The best books from my childhood

As a kid, I was always reading. I remember going to the library with my mom and coming home with an armful of books stacked up to my chin. I did normal kid things, like watching TV and playing video games, but I devoted the most time to reading.


Here are some of the books I enjoyed reading over and over again in elementary and middle school. It has been over a decade since I read some of them, so I’m a little vague on the details, but I remember reading these books repeatedly.

Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman

In second grade I decided I wanted to be a meteorologist when I grew up (which didn’t happen, but that’s a story for another day). I was fascinated by severe weather and this book was right up my alley. Night of the Twisters tells the story of Dan, who is home alone with his baby brother when a tornado barrels through. The action is all up front, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find his mother and friends in the severely damaged town. I was old enough to think about how terrifying this would be, and it instilled a sense of deep respect and fear of the forces of nature in 8-year-old me.

The Jewel Kingdom Series by Jahnna N. Malcolm

This young reader fantasy series is one of the first I remember becoming obsessed with. Four princesses live in four different kingdoms, and each is associated with a different jewel/power. I remember the last book in the series came with a special charm bracelet, and I wore the crap out of that thing!

Various American Girl series by various authors

I was the proud owner of a few American Girl dolls and I was an avid reader of the books as well. My favorite doll and character was Molly, who grew up during World War II. While age-appropriate, the books introduced difficult topics like war, poverty, and class differences that appear in American history. I tried to look for these books online, but they, like my American Girl dolls, have been discontinued! (Call me old-fashioned, but the “vintage” covers look so much better than the modern ones.)

Island and Everest Series by Gordon Korman

Other books relating to nature were these two trilogies. Island tells the story of a group of kids who becomes stranded on an island after a storm capsizes their boat. In the Everest series, a group of young, elite climbers attempts to climb the world’s tallest mountain. In both series, there is danger, desperation and death. I read these page-turners over and over again.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Throughout this series, the nefarious Count Olaf hatches plans to steal the fortune of the Baudelaire orphans. However, as the series progresses, things become more complex and sinister. What is VFD? Who started the fire that killed the Baudelaire parents? The series held my attention as I got older and I still have them on my book shelf. Snicket’s writing breaks off into humorous asides and tangents and I learned quite a few fancy vocab words from the books (for example, “a tenebrous hue”).

Spellfall by Katherine Roberts

I fell in love with this book, and I think it opened the door to many other fantasy books. After finding a spell, a girl named Natalie is whisked into a magical, mysterious world. She soon finds that this world is in trouble and she must race to save it.

The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling

Harry Potter is my shit, but it wasn’t always that way. I picked up Sorcerer’s Stone in the fourth grade but thought the first chapter was really boring, so I put it back down. (That’s my one regret in life.) Luckily, I gave it a chance in fifth grade and the rest is history. I’ve read the series countless times…so much that some of my copies are starting to fall apart. I truly feel like I grew up with Harry Potter (like everyone else) and the series will remain in my heart forever.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

A boy genius kidnaps a fairy police captain and demands a ransom; thrilling adventure ensues. The memorable characters and seamless blending of reality, fantasy, action, and science fiction make this book (and the books that follow) lots of fun.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda doesn’t fit in with her family, so she escapes with books, knowledge, and school when she’s not playing pranks. Turns out, she has incredible telekinetic powers, which she uses to defeat the evil school principal Ms. Trunchbull. This is a classic book that all book lovers should read, I think. For a few weeks after reading this book in second grade, I was convinced I, like Matilda, had mind control powers. Alas, they still haven’t revealed themselves.

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

An ordinary girl finds out she’s the princess of a small European country and hilarity ensues. (Full disclosure: I spent about 15 minutes looking for the country of Genovia on my globe.) Mia Thermopolis is an awkward freshman and awkward things happen to her, but she lives in New York City and was in high school, so I always thought that was super cool. A “coming of age” tale with a princess twist.

Lionness Quartet by Tamora Pierce

Alanna wants to become a knight, so she chops off her hair, binds her breasts and kicks butt. These books were recommended to me by my neighbor, who was about 5 or 6 years older than me, with the caveat “your mom should read these first to make sure they’re appropriate.” Well, my mom was taking too long to read them, so I sneaked them out of her room and read them anyway. There were definitely some blush-worthy moments, but nothing a determined young reader couldn’t handle. This series introduced challenging gender norms before I even knew what gender norms really were, and I was a faithful Tamora Pierce reader for years after reading this series.

What books did you like as a kid?


Recently read: ‘100 Places Every Woman Should Go’

New York City. Morocco. Brazil. If you’re looking for travel inspiration, this is it.

I purchased 100 Places Every Woman Should Go from a used book store and even though it’s a bit old (published in 2007) it doesn’t fail to induce wanderlust.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go

This isn’t a guidebook, although it does have some practical information like tour recommendations, addresses, and must-sees. Each chapter is based on a specific location or theme, like “Famed Chocolate Sites.” I liked to pick it up at random and see which location I landed on, kind of like jabbing my finger at a spinning globe.

While some of the places featured didn’t sound enjoyable to me, it does include a wide variety of countries and activities to please every traveler, from shopaholics and spa-seekers to nudists and hikers.

This would be a good gift or coffee table book to flip through (though I do wish it had more photos!).

Recently read: ‘Sweet Affliction’

I picked up this collection of short stories in Montreal at Librarie Drawn and Quarterly, a lovely little book store in Mile End.

Sweet Affliction, Anna Leventhal

I came in looking specifically for books about Montreal, stories set in Montreal, and/or books by authors from Montreal. The staff was incredibly helpful. When I told them about my quest, the girl asked, “In French or English?” and then proceeded to pile book after book into my hands. I settled on Sweet Affliction by Anna Leventhal and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler.

Sweet Affliction was a wonderful collection to read while traveling alone in Montreal. I brought it with me everywhere so I could read a story and then reflect on it while enjoying a coffee or a beer. The tales ranged from sweet to sad to darkly comic to unusually uplifting, all with an undertone of sarcastic humor. The characters’ lives are interwoven through the stories as they go about their business in Montreal; as a reader I found it interesting and engaging to keep track of the various relationships.

One of my favorite stories was about Moving Day, something Leventhal portrays as ridiculous, and I didn’t even know existed. Another story of note was one of the shortest in the collection, ‘The Yoga Teachers,’ about a little girl who likes going to dance class even though she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the ballerinas.

Recently read: ‘Serena’

Serena, by Ron Rash, is a book I didn’t want to put down, and now that it’s finished, I keep thinking about it. There’s plenty of murder, violence and greed, but the story is much more than that. There are so many parallels and intricacies in the plot that aren’t immediately apparent, and that’s what I truly enjoyed most about this novel. There’s a lot in the book for you to stew over long after it’s finished. When it comes to historical fiction based in the North Carolina mountains, this is right up there with Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

Serena by Ron Rash

George and Serena Pemberton are the timber industry’s ruthless power couple. Driven by Serena’s cold-hearted determination to clear cut every tract of land in the mountains before moving on to Brazil, they cut down anyone standing in their way. When she suspects her husband of protecting the mother of his illegitimate child, things inevitably go bad. While Serena is a horrible person and, how do I put this delicately, a bitch, I couldn’t help admiring her for completely going against any gender norms of the early 1930s in rural western North Carolina. She does what she wants and doesn’t give a shit about what anyone else thinks.

I bought this book during my trip to Asheville at Malaprop’s Bookstore. Asheville and Malaprop’s are both awesome.

Recently read: ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’

This is not a new book, and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. To begin with, it was published in 1994. I was only three years old then, so I’m letting that one slide. However, it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for at least two years now, and I wish I had enjoyed it years ago.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Midnight is a work of nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. Set in Savannah, Georgia, it documents life in this secluded city before and after the killing of a young man at the hands of one of society’s wealthiest young bachelors. The story was compelling and I didn’t want to put the book down – I finished it in a few days.

John Berendt’s vivid portrait of Savannah and the quirky people who live there just made me want to road trip it down to Georgia (hey, it’s not even five hours away!). I want to see Savannah’s architectural gems, walk under decades-old trees strung with Spanish moss, and laze away a humid evening in a city square.

I don’t know much about Savannah, but that’s the impression I got from this book. And sometimes all you need is a good first impression to start off a great trip.

Recently read: ‘Tales of the City’

I started this series before my trip to San Francisco in August and I raced through it! Luckily, my small local library has all of the books in the series, as well as a few more by Armistead Maupin that I haven’t gotten to yet.

  • Tales of the City
  • More Tales of the City
  • Further Tales of the City
  • Babycakes
  • Significant Others
  • Sure of You

The books, originally published as serial novels in San Francisco newspapers, follow the lives of a group of people who live in the city through the 1970s and 80s.

San Francisco

The books touch on a little of everything: Love, loss, death, marriage, wealth, sex, gender, orientation. There were parts of the series I found a bit outlandish (a journalist with amnesia discovers a cult at the cathedral, for instance). I most enjoyed reading about the characters’ relationships and how they changed through the years. Friends fall out of touch, children are born, folks die and remarry – life moves on, and Tales of the City features strong and dynamic relationships, just like in reality.

I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud like these did, sometimes from a ridiculous situation or from a character’s snarky comment. I flew through this series and will probably move on to Maupin’s other books soon.


Armistead Maupin on Goodreads

Armistead Maupin’s website

Recently read: ‘Burnt Shadows’

Yesterday I finished reading Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. I actually bought this book in Oxford, England about 3 years ago, and forgot about that until I noticed the price on the back was in pounds.

I enjoyed the book, which explores the relationships between a Japanese woman who survived the bombing of Nagasaki, a bright, young Indian man with dreams of becoming a lawyer, an upper-class British family experiencing the collapse of an empire and a marriage, and their children. These relationships endure despite conflict between nations – Japan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States – in pivotal points in history. It was quite fitting that I finished the book on Sept. 11, as the novel progresses through the aftermath of 9/11.Burnt Shadows, Kamila ShamsieIt was an educational book for me as well; aside from the United States, I don’t know much about the other countries that are central to the plot of the book.

Shamsie writes beautifully, I think. Within her writing there is wonderful imagery, and I would definitely read more of her novels.

New places, new books

I think some of the simple pleasures in life include walking around a book shop until there’s a crick in your neck from reading the spines, cracking open a brand new book and smelling the woody, dusty aroma of a good read. So when I travel, I make a point of heading to local book stores. Even chain book shops in other countries are something new to me, so I like visiting those too.

Book store in Oxford, England

Harry Potter books for sale in England. I love that the cover art differs in each country.

I’m not picky with book stores. I have visited and enjoyed a modern, minimalist store with a small but excellent selection of hand-picked books and a focus on poetry; a small cottage-turned-shop tucked away from the street, oozing Southern charm, with comfortable couches and tables with spindly legs struggling to support the weight of the owner’s favorite hardcover; a neighborhood staple that has been around for decades, where not much has changed because it’s already as close to perfect as you can get; an unassuming used book shop in a strip mall, with creaky, repurposed wood crates as shelves that seem to stretch back for miles. Pretty much anywhere I can buy, borrow or read books, I’m happy.

The books I buy in other countries don’t necessarily have to be about whatever place I happen to be in. Re-reading that book is enough to remind me of my trip. In France I took advantage of my expanding language skills and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in French. The book store I purchased the books from, Furet du Nord, was amazing – eight stories, located right on the Grand Place. I worked my way through the wizarding tale I knew so well while I studied abroad.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Recently I purchased Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore at The Book Passage in San Francisco. My husband actually picked it out (I think the glow-in-the-dark cover caught his eye) and it was a great read. I finished it the next day on the flight home. A sort of modern-day fantasy adventure set in San Francisco and New York City, it involves a secret society, the “magic” of technology and a dash of mystery.

Which book stores have you visited on your travels? Do you have any fond memories of the books you picked up along the way?

Topsail Island: It’s nothing special

Off the southern coast of North Carolina lies a 26-mile long spit of sand that’s hard to leave. Topsail Island has everything I look for at the coast…luscious, white sand; water, shifting from sea green to bright azure, stretching to the horizon; and the opportunity to find a stretch of beach to call your own. It’s nothing special, but that’s why I love it.

Topsail Island

Unlike a lot of popular beaches, Topsail isn’t very developed. I think there is one stoplight on the entire island. There are rows of beach houses with clever names, boutique stores and surf shops, ice cream shops, and small motels, but not much else. No strip malls, clubs, car dealerships, or anything of that nature. There’s not much to do other than unfold a beach chair, smooth on sunscreen and enjoy some time with the family. It’s nothing special, but that’s what makes it special.

Topsail Island

On the island, time ebbs and flows slowly, like the tide. Maybe I’ll wake up to see the sunrise, or awake later to the sound of waves drumming an endless rhythm on the sand. The biggest event of the day might be a game of bocce ball or finding a perfect black and grey shark’s tooth. The biggest island attractions are fishing – on the pier or the shore – or you can just watch the minnows dart around in the shallows between suntanned legs. I like bird watching. Pelicans glide in pairs or groups above the dunes, parallel to shore, sand pipers’ legs flit quickly across hot sand and a constant, refreshing breeze ruffles the feathers of a lone seagull. It’s nothing special, but that’s the beauty of it.

Topsail Island

I was just there for a week with my husband’s family during their annual vacation. During my time at the ocean-front house I read four books, completed four puzzles, won three games of shuffleboard, and ate entirely too many servings of ice cream. I watched the sun rise over the ocean and set over the sound. I saw a fisherman catch and release a baby stingray. I scanned the ocean for dolphins but didn’t see any this time, although a few other people were lucky and saw some. The vacation as a whole was nothing special, but I know these memories of Topsail will be the ones I cherish for years to come.

Topsail Island

One of the books I read was Topsail Island: Mayberry by the Sea by Ray McAllister. A good beach read, McAllister offers a well-rounded view of the island’s history and what makes it unique through stories and anecdotes from people who have lived or vacationed on Topsail for decades. Some of the stories could be just rumors (Did the pirate Blackbeard hide in the sound waiting to ambush other ships, who soon learned to look for his sails behind the dunes? Is there buried treasure somewhere beneath the sand on the island?) and others focus on Topsail’s future (the north end of the island is eroding, and sand is being deposited on the south end). If you’re a weather nut like me, you’ll like the hurricane chapter. 1996 was a particularly bad summer for the island, with a one-two punch from Bertha and Fran. McAllister also discusses the eight mysterious towers on the island, left over from when the military used the island as a place to develop and test missiles, aka Operation Bumblebee. I found it interesting to learn more about the place I’ve been coming to for years.

Topsail Island

What’s your favorite island or beach for a family vacation?