Most of us have probably read our fair share of classics in school. Whether you liked them or not, they’ve stuck with you. Quotes from Shakespeare, haunting memories of analyzing paragraphs, trying to figure out why they can’t write in shorter sentence, or falling in love with vast worlds that still feel relevant.
I read my first classic in third grade, and for a few years of my teenaged life, I read primarily in that category. Or rather, I read and re-read the same ones because I loved them so much. Once I got re-introduced to YA, I pretty much stopped reading classics. But my recent revisit to Green Gables inspired me to think about the ones that have stuck with me.
Heidi by johanna spyri – 3rd grade
This was the first classic I ever read, assigned as part of my Literature class in the 3rd grade. I remember being so curious and excited that I started this before I was supposed to and read it twice in as many months. It was a book I continued to re-read for a few years after.
What I loved so much about it were the descriptions. I could feel the air of the Swiss Alps, taste the food, and smell the sweet grass. Reading about Heidi’s life with her grandfather and how she softened his heart has landed this book among my childhood favorites. Chapters of goats prancing around and running through open fields fed my imagination like the outdoors fed Heidi’s spirit. My heart broke when she was sent to the city for “proper living,” and I felt each moment of her heartache over being apart from her grandfather. Nine-year-old me was furious at the family who had refused to let Heidi go back to the mountains. For someone who doesn’t like the outdoors much, I do love reading about people who enjoy it.
When I had the chance to visit Sweden as a teenager, one of the things I had to try was goat cheese. Heidi spoke so often of loving goat’s milk and cheese that I needed to taste it too. And though I’m not the biggest fan of goat cheese, tasting it gave me a closer connection to this book and reconnected me with a childhood memory I hadn’t thought of in awhile.
Black beauty by anna sewell – 6th grade
This was one of the books I read during my horse phase. Yes, I had a horse phase (still do if you count my watching of Heartland). My parents recommended it because they’ve always encouraged my love of animals, and I fell in love with this horse immensely. It’s also a book I’ve been meaning to add back into my collection once I’ve found an edition I love.
This is the only classic I’ve cried over. Reading about Black Beauty’s life as he moved from home to home, I grew so incredibly attached to him. His abusive owners broke my heart. The families that loved him remain warm in my memories. The adventures he had proved to me that animals had the capacity to love and feel, and solidified my belief to this day that they’re often better than people.
The few adaptations I’ve seen of this haven’t lived up to the book. Personally, I don’t think a movie can quite capture the mind of a horse unless it was done like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. And though I haven’t read this in several years, I can still remember many passages vividly.
anne of green gables by l.m. montgomery – 7th grade
Perhaps my favorite classic of all time, this is also my most-read classic. I first read this as an abridged version while visiting my cousin. It took me about two days to fly through and I’ve loved it ever since. I related to Anne Shirley in many ways – imaginative, sharp-tongued, opinionated, and a lover of books. At a time when there were few strong female role models in my books, I found her refreshing and encouraging.
As I grew older, this became a book I revisited in audio form. An online service had it in the public domain and I frequently listened to the first three books in the series. Anne’s life became incredibly familiar to me and I developed a desire to visit the real Green Gables.
In thinking about this book during my re-read, I’ve discovered that it’s responsible for my love of slow-burn romances. Anne and Gilbert have one of the most masterfully written slow-burn romances I’ve ever read. From enemies to friends to lovers, I’ve always enjoyed seeing them come together as people and fall in love over time. And each time I re-read this book, I find myself wanting a Gilbert Blythe of my own. He’s often left off my list of fictional boyfriends, but I think he’s earned a solid place there after all these years.
In a surprising twist, I’ve enjoyed the two adaptations I’ve seen – the 1985 movie and the Netflix series. I think both versions capture Anne Shirley and the setting of Green Gables beautifully. The 1985 version barely strays from the books and infamously has Jonathan Crombie cast as Gilbert Blythe. In the Netflix adaptation, the writers exercised a fair amount of creative liberty to twist the story to appeal to modern audiences. It’s not entirely accurate, but I think the changes they made are still representative of who Anne was and what Avonlea was like.
a little princess by frances hodgson burnett – 9th grade
Of all the books on this list, I’ve heard the most backlash about this book. I haven’t read it recently enough to understand why, but I do remember loving the story a lot. It’s not a complicated plot, yet I enjoyed the characters so much that it’s remained close to my heart.
I do admit that this doesn’t stand the test of time as well as the others, mostly for its descriptions of POC and their culture. Our main character spent considerable time in India, where she learned the language to the point of fluency. The only time we really see her use this is in conversation with an Indian servant, who is occasionally described in a racist manner. His dark skin and pet monkey are among his most notable traits, as well as an ability to move silently; none of which made him a rounded character. Young me didn’t have a problem with it as much as current me does.
Despite that, I do love this book. It’s an example of a character exhibiting grace under fire. No matter what happens to our main character, she remains cheerful, kind, and generous. Her decision to remain positive is admirable and something I find myself remembering as I’ve gotten older. If she can survive her circumstances with a smile, I can do the same.
While we do tend to attribute classics to dead white men (Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters being an exception), I think it says a lot about me that all four of these favorites were written by women. I definitely haven’t read many classics by men, mostly because they haven’t appealed to me much, and I’m okay with that. After all, I don’t want to read from the men for the sake of checking them off a list.
Though I don’t have as much interest in classics now, I am grateful that my younger self enjoyed several popular books. In small ways, that’ve influenced my reading now. I’ve learned a lot from reading classics, even the ones I didn’t like. Their influence remains important in the education of literature and history, as well as being a reflection of their time.