From Terabithia to Dark Materials: Karen Nestor’s 10 Children’s Books for a Desert Island

From Terabithia to Dark Materials: Karen Nestor’s 10 Children’s Books for a Desert Island

We might think of summer, with its long days and children out of school, as prime reading season. But October’s longer nights and chilly mornings signal the kick-off for months of reading. After all, what is cozier on a cold day than curling up with a good book? Inspired by New York Times Style Magazine‘s and One Grand‘s recent series “My 10 Favorite Books,” we’ve challenged ourselves to name our own 10 “Desert Island” picks. This week, Board of Directors member Karen Nestor shares hers.

Katherine Paterson, winner of two Newbery Awards and two National Book Awards, convinced me long ago that children’s literature is a genre with untapped potential for adult readers. She wrote, “When I read . . . John Fowles’ Daniel Martin, I hear a symphony orchestra. When I read my own Bridge to Terabithia, I hear a flute solo unaccompanied.” On a desert island alone, I am sure I would crave flute solos that would connect me to life’s essential stories. And if I were lucky enough to share the island with a child, I would want books we could both enjoy over and over again.

Jacob Have I Loved and Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson

If I can’t have the complete Katherine Paterson, these are the two that I would choose. Jacob explores the complex emotions involved in creating one’s own identity, with strong biblical connections to Jacob and Esau. It also provides deep insight into the ways in which the environment (the Chesepeake Bay) shapes our lives. Bridge uses beautiful language to confront the fear of death and the joy and sorrow of deep friendship.

Cover image via

Cover image via

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

I would want this book just for White’s perfect, simple prose. But Charlotte will always lift my spirits and tap into the best of human experience – friendship, commitment, loyalty, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for others.

D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire

This classic retelling provides a way to sneak the wide array of ancient mythology into my desert island collection. Zeus, Hera, Athena, enchanting little Hermes and all their companions would fill my mind with the stories told here and the ones they would remind me of for endless storytelling. The illustrations also are a feast for the imagination.

Talking to the Sun: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems for Young People, Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell

I couldn’t be without poetry on my desert island and this one book represents a selection of the very best and most accessible of world poetry. The bonus is that I would also be bringing a mini-Metropolitan Museum of Art because each poem shares the page with beautiful reproductions from the Met’s collection.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

L’Engle is one of the greatest and most prolific writers of children’s fiction, Her writing explores fantasy and spirituality in ways that promote endless food for thought. Wrinkle is a science fantasy with an intrepid female protagonist. It has layers of action and meaning that make for excellent re-reading.

The Complete Works of Ernest Thompson Seton

By good fortune, Seton’s works are available in an anthologized edition. Though some criticized his sentimental stories about animals, his works like Biography of a Grizzly and Wild Animals I Have Known are vivid depictions of the natural world. Much of his work includes practical advice for managing in the woods alone. I had considered bringing Hatchet (Gary Paulsen), but Seton provides more complete and useful instruction, beginning with knot tying.

Cover image via

Cover image via

Half Magic, Edward Eager

I would definitely want a good dose of magic on my island and Eager captures good fun and magical possibilities in a tale of four children who find an ancient coin that gives them half of whatever they wish. One of their wishes, in fact, unexpectedly sends them to a desert island where they experience a challenging adventure.

Pink and Say, Patricia Polacco

When I taught children’s literature to teachers for many years, this picture book always made my classes cry. It depicts so many of the challenges our country has faced in our complicated racial history through a story of two boys who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War and their deep friendship that crosses the boundaries that continue to bedevil us today. And it ends with its major refrain: “Shake the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.”

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

To my surprise, another fantasy novel (not my favorite genre in general) makes my list. This complex young adult novel combines science, religion, mythology and reality into a compelling plot that sheds light on the fundamental human questions of good and evil and the struggles to separate the two. The first of the Dark Materials trilogy, it is a fascinating read for adults and for children.

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, Brenda Ueland

This is a bit of a cheat, but it gives me the chance to include one adult book. Written in 1938, Ueland’s voice does not suffer fools gladly. This is the best book I know on writing and I hope that having it along would take the inspiration I have gotten from the children’s books I brought to create stories of my own to enrich my life on that desert island.

Further Reading:

Breaking up with a Good Book

Reading Tales of Adventure with Children

Through the Looking Glass: Wonderland at Work

Idolizing Atticus, Empathizing with Scout

Image: Édouard Villard, Children Reading, 1909 Musée d’Art Modern André Malraux, Le Havre, France [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.