This post was published in October 2017 and was updated in February 2020.
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 ten 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. 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.
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. Matilda by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl’s books are still so popular in the classroom that we could have populated this list exclusively with his books. But we had to pick one and, after much debate, landed on Matilda. For all kids who preferred curling up with a book to other forms of entertainment, Matilda was the hero we needed. The film and musical have both become popular in their own right, but it’s inclusion in so many classrooms means that many kids first meet the book version of Matilda we all know and love.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
When it comes to adventure, Robert Louis Stevenson knew what he was doing. Treasure Island ensnares kids to this day in the world of pirates, gold, and buccaneers. While it may seem like the story is all about, well, treasure, there’s no denying that Treasure Island is the quest that;s helped generations grapple with growing up.
9. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family’s survival of the beautiful, but sometimes desolate unknown, is one that has followed us through the ages. There’s something about being launched to a world that existed ~100 years ago that makes children rethink their own world view. It just takes a few pages to feel like you’ve become an Ingalls for life. (This book also happens to be the impetus for the founding of DonorsChoose. Read the story here.)
10. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The Wizard of Oz is one of the classic world-bending stories, enchanting people of all ages with a tale of a girl in sparkly red shoes. You don’t have to be from Kansas to understand what it feels like to be a little stuck in your own life, and how an adventure is sometimes all it takes to gain perspective. The yellow brick road is never too far away.
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.
Help give the next generation of kids access to life-changing books!