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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Riverside chapter.

I’ve had a pretty steady taste in books throughout my life. I’ve always loved the fantastic, the frightening, and the weird. Lucky for me, my mother kept track of my favorite books as a kid, and started a Goodreads account for me in fourth grade. She then passed the account to me in eighth grade when my English teacher asked us to do our book reports on the website (which was a pretty cool education strategy, in my opinion). It’s fun to be able to look back on these series and use the knowledge of my favorites to discover where I am lacking in my reading repertoire, and how to seek out books I’ll love. If you’re looking for some reading inspo or recommendations for friends and family, here are my favorite books from kindergarten through senior year of university!

Kindergarten: According to Mom, I loved The Giving Tree and Anansi the Spider. The Giving Tree is the popular but sad children’s story about a tree that gives all of itself to a boy who takes her for granted. She gives anyway, until she is just a stump and he is an old man. Anansi the Spider is a folktale stemming from the Ashanti region of Ghana, and this arachnid trickster spirit must choose one of his sons to reward for saving his life. Anansi probably ignited my love for both spiders and gods of mischief!

1st Grade: I was all over the first Harry Potter book. While I have conflicted feelings about the series now, it was certainly formative media for me as a young reader— in fact, I consider it one of my “Three Childhood Series:” formative books that shaped who I am as a reader, writer, and person. I was also an aggressive consumer of the Magic Treehouse books… despite the Titanic story giving me nightmares for a week. Magic Treehouse follows two siblings who go off on wild adventures all over time and space in — as the series name suggests — their magic treehouse.

2nd Grade: Do you remember the Rainbow Magic craze? I certainly do: this massive series featured one fantastic new fairy per book, and had a similar moral vibe to Magic Treehouse. The Wizard of Oz was also a book I was tearing into (that is,asking my mom to read to me). At the same time, I was diving into Greek mythology, getting my feet wet with some myths and then taking on the whole Percy Jackson and the Olympians series — the second of my “Three Childhood Series.”

3rd Grade: I went hard into folklore and mythology, mostly reading D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Norse Myths over and over again. I also started on Erec Rex, my very favorite of the “Three Childhood Series,” and one that stands out, as it was never finished and remains a gaping hole in my heart. Erec Rex had all the good stuff—prophecies and powers, dragons and trials, mystery and magic. I will always hope to see the next book coming out.

4th Grade: Before Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games, she wrote Gregor the Overlander. This series had me in a chokehold as a ten-year old. It follows a young man’s adventures into a dark underworld filled with giant beasts and strange people. A Tale Dark and Grimm is a comedic and young twist on Grimm’s fairy tales, featuring Hansel and Gretel and all their shenanigans. My other favorite this year was Dragon Slippers, and boy, am I glad I found this one. For years, it was my comfort series. If I was ever burned out, I would read the full trilogy and instantly be ready to tackle new books again. Dragon Slippers had a unique idea of dragon hoards; hoarding was a hobby, so you were much more likely to find stained glass windows or lovely tapestries in a dragon’s lair, or even… shoes.

5th Grade: In fifth grade, I read Eragon, a series about a young man who finds a dragon egg and raises the creature inside to help him fight back against an evil regime. This series motivated me to write throughout my K-12 career; I was determined to beat author Christopher Paolini as the youngest bestselling fantasy novelist until we were the same age and I decided second-best was okay. In another epic win for fifth grade, I read The Demon King, first in the Seven Realms Series, which features a fantastic setting of wizards, criminals, clans, a complex history the two protagonists must figure out, and a beautifully crafted world. Cinda Williams Chima, author of The Demon King, remains one of my three idol authors. Coming in close behind these two awesome series, I also read Seraphina, a dragon story that incorporated a psychological element — in this series, the main character is a half-dragon, half-human, and her unique mind map helps her uncover the secrets behind a murdered royal family member.

6th Grade: I read a heck of a lot this year, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. The Archived features a Keeper for the dead, which remain in a backrooms kind of library. Cinder is a sci-fi retelling of Cinderella, with a cyborg protagonist who loses her whole foot when escaping the royal palace. Etiquette and Espionage, a unique steampunk fantasy, gives us young ladies attending a “finishing school” that helps them finish more than just their manners. Leviathan is another steampunk, rewriting the scene of World War I with great, mutated beasts of land, sea and sky. Name of the Wind (finish this series, Patrick Rothfuss!!) is a beautifully complex epic fantasy following a young protagonist determined to become a great magician, whose escapades with fae, music, and magic eventually make him a folk legend.

7th Grade: Blythewood remains a massive favorite of mine; it’s a historical fantasy set in the early 1920s, featuring a battle between fae, humans, shadows, and winged people called “Darklings,” which is a favorite character trope of mine. It’s got drama, romance, epic fights, and even some scares. Graceling is the first of a trilogy featuring different protagonists. In this world, some people have special “graces” that allow them to accomplish amazing feats… except that the main character’s grace is an ability to kill. Finally, I read Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkein is well-known as the father of modern fantasy, so suffice it to say that he is the second of my three idol authors. 

8th Grade: In eighth grade, I read a biography about the last tsar of Russia and his family: The Family Romanov. This was a dramatic and even eerie recounting of the events leading up to the fall of the Russian Empire to the Bolsheviks and the death of this royal family. I also read Jurassic Park, the science-fiction novel by Micheal Crichton that sparked the much-loved Jurassic Park movie franchise. This was the first time I’d read a science-fiction novel with a great deal of “scientific” language, and I found the complexity of the novel refreshing and fun. It also had dinos, and who doesn’t love dinos? 

9th Grade: In ninth grade I picked up my first manga, Tactics, which remains my favorite manga to this day… despite the fact that my library only had books 1-7, and only 8 of 16 were translated into English. The series focuses on a yokai exterminator (kind of a monster-hunter), and his adventures with his own yokai friends. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson was also a massive favorite of mine, and though I have yet to catch up on the last few books, I am certain that this series encouraged my love of epic and ensemble fantasy. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is an excellent nonfiction piece that details how we interact with others, and what can get you places. I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand people a bit more.

10th Grade: In my sophomore year of high school I read Notes from Underground, which was my first taste of Russian literature. This novella is a “confession” from the narrator, and is a study of the dark sides of human consciousness. I also started on Cinda Williams Chima’s series Shattered Realms with Flamecaster. This is the sequel series to Seven Realms, and features the children of characters in the first. As epic as always, this series also included queer characters in a fantasy setting, which was encouraging as someone coming into their own queer identity.

11th Grade: I read so many books I didn’t care for in my junior year of high school, but one I did love was The Shining. This is about when I started writing my own horror stories, and I was greatly encouraged by this famous dark story — one day, maybe I too could write a book that would give people chills!

12th Grade: Ah, yes. My dark year. Neither my Goodreads account nor my memory can conjure up a single novel, comic, or collection from this period that could be considered a favorite. I was far too strained with school activities to pick up many books, and so this year has faded for me into “That One Horrible Year Where I Didn’t Read Anything Good, Or Really Much At All.”

Freshman Year: Freshman year of college, I bounced back, easing into the reading world again with some horror manga. Tomie by Junji Ito (my favorite horror mangaka) and Ibitsu by Kazuto Okada are two creepy comic novels that I highly recommend — my Junji Ito shelf has only grown since I picked up Tomie, which is a collection of stories about the titular monster that explores violence against women and what trauma can turn you into. I also read The Inheritance Games, the first of a YA trilogy with a cute semi-mystery, semi-Cinderella story vibe, which I tore through happily after all the horror.

Sophomore Year: In my sophomore year I read A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. A dark fantasy set in a people-eating school, this novel was impressive to me for its extreme ratio of internality and exposition (perhaps 80%) to action and dialogue (maybe 20%). For this book, the huge amount of character thought, worldbuilding, and other internal narration was superb and applicable. Naomi Novik is the one author whose books I will pick up at the library or bookstore without doing research first, because I know she will kill it. I also swept through Genderqueer, a comic memoir about author and illustrator Maia Kobabe’s experience being asexual and outside of the gender binary. Genderqueer was the most challenged book to exist in public libraries and schools from 2021-2023, proving how essential its contents are to encourage inclusivity and understanding for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Junior Year: In junior year of university I began Priory of the Orange Tree, which I now claim to be my favorite book, and its author, Samantha Shannon, as the third of my three idol authors. An epic fantasy with massive scope, incredible worldbuilding, fast pacing (despite its 800 pages), and unique and wonderful characters, Priory of the Orange Tree is a must-read for those who love grandiose stories, natural and beautiful queer relationships, a world so well-built it might as well be real, or just plain fantastic fights with dragons and mythical beasts. Right before the new year, I zipped through Thornhedge as well, which is a short, darker retelling of Sleeping Beauty. This story characterizes Sleeping Beauty as an evil creature, the “witch” as an innocent fae being, and the prince as a curious man from the Middle East, bringing a lovely twist to an otherwise singularly European and black-and-white piece of folklore.

Senior Year: This year, I’m reading lots of sequels. I’m bouncing between A Day of Fallen Night, the prequel (to be read after) Priory of the Orange Tree; The Golden Enclaves, the last in the Scholomance series beginning with A Deadly Education; and A Court of Mist and Fury, the second in the ACOTAR series, which was not a favorite of mine but seems like a necessary read, being so popular. I have some poetry collections and nonfiction recommendations from friends waiting on the shelf as well.

All in all, being able to track my favorite books across the years has not only allowed me to easily pick out books I’ll love, but to also see where my experience is lacking. I’ve not read much poetry or literary fiction (at least, none that I’ve enjoyed), and my nonfiction picks are slim. Knowing this, I can actively tackle these categories to be a more well-read person, and perhaps fish out poetry, literary fiction, or nonfiction that has ties to what I like best; I’ll look for poetry about dragons, memoirs on science-fiction novelists, and literary fiction with frightening elements like my horror favorites. I hope to become a reader well-versed in all kinds of literature in the future, but I think knowing what you love is the most important thing. If you were intrigued by any of these suggestions, I definitely recommend each and every one.

Caroline Lesser

UC Riverside '24

Hiya! I'm Cal, and I'm a fourth year Creative Writing major at the University of California Riverside. In addition to writing and editing for UCR's chapter of HerCampus, I'm focusing on my honors capstone project. I love cozy video games, tea lattes, crochet, and language learning. Aside from articles, I write horror and fantasy.