This post was published in February 2017 and was updated in February 2020 and February 2023.
What was the first book that changed how you see the world? Of the millions of books requested by teachers on DonorsChoose over the last twenty years, these nine stand out for their impact on countless childhoods. And when teachers use them in the classroom, kids are still thrilled.
To create this list, we looked at the books that teachers have requested for their students most frequently and got the teacher skinny on what they consider “classics”.
“[It’s] been amazing to see how excited they get about the story! I am sure we all got the chance to read this classic story about kindness and friendship and I am so excited to share this with my students for years to come!” - Ms. Burel, 2nd Grade, on Charlotte’s Web
1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
It’s no coincidence that when you search for “books about friendship” on Google, Charlotte’s Web is the first result. The bond between Charlotte and Wilbur taught a lot of us about compassion, empathy, and selflessness. White writes for children without talking down to them, treating young kids as individuals capable of understanding deep emotional moments.
2. Holes by Louis Sachar
The curse on Stanley Yelnats is only slightly less powerful than the hold Sachar’s book has had on readers for more than 20 years. At boys’ detention center Camp Green Lake, there’s only one goal: dig holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. With more questions than answers, Stanley and his fellow wards look to dig up the truth and change their own fates.
3. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Through the eyes of 10-year-old Annemarie, we experience the rescue of Danish Jews during World War II. This suspenseful, deeply human account is still must-read in classrooms across the country (along with Lowry’s other modern classic, The Giver). Lowry is the thoughtful, skilled writer you remember, but make no mistake — both books are riveting, unabashed page-turners.
4. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Few books have inspired more laugh-out-loud fun than this classic, beloved by grade-schoolers everywhere. The tale of Peter’s relationship with his brother, Fudge, helped countless of reluctant older siblings come to terms with the idea that the little monsters monopolizing our parent’s attention would not, in fact, be returning to the hospital but would instead be a constant presence of the rest of our lives.
5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madelene L’Engle
If all the books on this list have one thing in common, it’s that their writers understand that the best children’s literature can handle adult topics. Madelene L’Engle certainly doesn’t shy away from big themes and ideas: A Wrinkle in Time is about nothing less than a cosmic battle between good and evil. She takes a stand for individuality over conformity and thinking over mindlessness. Most of all, she tells every reader: “Be yourself.” A timeless message indeed.
6. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The House on Mango Street is a classic coming-of-age novel. Narrator Esperanza Cordero grabs you by the hand and wades with you through the waters of her life. Each vignette is an invitation to explore the rich cultural and historic contexts that shape our lives and, at times, collide with our desire to be known and seen as our truest, most authentic selves. It’s no coincidence that Esperanza means hope; this luminous swirl of autobiography and fiction leaves every reader with plenty.
7. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Brian Robeson survived a plane crash – with nothing but a hatchet and a windbreaker with which to face an unwelcoming wilderness. Such begins an epic tale of survival, family, and discovery that has given decades of young readers a taste for adventure and gratitude for home.
8. Frindle by Andrew Clements
What happens when a kid invents a new word, his classmates love it, and his teacher hates it? Meet Nick Allen, mastermind behind ‘frindle’ whose curiosity and well-meaning experiment with words takes on wildly unexpected consequences. Clements creates a one-of-a-kind student-teacher dynamic with a twist ending that will forever bind clever, uncontainable students and the teachers who stand by them.
9. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
An unforgettable read, Roll of Thunder follows the Logan family as they navigate Depression-era Mississippi. Taylor manages to fill the pages with laughter, grade-school high-jinks, and the comfort of a close-knit family without undermining the racism and turbulent national history that permeate the lives of her characters. Now more than ever, we need this big-hearted book.
Of course, we know this list is far from comprehensive — and we want to hear from you! What was your favorite as a kid? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or in the comments below.
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