Books for
the ages

The best books to read at every age, from 1 to 100

Books are a portal to our personal histories. Pick up a worn copy of a childhood favorite and you might be transported to the warmth of a parent’s arms or a beanbag chair in a first-grade classroom or a library in your hometown. Avid readers could build autobiographies around their favorite books and come to the realization that what they have read is almost as meaningful as when they read it. A high schooler poring over “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a summer reading assignment encounters a different book than someone who reads it decades later, closer in age and outlook to Atticus than Scout.

In light of that reality, we took a stab at picking the best book for every age. There’s no definitive way to do this, of course. What moves one reader may not resonate with another, regardless of their birth year. So think of this list as a starting point, plus an invitation to look back at your own literary chronology: What spoke to you during a certain time in your life — and why? Feel free to submit your nominations here.

Here are our picks for worthwhile books to read during each year of life, from 1 to 100, along with some of the age-appropriate wisdom they impart.

—Stephanie Merry, Book World editor

Age 1

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”

by Eric Carle

Welcome to the world! It’s a good time to start learning numbers, days of the week and the helpful fact that too much food will give you a tummy ache.

Age 2

“Llama Llama Red Pajama”

by Anna Dewdney

Your parents might not come the moment you call them, but they will come. And now is as good a time as any to start learning patience.

Age 3

“Where the Wild Things Are”

by Maurice Sendak

You will act like a monster sometimes, but you can always go home again.

Age 4

“Charlie Parker Played Be Bop”

by Chris Raschka

It’s never too early to start appreciating a good improv riff.

Age 5

“The Giving Tree”

by Shel Silverstein

Books can make you cry; trees deserve to be loved; and selfish little boys, if enabled, will grow into selfish old men.

Age 6

“Ramona the Pest”

by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers

It’s not your fault. Older siblings are the worst.

Age 7

“The Complete Calvin and Hobbes”

by Bill Watterson

Friendship can be so magically transformative that it might turn a stuffed tiger into a partner in crime.

Age 8

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

by J.K. Rowling

Enjoy your first brush with binge reading on an adventure you’ll never forget.

Age 9

“Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”

by Judy Blume

Hang in there. Younger siblings are the worst.

Age 10


by Raina Telgemeier

Underneath whatever embarrassing, ostentatious orthodontia you’re forced to trot out, you’re still you.

Age 11


by Jason Reynolds

Not all childhoods are idyllic and not all parents are good, but if you look, you’ll find people to help you reach your potential.

Age 12

“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”

by Mildred D. Taylor

The terrible legacy of racism touches everyone and benefits no one.

Age 13

“I Am Malala”

by Malala Yousafzai

There’s power in peaceful protest. Danger, too.

Age 14

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

by Stephen Chbosky

Everyone feels like an outcast sometimes. You just need to find your island of misfit toys to call home.

Age 15

“The Hate U Give”

by Angie Thomas

Being true to yourself may cost you friends. It’s worth it.

Age 16

“Jane Eyre”

by Charlotte Brontë

Nobody understands you and your terribly unfair life. Reader, you are not alone.

Age 17

“Once Upon a River”

by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Feeling lost? Time spent in nature may guide you back to yourself.

Age 18

“A Gate at the Stairs”

by Lorrie Moore

There are many important lessons to learn in college, not all of them from books.

Age 19

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

by Margaret Atwood

Behold the scary possibilities of our dystopian future, inspired by our dystopian present.

Age 20

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

by Junot Díaz

Hilariously tortured, exuberant nerds are great company.

Age 21

“The Sun Also Rises”

by Ernest Hemingway

You’re old enough to drink and carouse with your friends. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Age 22

“Democracy in America”

by Alexis de Tocqueville

To truly understand the country we live in, sometimes you have to see it through the eyes of a 19th-century Frenchman.

Age 23

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”

by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

There’s power in confrontational protest. Danger, too.

Age 24

“Atlas Shrugged”

by Ayn Rand

Marvel at the profundity of its objectivist themes — then, in a few years, marvel at your naivete.

Age 25

“I Capture the Castle”

by Dodie Smith

Keep a journal and don’t forget the most personal details. It’ll make for an entertaining, maybe even enlightening, read one day.

Age 26


by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our grandest ambitions may spur us toward far-flung places — and heartbreaking disasters — but ultimately there’s no place like home.

Age 27

“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

by Stephen R. Covey

It’s time to decide whether you’re a self-help book person. Because a better you is just a page-turn away.

Age 28

“Sister Outsider”

by Audre Lorde

To truly understand oppression — including a host of destructive -isms — try walking in the shoes of this pioneer of intersectionality.

Age 29

“In Defense of Food”

by Michael Pollan

So much of what you need to know about consumption can be summed up in Pollan’s simple directive: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Age 30

“The Joy of Sex”

by Alex Comfort

Live a little.

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Age 31

“Mastering the Art of French Cooking”

by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck

Now that you’re proficient in spaghetti with meat sauce, it’s time to up your game. Beef bourguignon, anyone?

Age 32

“The Grapes of Wrath”

by John Steinbeck

This high school English-class staple is even more devastating when read from the perspective of a parent — or anyone old enough to be one.

Age 33

“Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story”

by Paul Monette

Society may try to force you into a mold. You don’t have to comply.

Age 34


by Toni Morrison

The legacy of slavery still haunts this nation.

Age 35

“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”

by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Tips for communicating with children also come in handy when dealing with adults who act like them.

Age 36

“Life Among the Savages”

by Shirley Jackson

For parents, best-laid plans are an exercise in futility.

Age 37

“The Joy Luck Club”

by Amy Tan

Your mother has stories to tell and insights to share, though you might not be ready to hear them until you’re grown up.

Age 38

“The Sportswriter”

Richard Ford

There is a lost and sad, yet somehow hopeful, dude lurking inside every man.

Age 39

“What Alice Forgot”

by Liane Moriarty

Is this where you really want to be in life? Because it’s not too late to do things differently.

Age 40

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Life is fleeting and unpredictable. Accomplish your goals while you still can, obstacles be damned.

Age 41

“Rabbit, Run”

by John Updike

You may feel like fleeing sometimes, but remember: Selfishness is not a victimless crime.

Age 42

“The Woman Upstairs”

by Claire Messud

When everyone expects you to act like a cheerful and invisible old maid, get angry.

Age 43

“Their Eyes Were Watching God”

by Zora Neale Hurston

You have your finger on the trigger of your own destiny.

Age 44

“The Goldfinch”

by Donna Tartt

The images of love we start with never leave us.

Age 45

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

by Maria Semple

When it comes to midlife crises, go big or go home.

Age 46

“Salvage the Bones”

by Jesmyn Ward

Sometimes the only thing you can do is cling to those you love and wait out the storm.

Age 47


by Bob Anderson

As if you need a reminder, you’re not 25 anymore. Treat your body accordingly.

Age 48


by Tina Fey

You’re juggling a lot. You’ve earned a good laugh from a celebrity who doesn’t pretend to be picture-perfect.

Age 49


by Henry David Thoreau

Living a life of quiet desperation, you’re ready to hear Thoreau’s inspiring advice.

Age 50

“Fifty Shades of Grey”

by EL James

Spice things up — or at least enjoy a good laugh.

Age 51

“Who Do You Think You Are?”

by Alice Munro

It’s the small moments that define us.

Age 52

“Men Without Women”

by Haruki Murakami

Life is a riddle with no right answer; attempting to figure out the solution is its own reward.

Age 53

“A Man Called Ove”

by Fredrik Backman

It gets harder to make new friends as you age, but do it anyway. They might save your life.

Age 54

“The Denial of Death”

by Ernest Becker

What would you do — and who would you be — if you weren’t afraid of dying?

Age 55

“Olive Kitteridge”

by Elizabeth Strout

A person can be cruel and difficult but also loving and worthy of compassion.

Age 56

“When Things Fall Apart”

by Pema Chödrön

Every challenge is an opportunity for transformative wisdom.

Age 57

“Remains of the Day”

by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you’ve been living according to someone else’s rules, you can stop now.

Age 58

“The Plague of Doves”

by Louise Erdrich

Think about what’s come before you because “history works itself out in the living.”

Age 59

“Dynamic Aging”

by Katy Bowman

Don’t blame your age if you’re feeling creaky. It could just be the way you’re using (or not using) your body.

Age 60

“The Five Years Before You Retire”

by Emily Guy Birken

Not to stress you out, but time is ticking. Do you have a good plan?

Age 61

“Fear of Dying”

by Erica Jong

There are many ways to age. Gracefully doesn’t have to be one of them.

Age 62

“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”

by Helen Simonson

Love knows no bounds, especially when books bring people together.

Age 63

“Our Souls at Night”

by Kent Haruf

Curing loneliness can be as simple as asking for company.

Age 64

“Old in Art School”

by Nell Painter

It’s not too late to try a new career, but brace yourself for the ageist naysayers.

Age 65

“65 Things to Do When You Retire”

edited by Mark Evan Chimsky

If you need ideas, Jimmy Carter, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem have suggestions.

Age 66

The “Outlander” series

by Diana Gabaldon

You don’t need time travel to keep the romantic sparks flying as you age — just imagination.

Age 67

“Don Quixote”

by Miguel de Cervantes

You finally have time to read the first modern novel.

Age 68

“The Year of Magical Thinking”

by Joan Didion

Grief can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. That’s normal.

Age 69

“I Remember Nothing”

by Nora Ephron

“Every time one of my friends says to me, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ I would like to smack her.”

Age 70

“Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier”

by Peter Spiers

Among the secrets to a fulfilling life: Never stop learning.

Age 71

“Midnight’s Children”

by Salman Rushdie

You are forever linked to the time and place of your birth. What you do with that connection is up to you.

Age 72

“Love in the Time of Cholera”

by Gabriel García Márquez

In the words of the Supremes: “You can’t hurry love. You just have to wait.” Sometimes decades.

Age 73

“The Years of Lyndon Johnson”

four volumes, by Robert Caro

At 83, Caro is still working on this extraordinary series. You have time to catch up.

Age 74

“Paris in the Present Tense”

by Mark Helprin

“Music is the only thing powerful enough to push aside the curtain of time,” so fill your life with song.

Age 75

“The History of Love”

by Nicole Krauss

Time cannot forever thwart the persistence of real affection.

Age 76

“Women Rowing North”

by Mary Pipher

With the right mind-set — and a willingness to say no — this could be the time of your life.

Age 77


by Marilynne Robinson

You’re ready to start thinking about what your life means and the legacy you’ll leave behind.

Age 78

“Charlotte’s Web”

by E.B. White

Within this gentle tale lies a good lesson to share with grandchildren and to remind yourself: Change is the only constant.

Age 79

“The Coming of Age”

by Simone de Beauvoir

You don’t have to act your age.

Age 80

“Coming Into Eighty: Poems”

by May Sarton

Your ship may be battered, but what a voyage “Of learning what to be / And how to become it.”

Age 81


by Mary Oliver

At 81, the poet took stock of her life with a collection spanning five decades that asks, “What it is you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Age 82

“The Summer of a Dormouse”

by John Mortimer

When your body stops doing what you want it to, laughter is a great coping mechanism.

Age 83

All the thrillers and mysteries

If you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with Easy Rawlins, Mrs. Pollifax, Maisie Dobbs, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Commissario Guido Brunetti, invite them over. They’re great company.

Age 84

“The Last Unknowns”

Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life edited by John Brockman

With time and wisdom to spare, there may be no better moment to ponder life’s big mysteries.

Age 85


by Saul Bellow

Our oldest friendships can still fascinate us.

Age 86

“Old Filth”

by Jane Gardam

It’s never too late to make peace with your personal history.

Age 87

“King Lear”

by William Shakespeare

Count your blessings for unconditional love, and express your appreciation to the people who bestow it.

Age 88

“Nearing Ninety: And Other Comedies of Late Life”

by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Laura Gibson

Take it from someone who finds humor even in the tribulations of advancing age: “What’s there to complain about? Not much.”

Age 89

“A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing 90”

by Donald Hall

“Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” That, you’ll be happy to hear, is a rhetorical question.

Age 90

“Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God”

by Joe Coomer

You may have to journey into the past to make sense of your present.

Age 91

“Selected Poems: 1988-2013”

by Seamus Heaney

Enlightenment and beauty abound, even in the seemingly mundane moments of everyday life.

Age 92

“Nothing to be Frightened Of”

by Julian Barnes

Don’t avoid the big questions of life and death and faith: Tackle them straight on with help from some of the greatest thinkers.

Age 93


by Yuval Harari

You’ve witnessed nearly a century. Now behold the history of mankind.

Age 94

“This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism”

by Ashton Applewhite

There are a lot of myths about aging. Don’t buy into any of them.

Age 95

The Neapolitan novels

by Elena Ferrante

A true friendship can survive the ravages of time.

Age 96

“Somewhere Towards the End”

by Diana Athill

There’s no value in regret.

Age 97

“My Own Two Feet”

by Beverly Cleary

Every choice you’ve made has led you here, where you belong.

Age 98

“Life Is So Good”

by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman

Dawson learned to read at 98, then wrote a book. So what are you going to do today?

Age 99

“Little Boy”

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’ve lost the beat.

Age 100

“Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author”

by Herman Wouk

Life is a wonderful adventure. Books make it even better.

Marvin Joseph

Marvin Joseph has been a staff photographer for The Washington Post since 2000. He started snapping photos at age 14 and began his career at The Post as a news aide at 19.

About the story

Ron Charles, Nora Krug, Geoff Edgers, Monica Hesse, Carlos Lozada and Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this story. Photos by Marvin Joseph. Design by Elizabeth Hart. Production assistance from Victoria Fogg. Thank you to the Mount Pleasant Library and models: June Kilgore (1), Viviana Thompson (3), Adrian Alvarez (8), Charlie Ourlian (13), Alicia June (14), Galen June (14), Aidan Byrne (18), Eric Do (23), Nat Baldino (26), Josh Yazman (27), Ashley Rephlo (32), Bilal Qureshi (36), Jeremy Rephlo (42), Annie Linehan Czerwinski (45), Randy McCracken (55), Alan Schmidt (57), Milton Kendall (61), Franchella Kendall (65), Wendy Harper (66), Seyed Hosseini (72), Diana Kuhl (78), Dominie Nash (79), Susan Shreve (80), BJ Adams (88) and Julia Cancio (96).