If you, like us, picked through boxes of tattered paperback books while home over the holidays, you’re probably still feeling as nostalgic as we are. Our dog-eared copies of beloved series and flashlight favorites brought back memories of those carefree days when you had all the time in the world to get lost in a book. Although we’ve grown into busier schedules and wider literary tastes as adults, nothing beats the familiar comfort of a beloved childhood author. Here’s a look back at some of the seminal writers who defined our early reading careers, and an update on what they’ve been doing in the meantime. Help jog our memory with other forgotten favorites in the comments section.
Inspired by book-starved kids at the library where she worked in the late ’40s, Beverly Cleary set out to write stories that would be more accessible and relatable to her young patrons. Her resulting stories — beginning with Henry Huggins and later including favorites like The Mouse and the Motorcycle and the Ramona series — offered a combination of wit and charm that was rare among children’s and young adult literature. Still writing at age 94, Cleary continues to be honored as both an author and champion of librarianship, with honors and awards as varied as her characters: National Drop Everything Day is a promotion of sustained silent reading that takes place on her birthday (April 12th) every year, she’s received both the national Medal of Arts and the Library of Congress Living Legends award, and there’s even a dorm at UC Berkeley named after her.
A Stephen King for the tween and young adult set, R.L. Stine has out-sold both Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling with his many prolific series of horror and suspense books. His endless supply of Goosebumps and Fear Street titles kept middle schoolers chillingly absorbed throughout the ’90s, but he’s since popularized himself with a new generation through the Rotten School books, an adventure series set at a boarding school that’s devoid of his hallmark horror elements. Still, Stine hasn’t abandoned his creepy-crawly roots entirely: Fear Street made a comeback with a three-part miniseries in 2005 and Goosebumps HorrorLand now features 18 novella spin-offs from the original series (with more to come in the year ahead).
Judy Blume is the voice for uncertain, insecure teenagers everywhere. Books like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, It’s Not the End of the World, and Deenie addressed touchy subjects like menstruation, sexuality, divorce, body image, masturbation, and identity — often with an opposing outcry from schools and parents — and have been translated into 31 languages. Despite controversy, Blume has nonetheless offered a lifeline to angsty adolescents, and she has spent the past few decades fighting to make those shy voices heard. An active member of the National Coalition Against Censorship as well as the Kids Fund and the Authors Guild (where she served as vice president last year), Blume has tirelessly worked to preserve intellectual freedom for young readers around the world.
A master at tear-jerker stories like Number the Stars, Lois Lowry also has the distinction of having written the ultimate mindfuck of a middle school book: The Giver. Both of the aforementioned titles earned her the prestigious Newberry Medal, but her prolific career has also included books about racism, terminal illness, and murder. The Giver eventually evolved into a trilogy — including The Gathering Blue and Messenger — and Lowry has applied the early success of character-driven series (i.e. Anasatasia, Sam, and Tates) to the Gooney Bird series in the last decade. Oh, and she blogs regularly.
Although books like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales won over jaded readers through mischievous sarcasm and precocious self-parody, Jon Scieszka has made a point of educating young readers while also amusing them. His Time Warp Trio books offer history lessons, and he’s managed to make both math and science exciting with fun picture books that lighten the oft-intimidating disciplines. Scieszka also founded the nonprofit literacy program Guys Read, which helps to promote literacy among young boys in the US, and he has edited a companion anthology called Guys Write for Guys Read.
Robert Cormier addressed issues of madness, violence, betrayal, and abuse while most of his peers were more concerned with didactic lesson making. Matching the downbeat tone of adolescent uncertainty, classics like The Chocolate War, We All Fall Down, and I Am the Cheese are unflinching portraits of the problems young people face in modern society. Unapologetic about the content and dark subject matter of his work — his language and sexual references have been hotly contested — Cormier continued to write provocative young adult books up until his death in 2000.
Often compared to Hans Christian Andersen, Jane Yolen’s prolificacy has been matched only by her imagination. Her more than 300 books include novels, poetry, short stories, and novellas that flit from fantasy to folklore, history to science fiction. Her literary impact continues to this day with new books (and constant awards) as well as through her active support of emerging new writers (and criticism of excessive publicity for celebrity writers). She also attracted some notoriety with her criticism of the Harry Potter books, which she deemed poorly written and strikingly similar to a series she published eight years prior to the first Potter installment. “If Ms. Rowling would like to cut me a very large check, I would cash it,” she once said in an interview.
Best known for his Redwall series, an epic chronicle of the kingdoms, wars, and social strife (and extravagant feasts) of a world populated by anthropomorphized animals, Brian Jacques is like a sophisticated modern day Aesop. Although he’s still publishing new installments to the sweeping Redwall series, Jacques has also experimented in recent years with fantasy maritime tales as well as picture books. He has been translated into 28 languages, and maintained a regular BBC Radio show called Jakestown on the side until 2006.