By Alexandra Goodwin

Everyone has a reading story. Whether your reading journey spans weeks, years, or decades, it’s impossible to be unaffected by the things you read. I began reading at the age of six, and while the journey has not been without struggles (did anyone else neglect school or sleep to finish a novel?) I’m humbled by how my everyday life revolves around the stories I’ve read. Each of the books I share today were extremely impactful to my growth as a reader and a person. While some may be rather obscure now, they nonetheless are quality reading, and food for much thought. I hope this list may offer some inspiration for your future reading endeavors, or at least some insight into a reader’s mind.

Pre-Reader / Age 0-4

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

A lesson in unconditional love, The Giving Tree is about the changes of life and how there are some things that will always remain constant. This was one of the first bedtime stories I remember being read by my mother.

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

Also a favorite of my mother’s, Frog and Toad are two best friends who do life together. There are many stories of their friendship, many of which center on themes of kindness, patience, and dealing with life as it comes.

Early Reader / Age 5-8

Please Try to Remember the First of Octember by Dr. Suess

One of the lesser-known Suess books, this nonsense story about the fictional month of Octember was my favorite book from the time I read it until I could read chapter books. The colorful illustrations are engaging even for readers who don’t understand all the words, and each time you read the pictures show something new.

The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Always with a lesson in mind, the Berenstain Bears books teach kids about life: getting along with people, trying new things, and embracing the unknown. As someone who has always been wary of change, The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter showed me that what seems scary can be good. Plus, I always loved having babysitters after reading it.

Afternoon on the Amazon by Mary Pope Osborne

This book in the Magic Treehouse series is about Jack and Annie’s adventure through the Amazon rainforest. This was the first chapter book I ever read by myself, and was also the book that introduced me to the historical fiction genre. This book is part of the Magic Treehouse series, which has dozens of historical fiction stories and nonfiction guides for young readers. Over the next few years, I read almost every single Magic Treehouse book; I also realized that I loved history. (My history educator self has Mrs. Adams, my first grade teacher, to thank for this first nudge into my future profession.)

Middle Reader / Age 9-14

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Still my favorite book to date, Little Women follows a family of four girls as they grow up in 1860s Boston. The novel is split into two sections; the first is about childhood, play, and family, while the second expands to include adult responsibility, making a place for yourself in the world, and love and friendship. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found more and more to appreciate about the adventures, misadventures, and lessons learned by the March sisters. Though written over 150 years ago, many of the themes about people and the world still ring true.

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Surprisingly, I did not read these books until late in middle school, years after most of my peers. Harry Potter’s journey through the magical world of Hogwarts nonetheless captivated me; even though there was much fantasy and make-believe, the plot did not avoid the staggering realities of pain, heartbreak, and changing loyalties that appear for all of us in real life. (For anyone who might be wondering, I am in fact a Hufflepuff.)

They Cage the Animals at Night by Jennings Michael Burch

I don’t think I ever finished this book. Nevertheless, I have thought about it often since sixth grade English, when my class began it. It’s a memoir of Jennings, a young boy who suffers abuse while moving through the foster care system. For me, it opened my eyes to the darker parts of humanity, which I had little experience with up until that time.

Mature Reader / Age 15-18

*Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

This book is part-nonfiction, part-memoir, and details several years in the life of the author, who is a defense lawyer for criminals on Death Row. Through several case studies, Stevenson talks about not only the legal side of criminal defense, but also the relationship between him and several of his clients. This book was eye-opening, particularly because prison is such a foreign concept to many, and the prison and criminal justice system at large is hard to dissect for the average person.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Anne Elliot is the oldest daughter of three and the most stable member of her family in Regency England. Often considered to be a classic, this story explores family loyalty, love, compassion, and putting trust in yourself. This was the first Austen novel I read as an adult, and with each reread there is new humor and commentary to appreciate.

Adult Reader / Age 19+

*Maid by Stephanie Land

Maid is a memoir about the author and her journey through several years living under the poverty line as a single mom. This book takes a hard look at the domestic cleaning service industry in America and the oft-overlooked consequences of the welfare system. This book made me realize the complexities of government assistance programs and how difficult it can be to get off of them, even with hard work. 

*Educated by Tara Westover

Another memoir, this book explores how the author overcame a sheltered and traumatic childhood to become a college graduate, even after not completing high school. Again addressing the complexities of family, Educated was a reminder that some stories are hidden, and trauma is not something that simply “goes away.”

*A Note: Just Mercy, Maid, and Educated are all memoirs that deal with complex family situations, social structures, and the relationship between private and public entities. They are meant for older readers with some life experience, but also are eye-opening to lesser-known parts of American society for young adults. I recommend these books to everyone, but particularly those interested in pursuing, or in the midst of, a career that requires interacting with people. 

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