There are lots of things that defined my childhood in the 1990s — my Tamagotchi baby, my Beanie Babies, that Baby-G watch I desperately wanted but that my mother refused to buy for me (is it just me or was the word “baby” majorly overused in the ‘90s?) and of course all the books that informed my childhood. As a young person I read everything — and I really mean everything — I could get my hands on, and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, not only were the books of my childhood helping form the reading habits I would carry with me into adulthood, they were also helping to form the person I would carry with me into adulthood. Like Meg Ryan said, when she played the lovable New York City bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail: “When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
And it really is true. How many readers out there don’t remember a single word of the Beowulf you read in your college lit class just a few years ago, but can remember word-for-word the inner teenage musings of Vicky Austin in A Ring of Endless Light? Or how about the way writers like Judy Blume and Laurie Halse Anderson paved the way (and space on your shelves) for the Cheryl Strayed, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood who would come later? Remember when Sarah Dessen told you everything you needed to hear about young love — the kind of things you would never learn in school, no matter how many years in a row you aced English class? That’s what I mean when I say books defined my childhood, growing up.
Here are 10 books that were essential to growing up in the ‘90s. And if you were a young reader in the ‘90s too, I’m betting more than a few of these make your own list.
1. The Giver by Lois Lowry
As one of my earliest required reading books in school, I recognize the value of The Giver as one of those multi-genre, “the dystopia in utopia” books that is designed to teach young people a lesson about power and politics and what it means to shape and own your unique identity. And all that is great, I’m sure, but that is definitely not what I got out of The Giver as a child. What The Giver did was teach me not to be afraid of my own feelings — and growing up as a young girl and teen, there is basically nothing but feelings for about a decade. Complicated, hard-to-understand, scary feelings. And Jonas, as the memory-keeper of his community, is single-handedly responsible for experiencing and storing lifetimes worth of feelings — and even though it’s hard, he does it. By doing so, he left me with no question that a life of color with some pain is definitely preferable to a feelingless life.
2. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
I don’t care how old I get, this book will never, ever stop being cool. From a very early age Claudia Kincaid taught me the value of spending my life running towards something, rather than away from something else, and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Plus, when she decides to run away from home with her kid brother Jamie in tow, it’s to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she actually invests herself in the art and history she’s savvy enough to be spending so much uninterrupted one-on-one time with. Claudia is the BFF I wish I’d had as a kid, when I’d have snapped up any invitation to live in MoMA — even just for one night.
3. The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
The Wheel on the School was the kind of book that came in a packaged box set, with other books like Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan — and I feel like Meindert DeJong’s childhood class was always the most-overlooked of the others in the collection. And sure, while Wilbur and Stuart are hard to compete with, I always had a spot in my heart for Lena, the child who notices her beloved storks are no longer visiting her fishing village, and sets out to do something about it. Early environmentalism at its finest.
4. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
What can I even say about The Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said? Growing up I had one of those fancy copies — the hardcover with the full-color illustrations sprinkled throughout on extra-glossy sheets of paper. And I was obsessed with it. Not only because reading my way to each of those illustrations was so exciting, but because The Wizard of Oz is essentially a story about a girl who single-handedly leads a rag-tag pack of characters on an epic journey — and no one ever expected her not to succeed. This is a formative lesson, I feel, and I’m glad I learned it young.
5. The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
I was beyond obsessed with Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game as a kid. I loved losing myself in Melanie and April’s world of make-believe just as much as the two of them did — and the idea that the musings of my own imagination might someday come to life was immensely appealing to me. Plus, as a kiddo with a super vivid imagination of my own, their ability to turn the everyday world of the storage yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop into something extraordinary inspired me to see magic and mystery in my own quite-typical backyard.
6. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Similar to The Giver, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting was another novel designed to teach young readers deep and complicated lessons about themselves, society, and the world — and I loved it for the simplest of lessons it taught me: about having the ability to say goodbye, and to find peace in bittersweet endings. Too often in children’s and YA novels, the ending is cheesecake-sweet — the couple ends up together, the best friends reunite, the girl gets asked to the prom by the boy of her dreams who was there waiting in the wings all along. But that’s not always real life, and what Tuck Everlasting teaches young readers is that sometimes the girl doesn’t end up with the boy, sometimes you do have to say goodbye to people you love, and it’s up to you to find the happiness in whatever ending you’re given. Invaluable stuff.
7. Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen
I think every young person has at least one life changing summer in their lives — you know the kind I’m talking about. Whether it’s a first journey abroad, a transforming romance, a new friendship, or some other adventure that leaves you an entirely different person than you were when the summer began, we can all relate to those few sticky months that end up meaning more than all the years before them together. Keeping the Moon is about exactly that kind of summer. Growing up, Colie was the two things that young women are constantly shamed into not being: overweight, and “easy” (whatever that even means) and it doesn’t seem like she can do anything to make her peers see her for who she really is. But everything changes during one life-changing summer, when new friends come into her life and help her realize all she really has to offer.
8. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Unlike the other books on this list, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was not a book I loved growing up — it was a difficult book to read, a painful story about a young teen who has been outcast from her peers by calling the police to a party where she was raped, and as a result of nobody believing her literally loses her ability to speak. It wasn’t the kind of book I loved and revisited over and over again — but it was one of those essential books you read growing up, one that made me think deeply about my own voice and what it means to speak my own truth, whatever that may be, no matter how it might be received by my peers and others around me.
9. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Another book about finding your voice as a young woman and growing into your ability to speak your truth, Ella Enchanted was beloved for one very simple reason: it subverts the traditional Cinderella narrative and features a girl who faces some fearful obstacles and can be saved by no one but herself — and she succeeds. There will never be enough books like this one.
10. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle
I probably don’t need to tell you that Vicky Austin was everything when I was a young reader (who am I kidding, she’s still the coolest now.) Vicky is a girl who isn’t afraid to feel all the feels — she loves, she loses, she experiences epic moments of wonder and transformation. Plus, not only is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light another novel that takes place over the course of one life-changing summer, and not only is Vicky Austin a girl who is never for want of an epic love triangle, but there are also dolphins. What more can a reader ask for?
Image: Walt Disney Pictures