Nothing is unfilmable anymore; let’s put these childhood favorites on the big (or small) screen.
For Hollywood, children’s literature is the gift that keeps on giving. Whether A Wrinkle in Time breaks box office records or is relegated to the hall of forgotten adaptations, the post-Harry Potter world will always have room for another kid or teen story on screen. There are currently dozens of nostalgia-tapping adaptations in the works, from the cute (The Day the Crayons Quit) to the terrifying (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) to the brutally honest (The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian).
While it’s easy to dwell on the could-have-beens (in my anecdotal research, The Golden Compass and Eragon movies were the two most commonly-cited disappointments), looking ahead is more exciting. In 2018, there’s no excuse to not bring diverse and creative kids’ stories to life on film and television. So readers and Hollywood producers alike, take note: in order from lowest to highest reading level, below are 20 kid and teen books that would look even better on the big screen.
“Elephant and Piggie” series by Mo Willems. Naturally, this comic book-style series for very early readers features a pig named Piggie and an elephant named Gerald. Although short, the books can get pretty wacky, like in “We Are In A Book!” when the duo realizes they’re fictional characters stuck inside a book. These short reads are a huge hit with kids, and although there’s already a Youtube channel acting out the stories with puppets, the zany animation style would make a satisfyingly kids’ show on a stylistically similar channel like Cartoon Network.
“Yoko” series by Rosemary Wells. Wells is also the author and illustrator of the more well known “Max and Ruby” books, which were turned into a television show that’s currently six seasons deep on Nick Jr. Drawn in a similar animation style, Yoko is a friendly kid cat with a love of sushi who has appeared in six books since the ‘80s. Though Max and Ruby (above) isn’t much for parents to look at, it’s based on some solid books, and a Yoko-centric spinoff seems like a no-brainer.
“Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon” by Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow. Although she only appeared in two books, Molly Lou Melon is an underrated picture book icon. She’s a tiny girl who looks a bit like a dandelion tuft or a resident of Whoville, with a voice like “a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor” and buck-teeth she can stack pennies on. She charms the world around her by taking her grandma’s advice, making her the most confident kid in class despite–and because of–her shortcomings. There’s a Molly Lou Melon short film from 2003, but the story’s quirky, colorful animation would translate very well to a TV series.
“Duck for President” by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Doreen Cronin’s most popular picture book, “Click Clack Moo,” was made into a surprisingly star-studded animated Christmas special for Amazon Prime last year, but this deep cut from her bibliography is just as funny and visually striking. The gentle political satire focuses on Farmer Brown’s duck, who decides he wants to take over the farm, the state, and eventually the country–a process that involves speeches in duck language, several recounts, and a jazz performance on late-night TV.
“Junie B. Jones” series by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus. These early readers’ chapter books take on the voice of the titular spunky kindergartener through countless misadventures with friends, family, and her stuffed animal Philip Johnny Bob. Imagine a cross between two other famously overdramatic redheaded girls in kid lit–Judy Moody and Ramona Quimby–and you’ve got Junie B. Jones. These books were hugely popular, having sold 55 million copies in North America by the time of the author’s death in 2013, but have never been adapted for the screen.
“Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed” by Emily Pearson, illustrated by Fumi Kosaka. A quaint pay it forward story with infinite creative potential, “Ordinary Mary” begins with an average girl who decides to do something nice–leaving a basket of fresh-picked blueberries on her neighbor’s doorstep–that comes back tenfold. Mary’s small gesture leads to a chain reaction of random acts of kindness that travels all around the world within fifteen days. The optimistic story only shares a couple of the kindnesses with readers, which leaves room for a film or series composed of interrelated short stories focused on all of the strangers who change one another’s lives. Think Paris, Je T’Aime, but for kids.
“The Tiger Rising” by Kate DiCamillo. DiCamillo is skilled at empathetic storytelling, often exploring complex feelings through the eyes of society’s youngest or most overlooked members. “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “The Tale of Despereaux” (above) have both gotten the big screen treatment, but “The Tiger Rising” is perhaps DiCamillo at her most dark and lovely. The book follows a boy who moves into a Florida motel after the death of his mother, only to meet both a caged tiger in the woods near his house and an unusual girl named Sistine Bailey in his new class. Though the setting calls to mind Sean Baker, the ideal movie adaptation would have a mysterious, emotionally raw atmosphere more akin to Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. GG Filmz has had movie rights for this one for eight years, and apparently have a new script in development.
“The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me” by Roald Dahl. With at least a dozen film adaptations bear the name Roald Dahl, the imaginative and offbeat late authors’ bibliography shows no sign of losing relevance. Excluding the weirdest, darkest ones (anyone remember “The Twits”?) most all of his kids’ books have been adapted into films of varying success. “The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me” is about a boy who meets a brigade of window-cleaning animals who together get embroiled in a burglary. It’s no Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (above), but in the right hands, a movie version could get close to Fantastic Mr. Fox levels of eccentric fun.
“Shadow Children” series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, illustrated by Cliff Nielson. Apparently inspired by China’s One Child Policy and very real issues of overpopulation, this award-winning dystopian series follows a third child trying to survive in secret due to America’s strongly enforced rule against having more than two kids. The series has seven books in all, and though teen dystopian sagas have been all but exhausted on screen, these books avoid some tropes by targeting younger audiences and–at least for the first few books–keeping the stakes personal rather than global.
“Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan. A memorable and original fairy-tale-style historical novel, “Esperanza Rising” tells the story of a wealthy Mexican girl who must endure various changes of fortune after her father is killed by bandits and her family must move to a California farm camp. Though much darker than some other stories featured on this list, “Esperanza” still has something to offer young readers; it’s an exercise in resilience and seeing the silver lining of any misfortune. “Esperanza Rising” hits plenty of the same beats as Pan’s Labyrinth while remaining solidly in reality, so naturally Guillermo del Toro would be aces for a film adaptation. As recently as 2016, there was a script for a musical film adaptation in the works with no studio or director attached.
“Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. If Hollywood is cool with remaking Spiderman every five years indefinitely, what’s stopping them from retelling this classic survival story (this time with more indigenous cast and crew) over 50 years after the original film? O’Dell’s novel about a girl who survived alone on an island for nearly two decades is still a mainstay in elementary school classrooms and seems overdue for a remake. Kids-in-the-wilderness books are (oddly) a dime a dozen, but this one has endured due to its resourceful, inspiring lead. Filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk has already put his spin on another classic, John Ford’s The Searchers, and if he’s willing to trade in Canada for California, his authentic, naturalistic storytelling would be a great fit for a remake.
“Chasing Vermeer” by Blue Balliett, illustrations by Brett Helquist. A Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler-esque mystery is at the heart of this book, which also features distinct illustrations by the artist behind A Series of Unfortunate Events. Main characters Calder and Petra are intelligent, curious kids who set out to catch an art thief, and the book itself is a puzzle, with clues presented to readers in coded illustrations and passages throughout the book. Brad Pitt’s production company originally nabbed the film rights in 2004, but no movie was ever made.
“Kira Kira” by Cynthia Kadohata. This emotional Newberry medal winner has all the material needed for an excellent indie coming-of-age movie. Set in the 1950s, “Kira Kira” follows a Japanese-American family through the eyes of younger daughter Katie. When the family moves from Iowa to Georgia, Katie must deal with casual racism, family illness, and growing up, all while clinging to her older sister’s perspective of the world as “kira kira,” a shining place.
“Dear America” series by various authors. If you’re a girl who grew up in the U.S. between the ‘90s and now, chances are you’ve at least flipped through a Dear America book. If you were like me, you obsessively checked them out from the library, relishing the ribbon bookmarks, first-person confessional style, and personal, diverse stories of bravery in the face of adversity. Written as standalone fictional diaries from points in America’s history–from the Salem Witch Trials to the Civil War to the Titanic’s doomed voyage–these books pull off a tricky balance between educational and addictive. There was a two-season TV adaptation in 1999 (above), but a new generation of girls would benefit from a reboot series, especially on a wide-reaching streaming platform like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
“The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” by E. Lockhart. What’s not to love about a Printz award-winning book that involves prank wars, boarding school secret societies, and a flawed feminist hero? “Frankie Landau-Banks” may not be E. Lockhart’s most cinematic book (that would be “We Were Liars” the film version of which is already in development), but it’s her most fun, plus it’s the rare young adult book that has the potential to be better as a movie. If Kelly Fremon Craig ever wants to do another teen movie, the biting humor and complicated take on girl power are a great match for the Edge of Seventeen director.
“Song of the Lioness” series by Tamora Pierce. First published in the ‘80s, this beloved series begins with “Alanna: The First Adventurer,” which follows a girl named Alanna of Trebond as she disguises herself as a boy in order to join an all-male school for knights. Meanwhile, her twin brother Thom takes her place at the City of the Gods, where her father wanted her to learn the ins and outs of being a proper lady, and where Thom hopes to learn sorcery. The series contains four books in all, and while the pull of nostalgia is strong, the author herself pointed out that her work would be difficult to adapt because characters appear across multiple series, making the risk of a rights split between studios (like with Sony’s Marvel and Disney’s Marvel) likely.
“A Great and Terrible Beauty” series by Libba Bray. This young adult trilogy really brings the drama and risque romance, so I’ve long since envisioned it as a slightly soapy fantasy series on the CW a la Reign or The Originals. With her mother dead at the hands of dark forces and her father addicted to laudanum, Gemma is forced to leave her home in India to attend boarding school at the turn of the century. As with all good boarding schools, Spence Academy is full of sinister secrets, which she uncovers alongside three new friends. A movie was planned and later abandoned, but the series includes plenty of juicy themes still worth exploring on screen, like the corruptible nature of power and the personal toll of obeying rigid gender roles.
“Where Things Come Back” by John Corey Whaley. Another Printz winner, Whaley’s first novel is a quiet and deeply strange masterpiece. In a small midwest town, a brother disappears, a flock of previously extinct birds arrives, and the summer wears on, feeling long and haunted. Meanwhile, a parallel plot follows a religious zealot on an ill-fated mission trip with far-reaching consequences. A melancholy-tinged bildungsroman with shades of both Flannery O’Connor and J.D. Salinger, this book is poised to be as thrilling on screen as it is on the page. Currently, no studio owns the rights to the film, but they’d be smart to nab this one.
“All the Crooked Saints” by Maggie Stiefvater. Like all of Stiefvater’s work, “All the Crooked Saints” is poetic, visceral, and hard to explain. While the author’s gorgeous and dark series “The Raven Cycle” is being made into a TV show directed by Catherine Hardwicke, there’s no talk of a “Saints” adaptation yet. Hopefully, that’ll soon change, as the story of a miracle-performing family living in rural Colorado is a one-of-a-kind magical realist take on family and fate.
“Skim” by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. This graphic novel is impactful in its specificity, yet relatable in its portrayal of youth’s inescapable emotional confusion. Skim is a Japanese-Canadian wannabe-Wiccan attending a Catholic school in 1993. After a classmate commits suicide, her peers become obsessed with tragedy, while Skim finds herself crushing on a teacher. If Heathers met Ghost World, it’d be a little like this.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the film rights to John Corey Whaley’s “Where Things Come Back” are owned by Gotham Group, when in fact the author is the current owner of the rights.