As big-time readers, our home is always filled with books–especially books that could be described as fantastic, nerdy, and straight up weird. You know, books that will tickle the brain and make your kid turn her head sideways in a, “Huh?” expression — in a good way.
Kickle Snifters and Other Fearsome Critters (Alvin Schwartz)
This 1976 collection is a retelling of old stories from American folklore, with hand-drawn illustrations and creatures that you’ll never encounter in any other kind of book (like snawfus, bill dads, lufferlansg, tripoderoes, and the gowrow, my personal favorite). We have read this book to our son hundreds of times, to the point that our already previously loved version of the book is physically falling apart. As a toddler, he loved these stories so much that once, after finding a gargoyle-esque plastic toy on a thrifting trip, he promptly named it Petunia the Gowrow and slept with it each night for months.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School (Louis Sachar)
One of my teachers first introduced me to Wayside School in second grade. I remember loving the stories, and I also remember how every single kid couldn’t stop staring at our classmate named Leslie every time our teacher read about how Paul couldn’t stop pulling her pigtails. For those who are not familiar, Sideways Stories from Wayside School is a bit epic. I know, I know: “epic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but hear me out. You know how when you were in third or fourth grade and everything started to feel a little.. weird? Like, all of the sudden you’re just much more… aware of your classmates, and the details of their lives? Sideways takes those regular stories and turns them, well, sideways. I remember being enthralled when a teacher read the book out loud, and was absolutely equally aghast and enthralled a few months back, when my kid and I discovered that there’s a second, even weirder book in the series. Think teachers who turn children into apples, yellow balls that no one wants to play with, and a substitute teacher with a third ear growing on top of her heard. My son and I are reading the second book together now, and where the first book was strange but still silly, this second book is downright mischievous, batty, and at times unsettling… in a way that children’s books aren’t always these days.
My Teacher is an Alien (Bruce Coville)
Bruce Coville kind of changed my life the first time I read this book, and I say this as a woman who was a girl who was super obsessed with aliens to begin with. While we definitely also have enjoyed the Space Brat with our son, this book far surpasses those and is an instant classic. At least in our house. I first read My Teacher is an Alien when I was 10, and have been waiting (and waiting) to share it with my own kid. If you’ve ever side eyed that science teacher down the hall, or questioned the social studies teacher who always seems a little… off, you (and your kid) will definitely relate. Imagine if that weird teacher you’re thinking of actually turned out to be… a full blown, total alien. Weird, right? But totally plausible.
My Hairiest Adventure (RL Stine)
The Goosebumps series really straddles the line between weird and scary, but if there’s one book that stands out to me as accessible to most kids, it’s this one. As an adult, I’ve also realized there’s a great metaphor in there for puberty and body changes, which I think I might have glossed over the first time I read this as a pre-teen. Eight way, this one is definitely weird, without being the most terrifying book served up.
A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
A lot of people have read this book (and its four follow-ups), and a lot more people have heard of it, but on the off chance that it’s one you’re still waiting around on: buy it for your kid yesterday. The first time I read this book by myself, it opened my mind in a way that I hadn’t totally realized books could. I read it out loud to my husband when we were on a cross-country drive, and again to our son when he was seven. We had to stop – a lot – and really dig into the themes and imagery, but it was 100% worth it to take our time and figure the book out. (Plus, Ava DuVernay has her sure-to-be-brilliant adaptation coming out next March, and you guys can make a whole movie adventure out of it.)
The Iron Man (Ted Hughes)
Ted Hughes aside (because… ugh), I am deeply enchanted by this story of a boy and his giant metal friend. We found this book going backwards, so to speak—we watched the movie Iron Giant first, completely broke down and sobbed, and then found out that the book existed. It turns out that the movie and the book don’t have a lot in common, though both are really beautiful stories in their own ways. The book definitely wilds out a little bit, but in the interest of not giving away anything… I’ll just leave you with that. If you have a child who still hasn’t found that one special book to fall in love with, this odyssey on identity and self might be it.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (TS Eliot)
“Macavity, The Mystery Cat” is my kid’s favorite poem, and he was beyond thrilled when we found out that TS Eliot had written even more poems about the psychology and sociology of cats. While this isn’t a big chapter book that will engage a young reader for days or weeks, it is completely cherished in our home (and it’s also pretty hysterical that Eliot loved cats this much).
James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl)
I almost didn’t include this one because it feels obvious, but every time I meet an adult who has never read this book I’m taken aback. Guys: James the Giant Peach was the highlight of my fourth grade year. This book is immediately quixotic and unnerving and delightful and a little scary (because abusive caregivers), and the story grows into something that is really wonderful and wholly unlike any other book I’ve ever read (including the rest of Dahl’s work). And since I always think it’s a bonus when there’s a movie version out there, let me say it: the movie version is good—almost as good as the book itself.
Charlotte Sometimes (Penelope Farmer)
Fans of the The Cure might recognize the book title from one of their songs, but how many of you have sought out the book to begin with? Charlotte Sometimes is a delightfully funky story of time travel and magic, as Charlotte Makepeace navigates living in both 1958 and 1918. Naturally, she has to find a way back to her time and place, but it won’t happen easily.
The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)
Helloooo, my favorite weird book! Maybe not of all time, but this one is certainly close to the top of the list. If your kid is looking for a bizarre journey into the English language (or you just think they *might* be), The Phantom Tollbooth is it. If you’ve ever had a kid moan, “I’m booorrreeeddd,” then this is the book to deliver up, trust.
Stephanie Kaloi is a writer, editor, and photographer living in Oakland, CA, with her family and menagerie of adopted pets. She spends an inordinate amount of time reading and wandering, and is always down for a cross-country road trip.