Books for the Ages

So, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was, um, maybe 30? And I had the eerie sensation, while reading it, of "Wow, I would have really grooved on this had I read it when I was 9." Especially that special weird bank that you nail to the floor.
But the thing was, I didn't read it when I was 9, and so it kind of … wasn't that great. It was more sort of sweet. But it left me cold.
Which makes me think that some books have a sort of shelf life, except it's an age life. (Whereas some, like Green Eggs and Ham, are perfect anytime!) But they have, all of them, true greatness, and it's so worth it to be able to experience it to its utmost.
So, foolishly no doubt, I'm going to go ahead and make a completely talking-out-my-ass stab at listing some of them and the ages at which they should be read (or read to you) the first time. Once you get them in that first time, then you can reread them forever.
And then again, as C.S. Lewis said in his note to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, "My dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not
realized that girls grow quicker than books.  As a result you are
already to old for fairy tales…but some day you will be old enough to
start reading fairy tales again.”
  That always kills me.

Before you're 9:
Now We Are Six (and all the Winnie the Pooh, books;

Before you're 11:
The Secret Garden    

The Jungle Book    

Before you're 12:
Little Women
Anne of Green Gables
All of a Kind Family


Before you're 14:

Robinson Crusoe

Before you're 15:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  

Before you're 16:

Jane Eyre


Before you're 20:
Look Homeward, Angel

Before you're 25 (but after you're 13, maybe?):
The Book of Daniel     

Update: The Book of Daniel is the novel by E.L. Doctorow, and I was too out of it to remember to link it or note that—sorry!

14 thoughts on “Books for the Ages

  1. Of course I think the good news for those who may have missed the “before you’re” date, is that you can experience them with your children when they’re at the right age.

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  2. I didn’t read it until I was an adult either (ditto Jane Eyre) but I still love it.
    If you have a serious reader, I think reading Gone With the Wind before you’re 17 the first time is perfect. I read it when I was 11 and have read it at least once every other year (it used to be once a year, but college then grad school then baby and that book is over 1000 pages long…which i love and hate at the same time). Having read it at different ages has given me remarkable perspective on Scarlett…at 16 I was all “that’s right, you rock!” and then as I aged I sort of grew up with her…I saw her actions at 16 as those of an impulsive teen and those at 30 with the eyes of a 30 year old. I wonder what I’ll think of her in 10 years.

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  3. I read a lot to my kids and we “tackled” The Secret Garden last year. Granted, I was 37 and they were 6 and 8, but we just couldn’t wade through it. We got about 3/4 of the way through and no one was motivated to finish it. So, we moved on. I believe The Underneath was next, and what a magical book that was! Definitely of a different sort, to be sure.

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  4. That’s such an interesting question. I know there are a few movies (“Anna to the Infinite Power” comes to mind) that had tremendous impact on me as a kid, but when I tried to get my friends to watch them as an adult, my friends thought they were hokey and silly. I always thought I was just remembering them through rose-colored glasses, but maybe it’s more like the “age life” you’re talking about. Those stories that affected me so profoundly when I was young still touch on some deep place now.
    I loved “The Secret Garden,” and I had a lot of books from some classics series, like “5 Children and It,” “Hans Brinker,” and “8 Cousins.” Those were all books that I positively devoured, but I wonder if I would have enjoyed them less if I wasn’t exactly the right age when I read them.

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  5. I do think the age comes around again. I didn’t read the Winnie The Pooh books until I was in university, and OH MY GOD, they were so hilarious. I’d read them over my lunch hour at my summer job and laugh out loud — I think once I actually fell out of my chair laughing — and everyone else thought I was nuts.
    I’m chuckling just thinking about them. My son just turned six so…time to get them out!

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  6. I made the mistake of reading “The Book of Three” aloud to my partner, who had never read it at the “right” age. I’m not sure whether the problem was his unfamiliarity with it, or my being the “wrong” age now, or the reading aloud, but the whole thing just fell flat. I’m afraid to look at the rest of the Prydain Chronicles now, even on my own…
    Conversely, I first read Tamora Pierce’s Alanna Quartet in my mid-20s, and I could tell I would have loved them at age 10 or 12, but as it was, I didn’t warm up to them until the last two books.
    On the other hand, I’m rediscovering the “Wrinkle in Time” and “Anne of Green Gables” series with great pleasure.

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  7. I don’t know about the “sell-by date” thing, since I read some of these books at a much later age and still loved them (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn being one of them). I do think you’re right that certain books can speak to you at a certain age. Once they do, they often always remain favorites. But then again, some books are just that awesome – The Phantom Tollbooth is a perfect example; I first read it when I was about 6 or 7, and have read it hundreds of times since, but I have introduced it to adults as well as other kids and everyone has loved it, every single time.

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  8. Yet another interesting question! I think maybe the thing here is that there are many good books out there, that are at their best at a certain age. I’m glad that I read Lord of the Rings when I was twelve. What might have struck me as strange or embarrasing if I had read it at a later age (so few women in it, for instance, or the archaic language that has been imitated so often in other fantasy books with so little luck) just passed over my head. What remained was the sheer glee that such a magical book existed.
    I’m sure that if I were to reread a book like Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” now, I might wince. But I thought it profound when I read it as a teenager, and so I still have a fond regard for it.

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  9. Personally, I will never outgrow my love for the “Chronicles of Prydain” (read first at age 8)or “Jane Eyre” (12, I think).
    Leon Uris’ “Exodus” however, is one book that I feel lost its power as I became an adult.

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  10. I think Wuthering Heights is best read before 18. You just don’t appreciate Heathcliff and Cathy the same way after you’ve gotten some perspective on human nature.
    A Wrinkle in Time is another good one that doesn’t have the same magic past around age 8-10, I think.

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  11. I just barely make the cut off for The book of Daniel, which I have never heard of. It sounds interesting though, I may have to check it out soon.

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  12. Brilliant post (and not just because I happen to think the same way!). I was especially struck my your Look Homeward Angel before 20 comment — I’ve ALWAYS thought that!

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  13. What about Where the Red Fern Grows? I reread as an adult and cried through the end. Is this also a book that you have to read as a child? What about Judy Blume? Has anyone reread JB as an adult? I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to my daughters and they enjoyed Fudge but I don’t know about her other books.

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