I Re-Read 9 Kids' Books As An Adult — And Learned Something New From Each Of Them

I think we worry far too much about what age certain books are meant "for." Sure, I'll allow that most toddlers aren't going to get much out of a true crime book, and most 40-somethings can probably handle turning pages that aren't made of cardboard. But still, a lot of kids do just fine reading far above their official "reading level" (I read A Game of Thrones at age 10 and was only mildly traumatized). And a lot of adults can still enjoy a kids' book. Here are a few kids' books that I'm glad I re-read as a grown up, because good literature has no age cut off.

I mean sure, there are some books that I loved back in the day that I probably wouldn't be quite so into now. For instance, as a child I wanted nothing more than to transform myself into a sleek, feral cat and take to the woods, and so the Warriors series was a perfect fit (as an adult, I would probably prefer to be a house cat and spend most of the day sleeping). But for the most part, returning to the books I loved as a kid has only reminded me why I loved those books so much in the first place:

'The Phantom Tollbooth' by Norton Juster

You think you're an adult who already knows how to add and subtract, and that you therefore do not need the sweet, sweet nonsense of Norton Juster? You are wrong, my friend. The Phantom Tollbooth is not just a fun-tastic children's adventure about a little boy who learns how to do simple math and conjugate verbs in an educational wonderland. It's also a highly relatable novel about how modern life can grind you down to the point where you're just on autopilot, barely recognizing your surroundings, and never taking the time to appreciate that math and words and knowledge and friendship are delightful, precious things. This is one "kids' book" I return to whenever I start taking adult life for granted, and/or if I'm in the market for puns.

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'The Golden Compass' by Philip Pullman

As a kid, The Golden Compass seemed like a terrific adventure filled with talking animals and witches and brave little kids fighting evil. As an adult, re-reading it just last year... it was still all of those things, plus a nuanced meditation on why we obey authority and what constitutes consciousness. It's no secret that Pullman's kids' books get into very "grown up" concepts, like original sin and multi-verse theory, but they still manage to be pulse-pounding adventures, too, even if you already know what's going to happen.

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'A Series of Unfortunate Events' by Lemony Snicket

Oh man do these books hold up. I remember thinking they were funny as a kid, but I couldn't possibly have picked up on all the literary references and droll, depressing wordplay. Actually, I think they're far creepier when you read them as an adult, because A) you suddenly understand just how irresponsible and self-involved every adult in the story is, and how much they endanger the children with their basic incompetence and B) Count Olaf is way creepier when you realize that he spends most of the series drunk and trying to marry a 14-year-old girl.

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'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone' by J.K. Rowling

Yeah, yeah, I'm hardly the first to extol the virtues of re-reading the Harry Potter books. But after years of reading and re-reading the later books in the series, I finally picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again and it was a delight. Sure, it's still Harry Potter, but when you go way back to the beginning, before all the backstory or Fantastic Beasts movies or J.K. Rowling's Twitter feed, it's almost like recapturing that magic of what made you love Hogwarts in the first place. It's good to know that the books were still magical before Harry Potter was a household name.

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'Charlotte’s Web' by E.B. White

This book utterly destroyed me as a child because (spoiler alert) the spider freaking DIES and my name was also Charlotte and that meant that (spoiler alert) I would one day also die. Now that I've come to accept my own mortality, though, Charlotte's Web has become a lovely ode to friendship, and the power of art, be it writing or spider webbing, to leave a positive impact on the world.

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'Oh, the Places You'll Go!' by Dr. Seuss

This book gets real, people. REAL. Is it a cliche gift for graduations and so forth? Absolutely, but Seuss nevertheless delivers a bone-chilling, resonant, and ultimately uplifting narrative about the trials and tribulations of realizing that you (and only you) are in charge of the choices you make in life's Great Balancing Act. Honestly, this doesn't belong on the kids' shelf, it belongs on "Self Help."

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'The Cave of Time' by Edward Packard

I'm a sucker for old school "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, and it certainly doesn't get more old school than The Cave of Time. I have "played" this book recently, and I still can't figure out how to get back to my darn uncle's house. I keep getting eaten by the yeti. Much like Oh, the Places You'll Go! this one holds up as a grim reminder that your choices matter, and ravenous yetis are always around the corner (also, it's still a lot of kitschy fun).

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'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' by Alvin Schwartz, drawings by Stephen Gammell

So the fun thing about this book is that as a kid, I always assumed that one day, when I was older and wiser, I would not find it quite so terrifying. If anything, I know find it more terrifying. I maintain that Stephen Gammell's illustrations are more visually frightening than absolutely any gore I've ever seen on film.

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'The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol. 1' by Diana Wynne Jones

Listen, if you made the grave error of sleeping on the Chrestomanci books as a kid, it's not too late. I was obsessed with the magical multi-verse of Diana Wynne Jones as a kid, and I'm happy to say that her writing is just as clever now that I'm a non-magical adult. Plus, as a grown up, I can appreciate how Jones' boy heroes are so often timid and sensitive, and how her girl heroes come in all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of boldness.

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