There has been much excitement amidst my circle of friends. A librarian-buddy of mine finally bought an e-reader and took to social media to proclaim how excited she was about all of the free books she could get. When a literary work is old enough the copyright expires. Through services like Project Gutenberg or Centsless Books (and your local library!), readers can download hundreds of books for free, to keep, forever and ever. Color me blissfully happy. Many of the books on this list are free to download, but not all. I should also note that I use “books that I read when I was a child” as a marker for “old” books. Enjoy this list of books that keep their appeal, year after year.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty Macdonald. There once was a funny little woman who lived in an upside down house, with her clever pets. She loves children and she uses a combination of magical medicines and her own common sense to cure kids of bad habits. I’m not sure if it was the names of the characters (from Hubert to Perloga and Fetlock) or the wonderful ‘cures’ Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle used (one of my favorites involves a smart pig who teaches excellent table manners) that have stuck with me over the years. I absolutely recommend this series of books, both for read aloud time with the family or as a chapter book. As an added bonus, Betty Macdonald lived much of her life here in the Pacific Northwest.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss. A family of six (mother, father and four boys) gets stranded on a deserted island (with an unbelievable amount of exotic wildlife) and works together to survive. I think what I loved most about this book was the endless possibility. Although the characters found themselves in a situation that had the potential to be frightening and terribly dangerous (shipwrecked far away from home) they made the situation work for them with their survival skills, their family bonds and their faith (er...also by shooting everything that moved, but I digress). The best lesson I learned from "Swiss Family Robinson"? When life shipwrecks you, use the lumber to build a tree house.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Spoiled Mary Lennox has always lived in India, where her parents ignore her and the servants always let her have her way. When a terrible illness leaves Mary an orphan, she goes to live with her mysterious uncle in England at a place called Misselthwaite Manor. Mary tries her best to continue her disagreeable ways, but she begins to make friends and thrive in spite of herself. Then she stumbles onto one of Misselthwaite Manor’s many secrets. She finds a lonely garden that has been shut up for years. As Mary works to bring the garden back to life, she herself begins to bloom into a happy, healthy child.
An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. I'm sure most people will know Louisa May Alcott from her widely read book "Little Women", but fewer know about her many other books. One of my favorites is "An Old-Fashioned Girl" which centers around a 'country' girl named Polly Milton. At the opening of the story, fourteen year old Polly goes to stay with her stylish city friend Fanny Shaw and the Shaw family. Although Polly feels sadly out of place, she wins over almost everyone she meets with her good heart and happy nature. The book follows Polly and the Shaws through several years and changes of fortune. I adored Polly, simply because she stayed true to her own sweet nature in spite of frustrations and lack of wealth or beauty.
A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. Elnora Comstock is the only child of stern widow Katharine Comstock. The two live on the edge of the Limberlost swamp in the state of Indiana and scrape by. We enter into the story on Elnora's first day of high school, where the girl is made fun of because of her raggedy clothes. Elnora discovers that she must buy her own books and supplies if she wants to attend high school. Elnora can't go to her mother for help because Katharine blames Elnora for the death of her husband and holds her at a distance. However, Elnora finds that her extensive knowledge of the Limberlost (in particular her habit of gathering and learning about moths) and the love of her friends will enable her to make her way in the world. This is a wonderful story of love, forgiveness and the beauty of nature.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was lucky enough to have my mother read this book to my sister and me when we were both little girls. This is the story of Jim Hawkins, a lad who longs for adventure but works at an inn. When a longtime lodger at the inn drops dead, Jim Hawkins finds a fantastic treasure map among his belongings. Jim vows to set off in search of this treasure and gathers an experienced crew of sailors to help him with the search. All is not as it seems with this crew and Jim must find the strength to face off with the nastiest band of pirates ever to sail the seven seas. This is the book that all but created the stereotypical pirate, complete with peg legs, eye patches and squawking parrots.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is in the middle of a plane flight into far northern Canada. The plane is tiny, holding only Brian and the pilot. As they soar over vast wilderness, suddenly the pilot clutches his chest and slumps over the controls. Brian is helpless as the plane careens into a nosedive and crashes. Brian manages to survive the crash, only to realize that he is stranded alone in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back and a hatchet his mother gave him as a gift. This Newberry winning survival story is the first in a series featuring Brian.
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Valancy lives a miserable existence as the odd one out in her very unpleasant family. At 29, she's never fallen in love, rebelled or even had many moments of undiluted happiness. One day, Valancy is informed via a letter from her doctor that she hasn't long to live. After Valancy reads the letter, she vows that she will live life to the fullest. She begins at once, much to the horror of her snobbish family and does all kinds of 'shocking' things like becoming friends with the town scapegrace and cutting her hair (oh horrors). By the end of the book, Valancy has finally discovered all the joy that she only once had in her imagination. This book is full of gratification, from a very sweet romance, to devilish relish when Valancy finally stands up to her awful family and comes into her own. L.M. Montgomery, by the way, is also the author of the Anne of Green Gables series.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm. This collection of fairy tales has withstood the test of time. With every generation, we find new ways to tell these stories. Just look at this past year, which has featured two versions of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” gracing movie screens. I have always recommended reading a work in the original and I love this collection of tales. Readers will find old favorites, like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” as well as stories that they have never heard of before. While these tales are wonderful, many are in fact very grim and do not have the happy endings we’ve come to expect.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. James Herriot was a vet who worked in Yorkshire, England in the 1930s and 1940s. In this first book, he is a young vet student who has just begun work with two eccentric brothers, named Siegfried and Tristan Farnon. He tells many stories of his cases throughout Yorkshire, on everything from cattle to cats and dogs. One of James Herriot’s gifts is his sense of humor, which he uses to great effect retelling some of the quirks of his patients, as well as his own blunders. At no time do you feel as though he is being malicious or making too much fun. Rather, in between the hilarious episodes, Herriot writes about how much he loves the places and the people he works with.
Rascal by Sterling North. Author Sterling North tells of his childhood, growing up in the one-time wilds of Wisconsin. In particular, Sterling remembers the memorable year when he found a baby raccoon and raised it. The raccoon, christened Rascal, was Sterling’s “ringtailed-wonder”. Rascal was Sterling’s window into the woodlands and farms surrounding his small town. The two spend many days exploring and having adventures, but in the end, both Rascal and Sterling must grow up. This wonderful book is one of my favorite animal stories, combining humor and the bittersweet journey out of childhood.
The Best Loved Poems of the American People, edited by Hazel Felleman. The impressive array of poetry (575 poems total) collected in this book will have something for everyone. I love that there were classics (think Keats, Poe and Tennyson) right next to nonsense poems, as well as several poem parodies right next to the original. The poems are organized by subject, so the reader can browse according to mood. Readers will also find several longtime favorites of mine, like “Casey at the Bat” or “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” (which I know best as a Raffi song).
Dracula by Bram Stoker. Cast your mind back, back beyond Edward and Bella and even Stephanie Meyer. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was my first experience with the mythology of the vampire and it still remains my favorite. Jonathan Harker leaves his fiancé and his country to help an eccentric count purchase property in England. Jonathan eventually discovers the horror he has unleashed and vows to stop him. With the aid of the famous Doctor Van Helsing, his love Mina and a stalwart group of budding vampire slayers, Jonathan races against time to stop Count Dracula before he can attain ultimate power.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Stella Gibbons penned this comedic novel in the 1930s, slyly poking fun at popular themes in literature of the day. The story follows Flora Poste, a thoroughly modern girl who decides to move in with distant relatives rather than find gainful employment. Flora journeys to Cold Comfort farm in Sussex, England where she discovers several mournful relatives, each with their own unique issues. One example is matriarch Aunt Ada Doom, who keeps her family in line by wielding a scarring experience she had as a child when she "saw something nasty in the woodshed". Flora is determined to help her poor backward family, so, armed only with her firm common sense and modern ideals, she sets off to make things right.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although you may not recognize the title, this book was made into a movie this past year called “John Carter”. This book is the first in a series of pulpy (but fun) science fiction books featuring John Carter, an American man who is mysteriously transported to Mars. While on Mars, John gains superhuman strength and agility, which he uses to right wrongs and win the heart of a Martian Princess named Dejah Thoris. This series of books has just become available for free download, so enjoy an entertaining read of early science fiction.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All right, I admit it. I mostly put this book on the list in silent homage to the incredible series “Sherlock” from BBC, which is a beautifully done modern spin on the classic stories by Arthur Doyle. A side effect of this series being so popular is that there has been a resurgence of interest in the books. The books follow the cases of one of the greatest detectives in the world, one Sherlock Holmes, as told by his constant companion Dr. Watson. These stories are endlessly intriguing, even for the lukewarm mystery fan. One almost wants to finish the story just to hear Holmes explain his incredible deductions. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” is available for free from one of the services listed above, or through your local library collection.
What's your favorite free e-reader book? Tell us in the comments.