It's not easy being a kid. Older people make all the decisions, you have to go to school even on the days when you don't feel it, and you're very short. Maybe that's why so many of us loved to read as kids. Books were an escape from the confines of childhood: books took you on adventures, taught you about the world, and books made you feel super smart as a kid.
I don't just mean the strictly educational books that promised to make math fun (math is honestly a lot more fun when there isn't a grown-up standing over your shoulder insisting that you find math fun). And I don't mean books like Encyclopedia Brown, where the reader's fleeting sense of superior knowledge is overpowered by a strong desire to punch Encyclopedia Brown in the nose. I mean the novels we read as children that left us feeling more intelligent. We felt like we had absorbed some of their power. We became insufferable little know-it-alls. We started our own, short-lived kid detective businesses. After reading those books, we wanted to solve puzzles and come up with anagrams and learn more about history. Those books just made us feel smart.
So if you're looking for a reading list for that smart kid in your life, or you want to remember what it was like to feel incredibly clever before higher education ground down your sense of self-worth, here are some kids books that made us feel smart:
1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I don't want to be hyperbolic, but The Phantom Tollbooth might be the most perfect children's book ever written. I'm pretty sure it was the first book to spark my interest in wordplay, linguistics, and logic puzzles. Yes, a lot of the humor is based on puns, but the book never tries to talk down to children. Norton Juster knows that kids are intelligent, and he insists that they use their brains while reading about Milo's adventures in the Lands Beyond.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Due to some lapse in communication in my middle school, I ended up reading To Kill a Mockingbird for class in both sixth and seventh grade. So it's permanently imprinted on my brain. To Kill a Mockingbird didn't have much in the way of puns or math problems, but it introduced a lot of us to systematic oppression in the justice system. It made us think about prejudice in our own lives, and it made a lot of future lawyers understand the value of a convincing argument.
3. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Lemony Snicket doesn't sugar coat. The Baudelaire orphans have genuinely miserable lives. But the series did more than just expose us to misfortune: these books were littered with literary allusions. They taught us advanced vocab words, explained the difference between "nervous" and "anxious," and showed us how poems could contain secret messages for both nefarious and noble purposes. A Series of Unfortunate Events made us all sadder, more articulate children.
4. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
This book is a little bit like a novelization of the board game Clue, but with more intelligent plotting and less color-coding. It was one of those books that got passed around my fourth grade classroom by the kids themselves: everyone needed their friends to read this book, so they could brag about solving the mystery quicker. It's twisty, a little silly, but wickedly clever if you're a mystery-minded child.
5. Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda was the young book-lover's book. It encouraged us to be smart and well-read, no matter what other people thought. It made us want to learn outside of school. It reminded us that authority figures like parents and principals aren't necessarily right all the time. And it made us believe that we all had secret telekinesis (that part might not have worked out as well).
6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
So... A Wrinkle in Time is a book about quantum physics for kids. And it's a great, very entertaining book about quantum physics for kids, one that also reminds us that love is the most powerful force in the universe and all that jazz. But it snuck in a ton of actual science, and had us all contemplating tesseracts and non-linear time on the playground.
7. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
This is the book that made us all secretly plot to run away and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That in itself may not have been the smartest move, but it definitely made us excited about art museums, art history, and art mysteries. The character of Claudia was just so real: smart and frustrated and ambitious. And her passion for art and research was all too infectious.
8. Holes by Louis Sachar
Holes. The novel that critiques the prison industrial complex — for kids! But seriously, Holes is a brilliant indictment of the justice system as well as a gripping mystery and a whole lot of fun to read. As kids, we probably didn't connect all the dots when it came to the social commentary, but it still made us think. And it made us feel smart when we could figure out the mystery all by ourselves.
9. The Royal Diaries: Nzingha by Patricia C. McKissack
I'm singling out Nzingha, because I probably wouldn't have even heard of her or her brilliant military tactics if it hadn't been for The Royal Diaries series. But really, all the books from The Royal Diaries made us smarter kids—Anastasia, Elizabeth I, Jahanara. The Cleopatra one gave me nightmares because of that one scene where she's served her sister's head on a platter. Were the books completely historically accurate? Definitely not. But they introduced us to kick ass royal women throughout history, and made us want to learn more (and they were a pretty strong antidote to all the other princess stereotypes out there).
Images: TriStar Pictures