When I was a kid, my mom brought me to the library every single weekend. The town's library was the cheapest way of entertaining a 7-year-old, and it was air-conditioned. While she picked up the latest steamy Danielle Steel novel, I made a dash to the children’s books section, a corner of the library decorated with vibrant construction paper bears, Eloise posters, and big, Matilda-worthy chairs. I would choose up to 10 books, their glossy protective covers sliding through my eager fingers. Once I got home, the true journey began.
Before there was Internet, tablets containing your entire book and DVD collections, and video games that require WiFi and headsets, there were books made of paper. When you were a kid in the ‘90s, books were your everything: your friends, your guidance, your wise sages, and your escape. When you heard that familiar crack of a book being opened, you could hardly contain your excitement, because you knew you were about to embark on an entirely new adventure. You were going to meet new characters, villains, and stories.
Although my list was never-ending, here are 16 books that stood out in my childhood — and likely yours, too:
1. The Bunnicula series by Deborah and James Howe
Told from the perspective of Harold the Dog, Bunnicula is about a rabbit that is totally a vampire! Harold and Chester the Cat investigate this new addition to their home. This book forever changed the way you viewed albino vampires — I mean rabbits.
2. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
When life really sucks, you can always just seek refuge in a peach the size of a mansion and make friends with quaint, talking bugs. And this was no ordinary giant peach. This peach was able to go mobile with the help of a few hundred birds. Essentially, James and the Giant Peach was the original Up.
3. The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner
Nothing made us secretly want to be stray, off-the-grid orphans as much as The Boxcar Children , a series that followed four siblings looking for a home.
4. Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar
If you read Sideways Stories , then you probably also read Holes and There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom. You have also probably tried to kiss your elbow (doesn’t something horrible happen if you do?). Wayside School was everything you wished your school could be: ridiculous and wicked fun.
5. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead
This was a really deep read for us ‘90s babes. Miyax, the protagonist, is a 13-year-old already stuck in an unhappy marriage. She runs away to San Francisco, facing her inner struggles with her true identity.
6. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
I don’t know about you, but Island of the Blue Dolphins was required reading in the 4th grade, and it was probably one of the most useful books ever. It taught you how to kill giant squid, befriend wild dogs, construct a fence out of whale bones, and make a skirt out of feathers.
7. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
I’m not sure whether it was the illustrations that did it, but if you read these stories aloud in a dimly lit room, you surely doomed yourself to countless sleepless nights and dreams of scribbly corpses.
8. Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss
This book encouraged us to start our very own composition notebook-style diaries (complete with illustrations!). Who cares if the most exciting event in our lives was a Rugrats marathon?
9. The Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park
10. A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket
I think any book with an introduction that starts off by saying, “I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant,” is like saying “don’t eat this Butterfinger because its delicious, perfectly crunchy ways are actually caloric.” There’s something so morbidly fascinating about the Baudelaire siblings; their misery is addictive and exciting, and you ate up every single book with glee.
11. Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Along with your Oregon Trail rendezvous during computer class time, you were practically an Early America scholar. Since this book was written in the ‘30s, it’s actually kind of racist, but the whole colonialism thing flew over our heads at the time. We’ll just fondly remember Little House on the Prairie as that cute show about pioneers living off the land.
12. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Forget True Detective. Harriet brought out the inquisitive investigator out of all of us. Is our neighbor taking out the trash, or is he ACTUALLY getting rid of important evidence? Should it be noted that your teacher suddenly switched chalk brands? Absolutely. Harriet taught us to always be vigilant. Oh, and to never leave our personal crap-talking diaries in the grass while we go play with our classmates.
13. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Walk Two Moons was probably the most non-linear, surreal book you read at the time. It was about a missing “lunatic” mother, and it was narrated by Salamanca Tree Hiddle, so yeah, it was definitely an interesting read. But we got through it. And maybe we cried. Or maybe we just returned it to the library and picked something a little more cohesive.
14. Dear America Books series by various authors
A huge part of us wished we really were reading the diary of a real Titanic passenger, or Marie Antoinette, or a Polish coal miner’s daughter. Alas, it was just fan-fiction in its original form. The Dear America series (which grew and became globally and culturally inclusive) was the best kind of way to learn history. Suddenly, we knew boundless facts about the Midwest and Cleopatra.
15. Amber Brown series by Paula Danziger
The ‘90s were all about divorce movies (see: The Parent Trap, Mrs. Doubtfire), and they were also about divorce books, too. Amber Brown’s parents get divorced, so she handles it the way any normal kid would: not so well. On the cusp of tweenhood, Amber takes advantage of her distracted parents and pierces her ears. She also struggles with best friends, since her long-time bestie, Justin, moves away. The struggle was always very real.
16. Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry
Anastasia is hyper-intelligent for her age. She knows that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme to be considered “poetry,” and she finds beauty in everything, including the wart on her pinky finger. She’s pretty weird, but weren’t we all?
Image: Paramount Pictures