. The Magic Pumpkin by Lucille E. Sette and Phyllis L. Tildes

One of my favorite Halloween books, The Magic Pumpkin is about old Mr. Squiggs, who loves Halloween because he gets to be even more unpleasant and dreadful, and it is sanctioned! I love the way this writing goes in threes: how he interacts with men, with women, with children, his jack-o-lanterns are dreadful, are hideous, are frightening! Only this year, the pumpkin has something to say about being so horrible.

4. All works by Barbara Helen Berger
Gwinna Animalia
This artist/writer creates such gorgeous, magical works that I cannot recommend them enough. My first was “Grandfather Twilight” and I think that’s the easiest one to find, though.

5. This Is the Place for Me by Joanna Cole and William Van Horn

This charming book is about a bear who’s fed up with his house and goes looking for a better place to live. I still think of this bear when I need some perspective or am thinking of making crazy, impulsive life-choices, and the images still make me smile in amusement, so what more could one want in a picture book?

(Extra): Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady by Selina Hastings and Juan Wijngaard

-Since it’s a well-known tale I felt this was more of an extra mention, but this work probably began my great love with all things Arthurian, the artwork is amazing, and it’s just one of the most vibrant treasures.

Chapter Books:

6. The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye
ordinary princess

Again, I cannot recommend it enough-a committee suggesting they hire a dragon to help wed their plain daughter, a princess who runs off rather than having it and finds living with animals in the wood a rather unpractical affair and so gets work with her non-anthropomorphized squirrel and crow…read it! I do every spring.

7. The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

And this is the book I read every fall. It’s set in England during Mary Tudor’s reign, with the stubborn, curious, and practical Kate sent into exile in a palace full of mysterious circumstances and tales of living elves…It’s a retelling and expansion of the Tam Lin tale and it’s brilliant.

8. The Gammage Cup: A Novel of the Minnipins by Carol Kendall and Erik Blegvad

This world is delightfully filled with poetry, courage, and discovery.

9. A Royal Pain by Ellen Conford

This one is more real-world…almost. “A sixteen-year-old in Kansas, who discovers she is really a princess, is taken to a tiny European monarchy to assume her duties and marry a distasteful neighboring prince, and in the ensuing weeks tries to become such a “royal pain” that everyone will want to be rid of her.” It’s great fun, and a good read-aloud book.

10. My Angelica by Carol Lynch Williams

Angelica is an elementary student who dreams of becoming a great and famous romance writer! Unfortunately, her book is filled with sentimental tripe wrapped in hilariously absurd euphemisms. Her best friend is both a good poet who’s aware of this problem and utterly in love with her. It’s a ridiculously charming read. Why it didn’t catch on I do not know.

So! How about you guys? What are your favorite childhood books that other people’s lack of knowledge keeps you from talking about? Have you read any of these?

‘Luka and the Fire of Life’ review

Luka and the Fire of Life

By: Salman Rushdie


Random House 2010

A middle grade fantasy review



In this sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories ( Luka, the second son of famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, undertakes a magical adventure, just as he’s always longed to do.  Sadly, he finds his way to the magical lands because his father is trapped in an unshakable sleep.  If Luka cannot maneuver his way through the videogame-like obstacles of Rashid’s tales and bring back the Fire of Life, that sleep will fade into death.  Luka finds his way filled with beings from his father’s stories, including all the gods and goddesses of classical pantheons, a country of insulters, and the chilling guardians of time.  Luckily, Luka is not alone-his party includes a dancing bear (named Dog), a singing dog (named Bear), and a ghostly version of his father.  Plus, Luka’s garnered a few hundred lives to spare in this game…

Luka’s fragility and determination make him a very likeable hero.  It’s easy to root for a boy who faces off against everything with the same awareness and stubbornness, in spite of any bizarreness or trauma.  Rushdie’s turns of phrase paint delightful pictures of the World of Magic and supporting characters, also.  Unfortunately, this sequel lacks the creative fire of Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  Luka’s quest is overshadowed by Rushdie’s attempt to explicitly connect it to the modern world, increasingly bogged down with incessant references rather than original creations, and lacking the enchantment that accompanied its predecessor.  While both books begin with a serious problem and end in its sudden cure, it is far more jarring this time around.  Haroun’s tale had the zest and fairy-tale spirit to carry it off, whereas Luka’s simulation is too obviously a self-aware, coping mechanism, as well as needing an additional forced plotpoint to carry it off.  Moreover, Haroun’s quest had plenty of other new things to discover that the final ending felt simple and right.  Luka’s mission is always totally focused on one thing instead of finding another purpose and feels more like an episodic resume of Rushdie’s mythical thoughts than a whole story that flows on its own.

In short, I feel like Luka and the Fire of Life was Rushdie writing as the learned Rashid Khalifa, rather than the actual hero or the readers.  Perhaps Rashid, with his onstage presence and magical voice could have given this tale that spark of life, without that there’s a disconnect.  This book still has a lot to enjoy.  But basically, Rushdie can do better.

Winterling by Sarah Prineas review


By: Sarah Prineas


Harper 2012

A middle-grade fantasy review


Fer’s grown up surrounded by the magic of a home filled with herbs, honey, and healing, but she doesn’t quite seem to fit.  Then she rescues a boy with yellow eyes from a land filled with the magic of nature, wildness, and secrets.  Suddenly, Fer has reason to believe she can belong somewhere.  Maybe she can learn more about who she is and what happened to her parents in the other land, a place where magic rules and all oaths bind.  The Way is open.

Prineas’s writing envelopes you, enfolding into this world where familiar stories draw close and breathe warm.  The magical world of Winterling doesn’t need to pull you anywhere, it visits your home with a smile and warm pastry.  Fer, the young girl out discovering, leads the story in a gentle, natural way.  It’s wonderfully easy to absorb her reactions and relax into her thoughts because they aren’t just a heroine’s thoughts, but the organic musings of a misfit girl.  Moreover, the book does not devolve into a battle between the good and bad sides of its heroine; Fer’s character grows, but is always whole and open to the reader.  This harmony between the adventure and its discoverer makes Winterling an easy, comforting read.  Prineas balances the pace by adding sections from yellow-eyed Rook’s rough point-of-view.  This sinks the reader more firmly into the world and builds suspense, ensuring that this is a cup of tea that keeps you awake and eager, rather than lulling into sleep.

Winterling is a scrumptious snack of fairytale images, an independent heroine, and crystal-bright writing.  It’s a perfect tale for reading at the ending of winter and the coming of spring.



By: Monica Furlong


Random House Sprinters 1990

A middle grade fantasy review


The only child of a Cornish chieftan, Juniper’s lived all her life with wealth, community, and politics.  As a daughter instead of a son, will she be powerful enough to rule one day?  Will she marry?  Or was she meant to do something different?  When her godmother, the powerful witch Euny, calls her to study magic, Juniper does not know where it will take her.  Through unexpected hardships and hard-earned lessons, Juniper seeks to find her own way in life.  However, Cornwall contains evil sorcerers as well as dorans, and Juniper must use her knowledge to protect those she loves and discover who she should become.

Juniper is a gentle book, with strong themes that glide through everything and tie it all together.  It’s easy to read, with a rhythmic pace that invites you to keep going.  One feels that they are learning along with the heroine, becoming more in tune to some elements in the world.  This harmonic tone is the charm of this book.  As a prequel, it’s focus is on growth and coming-of-age, with small doses of action and only the potential for romance.  It paints the medieval world with a distinctive atmosphere and culture, without teaching or lengthy descriptions.  This book is perfect for a younger reader, easy to slip into and with plenty of room for readers to exercise their own imaginations, with enough supportive details to make the fantasy strong.

The only issue I had with this book is that, having finished it, I still feel estranged from the main character.  Perhaps it is because this is a prequel written after Juniper’s debut appearance and her personality is really established in that.  Let me be clear: I really like Juniper.  I want to feel close to her.  But, for some reason, she never fully clicked in my head.  I would read along, sympathizing with her struggles, feeling I was in her head, and then something would happen.  I had an emotional reaction, just as Juniper clearly had one.  Then, a couple of sentences later, the main emotion Juniper felt would be named.  I was almost always surprised.  Juniper became angry when I thought she was more upset or was ready to burst into tears when I thought she’d be fired up and angry.  This confuses me.  I’ve had characters I just didn’t connect to before, but even of those, never have I read someone who I simply couldn’t grasp.  Or rather, who constantly wriggled out of my grasp when I thought I knew who they were.  Coming from a work whose main message is the value of truly understanding things, this leaves me bemused.  On the other hand, this phenomenon turned the predictability of the middle-grade plot into something nice and reassuring instead of merely nostalgic.

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

By: Vivian Vande Velde


Scholastic Inc. 2001

A fairy tale anthology review

Vivian Vande Velde’s The Rumpelstiltskin Problem contains six stories that grapple with spinning straw into gold.  More amusingly, this book struggles to understand the characters who appear in the familiar story.  What motivates Rumpelstiltskin?  How did the idea of spinning straw into gold start?  What kind of people decide to marry someone they’ve known over threats for three days or offer up their child for some deal concerning gold?  There are many answers in The Rumpelstiltskin Problem, all filled with quirks and charm.


The stories in The Rumpelstiltskin Problem twist and turn the story’s characters into many actors: cruel kings and kind ones, stupid girls and clever ones, generous spinners and hungry ones.  Whatever person you’re a fan of, this collection has a tale where they are wonderful.  Whoever you dislike, there’s a story to mock their distastefulness.  The consistent features are something to laugh at, someone to like, and playful writing that nudges you along like a hayride: the setting is familiar, the new bumps are fun, and it’s part of a world somewhat different from your own.  Besides, as well as all that straw, each of Vivian Vande Velde’s versions provides a little bit of gold.  It’s just hiding in different places.  The Rumpelstiltskin Problem is a very swift ride that will please.  After my trip I recommend it.




Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

By: Salmon Rushdie


Penguin Books 1990

A middle grade fantasy adventure review

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is an adventure story, an exploration of the inner-workings of tales, a romantic quest, and a very simple book.  Rushdie’s words dance as they paint images in your head.  Finding yourself taken to a foreign world, with different rules, is rarely so illuminating, or so much fun.  Like the heroes of most such tales, Haroun Khalifa finds himself confronting opposites: the dark and the light, silence and gab, what others accept as real versus what he knows to be somehow true.

As the son of a storyteller, Haroun often finds himself facing the question: what use are stories?  When his mother leaves the family to lead a more serious and sober life than she led as the wife of the cheerful Rashid, the Shah of Blah, Haroun finds this question almost unbearable.  Fortunately, all it takes in order to sort out this problem (not to mention other twists and dilemmas in the plot), is to meet the right people, make the right observations, and of course, perform actions out of love.  Luckily for us, Rushdie’s youthful character manages to accomplish all this without leaving the readers behind, letting humor out of sight, or allowing a moment to be dull.

This story, like the Sea of Stories, has so many colors and threads that it appears like one big, gleaming, rainbow treat.  If you like nightshirts with purple patches, or armies made of volumes and pages, or genies with colored whiskers, or boys that stand up for their fathers, or really, anything at all, this is a book for you.  As an incredibly smart man named Sheldon Cooper once said, “What’s life without whimsy?”

A Virtual Celebration of Diana Wynne Jones

A Virtual Celebration of Diana Wynne Jones.


Diana Wynne Jones wrote things full of verve, imagination, and mindfulness.  You can tell she had fun writing them, you feel it would’ve been delightful to talk to her.  Her characters always had that little extra something that spices up worlds and makes you care about their stories.  Reading her books helped get me through challenging times and new situations.


And, most interestingly to me, she had a way of inserting horrible things into her youthful tales, while gliding over it so smoothly you had to stop and say, “Wait-what just happened?” to fully realize it.  Many of her fans I’ve discussed this with do not, in fact, remember these things to have happened at all.  “It’s because she’s so sneaky about it!” I reply.  It’s truly amazing.  This woman could flesh out her worlds with all the true things, good and bad, and explore both sides without darkening the mood.  You can read about downtrodden people, awful dilemmas, and come out recalling it as a veritable pastry of delicious storyhood, which would be perfectly true.  Such is the magic of Diana Wynne Jones.  No matter what else you think or remember about her books, her writings runs deep.  Yet, somehow, they never lose the light or the comfort of a fantasy playing out on the surface.


My favorite such fantasy is Hexwood.  In delicious pastry stories, this is the gooey, giant cinnamon bun to take out all others.