My favorite children's novels

by Ryan Johnson January 30, 2016

 My Top 5 Children's Novels - Cora Stories

Every storyteller has a DNA built from the stories that inspired, entertained, challenged, and ultimately moved him. This is why the best writers are usually the most voracious readers -- they have the most expansive building blocks from which to work.

This isn't plagiarism. It's just how art works.

As the great poet T.S. Eliot put it: 

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”

I was thinking about this DNA this morning. Who are the biggest inspirations for Cora Stories?

It didn't take me too long to identify. Here are five who's legacies I'm proud to carry on in my stories.

The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton JusterMy favorite book of all time. This playful allegory has more wit and wisdom per page than any other book I've ever read.

It tells the story of a bored, aimless boy named Milo who gets pulled into an adventure to rescue two princesses (Rhyme and Reason) and discovers along the way that life is much more interesting and fun than he imagined.

The book contains one of the best casts of characters, including Tock (a watchdog with a clock for a body), the Mathemagician, King Azaz the Unabridged (the leader of Dictionopolis), and Faintly Macabre (the not-so-wicked witch) -- to name a few of the dozens in this wonderful book.

To squeeze as much sheer delight and wonder into a story as Juster squeezes into this story, that's one of my missions at Cora Stories.


Matilda (Roald Dahl)

Matilda, by Roald DahlIn this classic, Dahl perfectly balances his bawdy, slapstick humor with a warm and good-natured heroine, the book's eponymous telepathic bookworm.

The story meanders but is always entertaining, like Dahl is making up the story as he goes a long. Dahl happily indulges in all sorts of diversions, from Matilda's clever pranks on her crook of a father to Miss Trunchbull's force-feeding cake to one of her students. 

From Matilda -- and The Phantom Tollbooth -- I can trace my love for bigger-than-life characters. And for my happy willingness to squeeze humor into even the gravest of stories and situations.


Redwall (Brian Jacques)

Redwall, by Brian JacquesI was in 5th grade when I read Redwall, and I gobbled up books in this series as fast as Jacques could publish them.

Mice, moles, foxes, badgers and other small forest animals populate this high-adventure fantasy novel. The heroics and quests, the villainy and danger -- I was hooked.

It was also the first truly immersive literary world -- complete with backstories, repeat characters, dialects and geographies -- that I fell in love with. I even wrote my own Redwall fan fiction.

From Redwall, I can trace my love of creating immersive stories -- complete worlds you can explore and enjoy, learn from and grow with. 


Hatchet (Gary Paulson)


Hatchet, by Gary PaulsenThis young adult novel was the start of my bridge from children's to adult literature.

It tells the story of a young teen who's stranded in the Canadian wilderness with just a coat and a hatchet. It was more real and serious than the books I was used to reading. It wrestled with serious concerns, like divorce and survival.

Children may love a silly story, but their pains and fears are just as real as any adult's. Possibly even greater since they may not have the power or understanding to solve them.

The best children's stories don't speak down to children. They treat their hopes and fears as seriously as children do. It takes a deft touch to not just entertain, but educate and connect.

That's what I strive to do with every Cora Story.


The Giver (Lois Lowry)

The Giver, by Lois LowryThe Giver is a young adult version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or George Orwell's 1984 -- although that description cheapens the craft behind this powerful allegory. The book is about a young boy who uncovers some powerful truths about the colorless dystopian world he's grown up in.

This book as always inspired me to be direct in my storytelling and dig deep for the heart and wisdom in any story.

I can trace a direct line from The Giver to many of my favorite "adult" books of literary fiction. 

In future posts, I'll share more of my Top 5 books -- literature, non-fiction, and picture books -- which have help shape my storytelling DNA.

What children's stories had the biggest impact on you? What stories do your children love the most?

Share you picks in the comments below. 


Ryan Johnson
Ryan Johnson


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