Matilda is an extraordinary kid. She taught herself to read at 3, quickly plowing her way through the library as a young child. Add to that telekinetic powers and less-than-stellar parents and it’s no surprise that this Roald Dahl heroine is the focus of an award-winning musical taking the U.K. by storm (it comes to Broadway next April). It makes perfect sense that musical theater has turned to children’s literature. It’s chockablock with the quirkiest and most memorable characters to be found in any book or e-reader. In fact, these kids are so vivid and alive that it’s hard to believe they don’t exist in real life. Kids and adults alike long to go on adventures with Pippi or enter the wacky world of wordplay with Milo. Set aside your serious read and reacquaint yourselves with some old but ever-young friends.
Pippi Longstocking: Created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, Pippi is the poster child for spunky girls everywhere. Living in a big house that her seafaring father bought for her, this red-head pigtailed nine year old has superhuman strength, a penchant for tall tales, and a monkey for a housemate. As you can imagine, adventures ensue, often with her pals Tommy and Annika. Her motto could well be “Go big or go home.”
Madeline: Mademoiselle Madeline was first introduced to the world in 1939. Living in a French boarding school run by nuns, we first meet the little miss as she suffers from appendicitis. Ludwig Bemelmans’ charming artwork and rhyming text (now continued by his grandson John Bemelmans-Marciano) offer a sweet take on Paris while offering up morals to every story, while small but brave Madeline charms everyone with her outgoing personality.
Encyclopedia Brown: Continuing the legacy of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia (created by Donald Sobel) is the main character in a series of young detective stories. The great thing is that each book gives you all the clues to solve the crime along with the adolescent gumshoe. Smarty pants Encyclopedia starts his own detective agency and with his brain, deductive powers, and partner/bodyguard Sally, he solves every crime in short order. Every kid who ever fancied him or herself a private eye lives vicariously through Encyclopedia Brown.
Eloise: “I am Eloise. I am six.” With that, Kay Thompson/Hilary Knight’s chatty little sparkplug wins readers over as she scampers all over The Plaza and, in later books, the world and the holidays. Like Pippi, she lives with her animal friends, but Eloise has room and maid service in a fancy hotel, making this a fantasy closer to home for many kids and adults alike.
Milo: “The Phantom Tollbooth”’s Milo starts out thinking everything is a waste of time but when a mysterious tollbooth arrives, he drives through it and finds himself on a road to Expectations and then the Doldrums before being saved by Tock, a watchdog. He travels through the Kingdom of Wisdom meeting characters like Rhyme and Reason and people who actually eat their words. After many adventures in wordplay and wit, he goes through the tollbooth and finds he’s only been gone an hour. And instead of a boring world, he finds life a whole lot more interesting. For any lover of language, Milo and Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer’s book will win your heart.
Max: Like Milo, Max finds the real world wanting. We find him dressed in a wolf’s costume getting into all sorts of trouble. Sent to his room, it’s not long before his imagination takes him to “Where the Wild Things Are,” a dark magical place full of big monsters. It’s not long before Maurice Sendak’s tiny savage takes over and leads the beasts in a wild rumpus. But like many creatures, he becomes homesick and returns to his life and his waiting supper. Max represents the wild thing in all of us, and we recognize one of our own in his fierce, restless spirit.
More in books
Ramona: Curiosity killed the cat, and it certainly gets Ramona Geraldine Quimby in hot water. Beverly Cleary’s little imp bugs her older sibling at times, and gets into trouble at school for tugging at a classmate’s curls and disrupting naptime. But it all comes out of a place of energy, curiosity, and a rush to be a grown-up. What did you do as a kid to move things along? Yes, Ramona’s antics ring true and we love her for her imperfect pursuits.
Meg Murry: “It was a dark and stormy night.” So begins Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and Meg’s quest to find her missing father, a scientist working on a project called the Tesseract. Aided by her budding love interest Calvin, little brother and Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, Meg travels through space and time to various planets to track down her father. The science-fiction gateway for many a kid , A Wrinkle in Time expands our idea of possibility, while turning Meg from an underachiever to a true heroine.
Harriet: Louise Fitzhugh’s kid wants to be both a writer and a spy, so she takes to writing down her observations as she moves through her Upper West Side world. Unfortunately, her notebook might just be the original burn book, with her classmates finding her writings and not liking what she had to say about them. After being ostracized, she plots her revenge while her grades suffer. We dig Harriet for her aspirations, authenticity, and not-always-perfect actions; she can spy on us any day.
Danny Dunn: The hero of teenage sci-fi adventures by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams, Danny is a science geek. He considers researcher Professor Bullfinch a mentor and often finds himself embroiled in the professor’s latest invention. It’s the Hardy Boys meets Popular Science, and while the books may be dated, Danny’s curiosity and the science ring true. Danny inspired generations of nerds, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
Jennifer Worick is the author of more than 25 books (including the soon-to-be-published Things I Want to Punch in the Face) and a publishing consultant; she can be found at jenniferworick.com
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