Most Stephen King readers I know discovered the man in their youth. They stumbled on a copy of Cujo or Firestarter in a library book sale and carted it home, and then they couldn’t put it down, and then their tiny story-loving minds exploded. In the best way possible.
There are plenty of reasons to encourage your kids to pick up ol’ Uncle Stevie. If you balk at the idea, if you think he writes nothing but gruesome monster horror, I’d bet you haven’t read many—or any—of his novels. King understands childhood, with all its fears and wonders, at a masterful level, and he can craft a protagonist—and, well, yes, an antagonist—with the best of them. Hell, he is the best of them.
So if you want to help guide your kid to some seriously fantastic tales, these are the books you should start with.
The Eyes of the Dragon
At its heart, The Eyes of the Dragon is a fairy tale, and King wrote it with a child in mind: It’s dedicated to his daughter, who, it is said, had complained to her dad that he never wrote anything she’d want to read.
In the story, the king is murdered, and his son, Peter, is framed for that murder. Peter has to best an evil wizard, and his own brother, to take his rightful spot on the throne. One problem: He’s imprisoned in a tower for years. Which is plenty of time to craft an escape plan. King fans will recognise the name “Randall Flagg,” the sorcerer who’s a thread through much of the King universe.
The Wind Through the Keyhole
While not technically part of King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower series, The Wind Through the Keyhole is a Dark Tower novel. Consider it Book No. 4-½.
Keyhole tells a story within a story within a story, about boy named Tim, his sweet mother and his evil stepfather. The tale of magic keys and a wizarding tax man takes Tim on a magical quest—complete with a “tyger” (to use King’s spelling), a dragon and some swamp people—to save his mum.
Low Men in Yellow Coats
Technically, Low Men is a section of/novella in a larger book, Hearts In Atlantis, which somehow reads like both a novel and a story collection. Low Men can stand alone and is, in this humble reader’s opinion, some of the greatest pages King has ever written.
It’s the summer of 1969, and Bobby Garfield is in love with a bike and a girl. His widowed mother works often, leaving Bobby to strike up a friendship with his upstairs neighbour, Ted Brautigan, a sweet old man who hires Bobby to keep an eye out for lost pets and odd cars. It doesn’t take long for Bobby’s mother to have misgivings about the friendship.
Low Men is full of fully drawn characters who are flawed, frustrating and relatable. Plus, there are the title guys, recurring characters in King’s oeuvre who are at their most sinister in Hearts.
The Long Walk
Penned under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, The Long Walk reads like it certainly must have inspired The Hunger Games: Each year in the near future, 100 boys are chosen to participate in a walking contest. The winner gets whatever he wants for the rest of his life. To win, he must continually keep up a pace of 4 miles an hour. Those who don’t are … well, like I said, think The Hunger Games.
Gwendy’s Button Box
Co-written with novelist Richard Chizmar, Gwendy’s Button Box tells the story of 12-year-old Gwendy, who is given a mysterious box from a stranger one day. Different buttons represent each continent. One lever dispenses treats that make your life a whole lot better. Another dispenses valuable rare coins.
Then there’s the black button.
“‘It’s everything,’ Farris says, and stands up. ‘The whole shebang. The big kahuna, as your father would say.’”
Now, whatever could that mean?
This novella is in the collection Different Seasons. It’s also the basis for the movie Stand By Me. You probably know the story: A band of friends learn about the body of a missing boy, and they set out on a quest one summer to find that body and become the heroes of their town.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: A Pop-Up Book
Yes, you read that right: The novella The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon has a pop-up version. It’s pretty miraculous, with extra pages tucked into each corner of the book, surprising add-on pop-ups and some seriously excellent use of clear plastic to illustrate being swarmed by wasps and gazing at a night sky full of meteors.
In the story, Trisha gets separated from her mother on the Appalachian Trail and has only her Walkman to keep her company. She listens to her beloved Red Sox and, eventually, turns to her favourite player to guide her through the woods and all its horrors.
And if you haven’t already, give these books a read yourself. Then you can have mini bookclub sessions with your kid as you finish each new thrilling story and are dying to talk to someone about it.