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How Paper Towns Could Propel Cara Delevingne From Model to Movie Star

26 minute read

Everybody on the set of Paper Towns has a story about Cara Delevingne.

Let’s start with her fondness for dressing in ridiculous costumes: Delevingne, a 22-year-old supermodel who’s been the face of high-fashion lines including Chanel and Fendi, would gallivant around Charlotte, North Carolina dressed as a hot dog, a banana, or The Simpsons character Duff Girl. While shooting at a high school, she’d run away from production assistants and sneak into classrooms full of actual students between takes, at one point recruiting a few dozen extras to film her challenging rapper A$AP Ferg to a runway walk-off after he name-checked her in a song. Her co-stars are especially fond of the time she spotted a local water park and decided they all needed some R&R, organizing a field trip for the next day.

“She’s a leader,” her costar Nat Wolff says, between scenes on a giant soundstage. “She is the one coming up with the grand plans for sure.”

Seated in a trailer as a stylist preps her golden-brown hair for her final day of filming, Delevingne shrugs off her storied antics. “I like to be goofy. I like to make people laugh. I like to have a good time as much as possible,” she says matter-of-factly. That’s Delevingne in a nutshell: shaking up whatever world she’s in and acting like it’s no big deal. It’s one of the many qualities she shares with her character Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns, an adaptation of the bestselling young-adult novel by John Green. Margo is a popular high school senior whose reputation for grand adventures—running away to the circus, cavorting with rock bands—is the stuff of local legend and actually recalls Delevingne’s own wild youth. (“I don’t want to say I ran away to the circus. I ran away and went to the circus,” she clarifies unconvincingly. “Those were two different things.”) One night, Margo climbs through the window of longtime admirer Quentin (Wolff) and whisks him away on a hijinks-filled revenge campaign against the classmates who wronged her. When she goes missing the next day, Quentin decides to decipher the clues she left behind and track her down—only to realize he doesn’t know his crush as well as he thought.

“You need someone that you would go on the adventure of your life for and then follow to the ends of the earth, and we found it in Cara,” director Jake Schreier says. “When Cara leaves a room, you feel the lack.”

Paper Towns, out July 24, is now one of the most anticipated movies of the season. The last movie drawn from a John Green novel, the 2014 tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, made $307 million at box offices worldwide. It was one of a handful of films last summer that reaffirmed what box-office scholars have been saying since Bridesmaids become a hit in 2011: that female-driven films can be very good business. Consider that the weekend of its release, Fault grossed 67 percent more than Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow, whose reported budget was nearly 15 times the size of Fault’s. That film, coupled with the young-adult adaptation and box-office smash Divergent, also helped make a global superstar out of its lead actress Shailene Woodley.

But for Delevingne, the stakes are different. Paper Towns, along with her role in next year’s DC Comics ensemble Suicide Squad, could take her on the rare path from the least conventional kind of celebrity there is (supermodel-cum-Internet personality) to the most conventional (Hollywood leading lady). Unlike a pre-2014 Woodley, Delevingne is already hugely famous, thanks to two things that are inextricably linked: her personality and her social media presence.

No industry prizes glamour and perfection as fiercely as does fashion, and Delevingne has emerged as one of its brightest stars, with more than 40 magazine covers to her name. Yet she poses for selfies while making goofy and unflattering faces, openly loves pizza and McDonald’s, and takes part in twerk-offs and “Harlem Shake” renditions backstage at fashion shows. There are more than 30 Twitter accounts named after her iconic eyebrows—the inspiration for a spike in eyebrow transplant consultations, according to one questionable tabloid report last year—and Delevingne follows many of them back. On a recent scroll through her Instagram account, you might find: a raunchy meme about her friendship with fellow model and reality star Kendall Jenner, which fans refer to as “CaKe”; a video of her quoting The Terminator and pretending to lick Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face from when the two crossed paths on a talk show; a picture of her joining pal Taylor Swift on stage during the pop star’s world tour; and a video of her using a lip-dub app to mime along to a song by Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé.

“She’s very good at the Internet,” Green says. That’s high praise coming from the author, who owes part of his success to the loyal Internet following he amassed through the YouTube channel he started with his brother in 2007. Sometimes this talent gets her into trouble—like when she posted and then deleted a video of what looked like an inebriated Reese Witherspoon struggling to pronounce her last name (it’s del-uh-veen) at a Met Gala event. But for the 15.3 million people who follow her every move online, it’s only endeared her to them.

Being “good at the Internet” is also more important than ever when trying to become a movie star. It’s true that Delevingne is aligning herself with the kinds of projects that have launched Hollywood’s current class of young, in-demand actresses: young-adult adaptations, superhero movies, blockbuster franchises. Emma Stone graduated from teen fare like Superbad and Easy A to become Spider-Man’s girlfriend before she took on Birdman, while Jennifer Lawrence went from the X-Men universe to The Hunger Games before becoming an Oscar-winning muse to David O. Russell. But both also know how to work the modern news cycle, where a single tweet can launch a thousand blog posts and where virality is the best publicity. A lack of self-seriousness is valuable currency, and Delevingne, whether she’s showing up to events in animal onesies or photobombing red-carpet regulars, seems to understand this better than anyone. Often, she provides these moments directly to her fans herself.

Delevingne’s web savvy has already had an extraordinary impact on the fashion industry. Relatively short for her industry at about 5’8”, Delevingne can walk for high-end brands like Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana, pose for the more affordable Topshop and Zara, take part in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and star in DKNY’s 2015 spring menswear campaign. But it’s also because of her persona, not just her commercial versatility, that Delevingne is credited with bringing back the golden age of supermodels—a time in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the likes of Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista ruled and when being a fashion star was its own kind of celebrity. In 1998, TIME declared “the supermodel is dead” as the industry turned to less flashy models who wouldn’t upstage the clothing. In 2009, Vogue editor Anna Wintour acknowledged that actresses were replacing models as magazines’ go-to cover stars as the next generation of models resisted the scrutiny their predecessors faced. Five years later, Delevingne, flanked by fellow models Joan Smalls and Karlie Kloss, made the cover of the American edition’s September issue with a cover line heralding the arrival of “the Instagirls” who fashioned their own brands via social media.

Still, it’s more than a willingness to fire up whatever app is trendy that accounts for Delevingne’s level of influence. Green calls her the most charismatic person he’s ever met. “[German sociologist Max] Weber said there’s charisma of office and charisma of personality, and maybe all supermodels have charisma of office the way all popes have charisma of office, but only some popes have charisma of personality,” he says. “Cara has tremendous charisma of personality, in the Weber sense. She’s just fascinating. I want to listen to her. She’s very smart. She’s extremely funny. She’s one of those people who has such a good understanding of other people that she’s able to navigate the world via her empathy.”

* * *

On set in Charlotte, just a few days before Paper Towns wraps in time for Christmas, Delevingne is as elusive as the vanishing Margo. Our interview is moved twice: on the day of my set visit, I learn she’s in Florida and won’t even be filming her final scenes until the next day. So I return in the morning, where I learn that she wasn’t on her scheduled flight and won’t be arriving until later that afternoon. When we finally meet up, she’s dressed in black jeans, loud sneakers and a colorful hoodie that covers up a scant, midriff-exposing top. Throughout our conversation, she fidgets with her phone, hums along to the Enya song playing over the speakers, eats a dinner of mostly meat out of a Styrofoam container and makes intense but infrequent eye contact, even after the stylist is done with her hair. One Paper Towns producer tells me later that these are ideal interview conditions, as Delevingne has so much “crazy energy” that’s it’s good to catch her with a few distractions. “I like to dance around and have a good time and sing a lot,” she says, sometimes to the annoyance of her neighbors—they’d bang on their ceilings when she did cartwheels in her Charlotte apartment. “I’m a little weird firecracker. I go off when you least expect it.”

Flashes of that are on display here. Delevingne speaks in a hushed, almost whispered voice that’s at times nearly inaudible, but her tempo is brisk, and she freely shares anecdotes about the time she stripped half-naked in front of an acting class during a formative exercise about getting into character. She speaks in Margo’s American accent until about halfway through our conversation, when she remembers she doesn’t need it for what she’s about to film and switches back to her British one. Delevingne says her accent work was the easiest part of her first big movie—so easy, in fact, that she couldn’t switch it off during her first-ever American Thanksgiving that fall. She spent the holiday with Kate Hudson in Los Angeles, where the two stars choreographed a dance routine to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” and captured it all in a four-part Instagram series. Now that Delevingne is almost done with the movie, her castmates are just getting used to her real voice. “We didn’t realize how British she was until just now,” says Jaz Sinclair, who plays one of Margo’s classmates. “I really didn’t! I heard her talking, and she’s saying things like crisps instead of chips.”

The London-born Delevingne’s upbringing was classically British. Her maternal grandmother, Jane Sheffield, was a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret and was married to Sir Jocelyn Stevens, a newspaper executive who at one point owned the high-society magazine Queen. Delevingne’s mother, Pandora, was a socialite in the 1980s and has worked as a personal shopper at the upscale department store Selfridges. Her father, Charles, is a real-estate developer. One of her two older sisters, Poppy, is a model, and the other, Chloe, studied biomedical sciences. Despite the passion for fashion that runs in her family, Delevingne initially had little interest in following in Poppy’s footsteps. She was a tomboy as a child and says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to act. Modeling was just something she started doing to pay for drama school and travel after the mother of one of her boarding school classmates, Sarah Doukas—the same woman who discovered Kate Moss—signed Delevingne to her agency when Delevingne was in her late teens.

Cara Delevingne

Vogue; 20th Century Fox

This 22-year-old British beauty began modeling at age 10 for Vogue Italia and has continued to make waves, landing campaigns for Burberry, Chanel, Tom Ford, DKNY and H&M. She made her movie debut with a small part in 2012’s Anna Karenina, but her first starring role will be the movie adaptation of John Green’s Paper Towns, due out later this summer. Next year, she’ll appear in DC’s star-studded Suicide Squad.

Milla Jovovich

Lei; Columbia

Milla Jovovich got her big break appearing alongside Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman in the French science-fiction film The Fifth Element, before rising to fame as the star of the five Resident Evil films. The Ukrainian jack-of-all-trades (she also writes music and has started her own production and clothing lines), Jovovich got her start at age 12, modeling for the cover of Italian magazine Lei.

Rebecca Romijn

Sports Illustrated; 20th Century Fox

Starting in 1991, Rebecca Romijn graced the catwalk with some of fashion’s biggest stars — including Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford. Her acting career began in 2000, when she starred in X-Men as Mystique. She has since made appearances in two other X-Men movies, and landed a recurring role on ABC’s Ugly Betty.

Famke Janssen

Elle; 20th Century Fox

Janssen worked for Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Victoria’s Secret before transitioning to acting. Since then, she has starred alongside Pierce Brosnan in the 1995 Bond film GoldenEye, as well as the X-Men movies, received a bachelor of arts from Columbia University and directed the 2011 box office flop Bringing Up Bobby, starring fellow model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich.

Jaime King

Vogue; Miramax

The former star of Hart of Dixie got her modeling start at age 14, and by 16, she had appeared in Vogue, Seventeen, Glamour and on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. First featured in a small role in 2001’s Pearl Harbor, King went on to star in Sin City.

Tricia Helfer

Elle; Frank Ockenfels—Syfy/NBC/Getty Images

After winning Ford Models’ Supermodel of the World contest in 1992, the Canadian model walked for top fashion shows, including Christian Dior, Givenchy and Dolce & Gabbana, before retiring from modeling in 2002. The former host of Canada’s Next Top Model then starred as Number Six in the Battlestar Galactica reboot.

Lily Cole

Harper's Bazaar; Sony Pictures Classics

Cole first rose to prominence after a photo shoot for Italian Vogue in 2003 and booked her first British Vogue cover at the age of 16. Her acting career has remained limited, with a role in Heath Ledger’s last film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In 2011, the British model graduated with honors from Cambridge University.

Gisele Bündchen

Vogue; Fox 2000

The former Victoria’s Secret Angel has been called the “last true supermodel” by Naomi Campbell, credited by Vogue in 1999 as “The Return of the Sexy Model” and was the highest paid model in the world for many years. Married to football superstar Tom Brady, she’s played supporting roles in 2004’s Taxi and 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada.

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley

Vogue; Warner Bros.

Previously best known for her work as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, the British beauty hit the mainstream with a role in the third Transformers film. She has since co-starred alongside Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Diane Kruger

Vogue; The Weinstein Co.

The German model-turned-actress, who once was the face of Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Christian Dior and Burberry, rose to movie fame as Dr. Abigail Chase in the National Treasure films. She went on to star in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and currently appears in FX’s The Bridge.

Kate Upton

Sports Illustrated; 20th Century Fox

Kate Upton made her name in modeling as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, landing the cover for the 2012 and 2013 issues. She has appeared in films like Tower Heist and The Other Woman.

While she was at boarding school, Delevingne set her sights on winning the titular role in Tim Burton’s 2010 retelling of Alice in Wonderland. She filmed an audition tape and made enough of an impression with producers that she eventually met with Burton at his home. When the part ultimately went to Mia Wasikowska, she was devastated. “That was the worst rejection I’ve ever gotten,” she says. “I didn’t get over that for, like, three years.” So Delevingne put acting on hold, partly because she was still in school, and partly because, after she left school and her modeling profile rose, the roles available to her became less and less appealing. “Everyone tried to typecast [me] as the dumb blond model or the girl who gets killed,” she says. “I take what roles I do very seriously. I always want to portray a strong female. Acting roles for women are usually less strong and, like, bleeding hearts.”

Despite the hours she’s logged in front of fashion’s top photographers, Delevingne says acting and modeling are “completely different in every way, shape and form.” “With modeling, you have to know the way the camera is, [how to] do angles,” she explains. “When I first started modeling I wasn’t aware of the camera at all. I’d just be like an animal in a cage rattling around.” She had to return to that unaware state when she resumed acting, but Delevingne is grateful for her start, calling modeling the drama school she never attended. “[When] you do shoots seven days a week, three months consecutively, you try and spice it up a little by being different people,” she says. “I tried to see who they would want their girl to be, and I would be that person—or try to.”

The pace almost broke her. There’s a tattoo on the bottom of Delevingne’s left foot that says “MADE IN ENGLAND” in small black letters. (She has more than a dozen others all over body, including the word “BACON” on her other foot.) It’s not a badge of patriotic pride, but an act of protest. In 2013—the year she was named Google’s most-searched person in fashion and the most-reblogged model on Tumblr—Delevingne started getting fed up with that business. “I felt like a doll,” she says of the tattoo, which she unveiled—where else?—on Instagram in July of that year. “I just felt like a puppet that people could just use how they wanted.” The stress caused her to develop psoriasis all over her body, an unfortunate disease for someone whose day job requires looking flawless on camera. A team of people had to paint swaths of her skin with makeup before she walked in the Louis Vuitton show during Paris Fashion Week that spring. “I didn’t know when to stop, even when I was covered with red scaly spots that were bleeding,” she says. “I thought, I have to change this. I’m going to die doing this.”

Help came in the form of Kate Moss, who spotted Delevingne before the Vuitton show and arranged for a doctor that day. The psoriasis cleared up when Delevingne finally took a break, but she decided taking better care of herself meant getting serious about her passions—the lifestyle that had made her famous was proving unsustainable. She had scored a non-speaking role in the 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina, but devoted more attention to acting following her health scares and quickly picked up roles in projects such as the Amanda Knox thriller The Face of an Angel and the Peter Pan origin story Pan. A few weeks before Paper Towns wrapped, she was officially cast as the Enchantress in the highly anticipated Suicide Squad, which follows a team of incarcerated supervillains who become black-ops agents. “[It] is going to be freakin’ awesome,” she says of the film, which also stars Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto and Viola Davis. “I kill people with my bare hands.”

Delevingne describes her audition for Suicide Squad director David Ayer as lengthy, intense and infuriating. Because he hadn’t yet written the film’s script at the time of her tryout, Ayer made Delevingne read the part of Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a character Delevingne had played before in a school production. Delevingne thought she had the audition in the bag due to her experience, but Ayer quickly told her to forget everything she knew about Martha, asking her try the part so many different ways that she was ready to “beat people up” by the end of the process. “I was like, ‘Honestly, if I go outside and punch people, you’ve got to come get me out of jail because I am so furious,” she says. “He sparked a f-cking fury in me.”

* * *

As seriously as Delevingne has pursued acting, Hollywood hasn’t always been as serious about her. Plenty of models have dabbled in acting with varying success, but only a few high-fashion stars (like Milla Jovovich or Diane Kruger) have transitioned into long-term acting careers, which gives the model-actress label a dubious connotation. Delevingne recently told talk-show host Graham Norton that castmates have demanded to see her audition tapes because they didn’t believe she earned roles on her own merits. Some John Green die-hards weren’t thrilled with Delevingne’s Paper Towns casting, believing a supermodel was a terrible fit for a character described as curvy in the original book. “If anyone just thought I was trying to pad my resume, they can suck my”—she pauses to consider her word choice—”boobs.” She laughs.

Many of the people present for Delevingne’s Paper Towns audition had little idea who she was. Because Margo’s onscreen disappearing act reduces her screen time, the movie needed to cast an actress magnetic enough to be missed, otherwise Quentin’s road trip to find her would feel hollow. It didn’t take long for producers to find that quality in Delevingne, whose efficient but memorable performance should leave audiences wanting more. Green says the way she delivered certain lines during her mostly improvised audition was “terrifying.” Wolff, who had tried the same scene with many other actresses vying for the part, says Delevingne threw him off completely. Both actors were in tears by the end of the audition because the material resonated so strongly with them.

“You always remember the first time you saw Julia Roberts in a movie—holy cow, what is it about her that’s so fantastic?—I’m really hopeful that we have that with Cara,” says producer Wyck Godfrey, who also produced The Fault in Our Stars and the Twilight film series, which propelled Kristen Stewart into the A-list. “You feel like she’s inviting you on a ride, and that’s kind of what her charm is. She has no filters. She has no protective show that she puts around herself. She’s just there in the room with you, on screen with you, on the page with you when you open a magazine.”

Indeed, Delevingne was a natural fit for a story Green describes as a takedown of the oft-cited Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which refers to underdeveloped female characters whose sole purpose is “to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” (So says the term’s creator.) Green says he gave Margo the last name Spiegelman, which in German roughly means “mirror-maker,” because “everybody looks at Margo and they see lots of stuff about themselves, and nothing about Margo, and Cara’s had that experience on a much larger scale of people literally looking at images of her and making broad conclusions about her.” While Delevingne’s supermodel predecessors commend her and the Instagirls for taking control of their own image, she’s frequently had images projected onto her. Her high-profile friendships with pop stars Rihanna and Rita Ora inspire fanfiction and generate headlines, and she made tongues wag when it was first reported that she was seeing current girlfriend Annie Clark, the musician better known as St. Vincent. (Sample headline: “Two Perfect Women Allegedly Kissed.”)

Delevingne admits her public image—zany wild child who dates rock stars and isn’t afraid to get weird—has likely contributed to her success, and informs how people view her work. But that, too, lends extra weight to Paper Towns’ exploration of how being a canvas for so many people’s fantasies can be at once empowering and suffocatingly prescriptive. It’s not the first film to poke holes in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept (Kate Winslet’s character in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did so before the term was even coined), nor is it the final nail in the coffin (culture critics have been proclaiming the death of it for years now), but it is the rare film to explicitly ask its audience to reconsider what they really know about its star. Paper Towns isn’t a movie about Delevingne, but at times it feels like one.

Delevingne doesn’t mind if viewers miss the message, however. “I’m happy with them [projecting on me] because I’d rather them think whatever they want about me and not know me,” she says. Then, echoing what Margo says on screen, she adds: “The thing is, I’m not trying to be anything. I don’t know who I am, so other people can, if they want, paint a picture of what they think I am. They probably have more idea than I do.”

The scrutiny will only increase if Delevingne scores with her acting. Still, Delevingne says Charlotte felt like “a complete vacation,” a welcome change of pace for someone who describes her plane-hopping life as “kind of homeless” and says the thought of facing the paparazzi has occasionally overwhelmed her to the point of tears. While in Charlotte, she had time to befriend the locals. She read for pleasure. (She prefers nonfiction.) She spent a lot of time playing cornhole, a beanbag-toss game that became a frequent pastime of the cast, but would get bored and make up new rules. Because the young actors all lived in the same apartment building, they became especially close; several liken the experience to summer camp. “It’s been so nice just coming here and remembering we’re actually still so young,” she says. “All of us live in worlds where we all have to be slightly older. When we’re back here, it’s like, we’re in school again.”

Her downtime in Charlotte also gave her time to work on another interest: music. Delevingne, who plays guitar, piano and drums and is a surprisingly competent beatboxer, built a makeshift studio in her apartment. Yet she describes music as more of a personal hobby compared to acting. “I’ll always do music, even if no one listens to it,” she says. “Music is going to be a long journey for me. I’m a perfectionist. I never finish songs because I always think they need work. I guess [I’ll release them] when I’m happy with them, which will be a long way away.” The timeline of that journey may have accelerated in the months since, however. In February, she sparked rumors of a Beyoncé collaboration when the two stars posted nearly identical Instagrams of their hands on a recording studio console. In June, Chic guitarist and disco icon Nile Rodgers said he hit the studio with her and was pleasantly “shocked” by the quality of the songs she played him.

Eventually, Delevingne would like to transition into acting full-time. She says she’s more or less done so already: she’ll devote half the year to filming Suicide Squad, and in December, she’ll begin work on the Luc Besson sci-fi film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opposite Dane DeHaan. She’s aware that this doesn’t leave much time for modeling. Though rumors flew that she had left modeling for good after her London agency took down her profile from their online client roster in June, she’s still represented by a handful of agencies and continues to squeeze modeling work into her schedule. Delevingne gushes about her upcoming projects, but she seems surprised by how quickly she’s getting what she wanted—and unsure of what this new phase of celebrity means for her life.

“With films, it’s planned so far in advance. Knowing what I’m doing in March next year is way more advanced than I thought I’d be planning things,” she says. “I don’t like to plan things. I like to be spontaneous.”

As soon as she finishes that sentence, she’s called to set. Just like Margo, she disappears without saying goodbye.

LIST: The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. A coming-of-age novel (illustrated by Ellen Forney) illuminates family and heritage through young Arnold Spirit, torn between his life on a reservation and his largely white high school. The specifics are sharply drawn, but this novel, with its themes of self-discovery, speaks to young readers everywhere. Buy now: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianLittle, Brown
Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling. What more can be said about this iconic franchise? How about this: seven years after the final volume was published, readers young and old still go crazy at the slightest rumor of a new Potter story. Buy now: Harry Potter (series)Bloomsbury Publishing
The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak. For many young readers, this novel provides their first in-depth contemplation of the Holocaust. Although terror surrounds Liesel, a young German girl, so too does evidence of friendship, love and charity—redeeming lights in the darkness. Buy now: The Book ThiefAlfred A. Knopf
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. This surrealist adventure has provided generations of children with their first-ever mind-blowing experiences, as Meg travels across the fifth dimension in search of her father. But the sci-fi also has a message: Meg learns self-sufficiency and bravery in the process. Buy now: A Wrinkle in TimeFarrar, Straus and Giroux
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White. Readers are still drawn to the simplicity and beauty of arachnid Charlotte’s devotion to her pig pal Wilbur. Though family farms may be less common than they were in 1952, E.B. White’s novel remains timeless for its enduring meditation on the power of friendship and of good writing. Buy now: Charlotte's WebHarper & Brothers
Holes, by Louis Sachar. A story of a family curse, fancy sneakers and poisonous lizards moves forward and backward through time, telling of how Stanley Yelnats IV ended up in a juvenile prison camp. It’s an introduction to complex narrative, suffused with fun, warmth and a truly memorable villain. Buy now: HolesFarrar, Straus and Giroux
Matilda, by Roald Dahl. With apologies to the lovable Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this may be Roald Dahl’s most compelling read for young people. Poor Matilda feels thwarted and ignored by her family—a sense that many preteens share. They don’t share her magical powers, but that’s the enduring appeal of this escapist frolic. Buy now: Matilda Jonathan Cape
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. Published when the author was just 18, this coming-of- age novel offers proof that even the youngest writer can provide valuable insight. Her striking look at Ponyboy and gang life in the 1960s has resonated for decades with readers of all kinds, whether they identify more with the Greasers or the Socs. Buy now: The OutsidersViking Press, Dell Publishing
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In a witty, sharp fairy tale that illuminates language and mathematics through a picaresque story of adventure in the Kingdom of Wisdom, Jules Feiffer’s whimsical drawings do as much as Juster’s plain-language interpolations of complex ideas to carry readers through Digitopolis and the Mountains of Ignorance. Buy now: The Phantom TollboothRandom House
The Giver, by Lois Lowry. This tale of self-discovery in a dystopian society has a memorable central character, Jonas, and an indelible message— that pain and trauma have an important place in individual lives and in society, and to forget them is to lose what makes us human. Buy now: The GiverHoughton Mifflin
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume. Twelve-year-old Margaret, whose mother is Christian and father Jewish, explores her religious heritage while overcoming the general social and personal challenges of a preteen girl. Buy now: Are You There God? It's Me, MargaretYearling
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Scout Finch grows up in the racially charged Depression-era South where her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, is defending a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Buy now: To Kill a MockingbirdHarperCollins
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor. A black family in the depression era American south grapples with racism. Buy now: Roll of Thunder, Hear My CryDial Press
Anne of Green Gables (series), by L.M. Montgomery. Young spirited Anne moves in with foster parents and adapts to her new home in Green Gables. Buy now: Anne of Green Gables (series)L.C. Page & Co.
The Chronicles of Narnia (series), by C.S. Lewis. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, four siblings evacuated from London during World War II, enter the magical world of Narnia where they are charged with saving the realm from the evil White Witch. Buy now: The Chronicles of Narnia (series)Geoffrey Bles
Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. A fictional account of an African American teenager on trial for felony murder in New York, written in a mix of first-person journal entries and a third-person screenplay. Buy now: MonsterHarperCollins
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. Young Lyra Belacqua leads a battle in the arctic to save children who were kidnapped and severed from their animal soul mates in this fantastical world that spawned a trilogy and a 2007 feature film. Buy now: The Golden CompassScholastic Point
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. Frank's innocuous and relatable musings while hiding under Nazi occupation capture the tragedy of the Nazi regime. Buy now: The Diary of a Young GirlBantam
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. Claudia Kincaid, a precocious sixth-grader, and her 9-year-old brother Jamie run away from home in the suburbs of New York City and head for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they explore the exhibits and research the mystery of a newly acquired marble angel whose sculptor is unknown. Buy now: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. FrankweilerAtheneum Books
Looking for Alaska, by John Green. Miles Halter attends boarding school in Alabama for his junior year, where he navigates the alcohol-infused social scene of high school and falls in love with an enigmatic girl named Alaska. Buy now: Looking for AlaskaSpeak
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. A young boy with autism investigates the murder of a neighbor’s dog and in so doing explores the travails and contradictions of everyday life from an outsider’s perspective. Buy now: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeDoubleday
Little House on the Prairie (series), by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The books that spawned a literary and television franchise were based on Wilder’s own experience growing up in the Midwest in the late 19th century. Buy now: Little House on the Prairie (series)Harper and Brothers
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. A doll rabbit’s misfortune-plagued journey from one owner to another teaches him to care for and love others. Buy now: The Miraculous Journey of Edward TulaneCandlewick
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. August Pullman, who has a rare cranial deformity, decides to stop being homeschooled and attend Beecher Prep for middle school, but he is forced to overcome bullying and name-calling from some of his peers. Buy now: WonderKnopf Books
The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King series), by T.H. White. White gives the untold story of the legendary King Arthur’s childhood and his training under the wizard Merlyn in this 1938 classic. Buy now: The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King series)Collins
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. The eternal cynic Holden Caulfield, expelled from his boarding school and wandering New York City, grapples with his own disillusionment in this timeless rendering of teenage angst. Buy now: The Catcher in the RyeLittle, Brown
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. The four March sisters grow up in an impoverished New England household during the Civil War. Buy now: Little WomenRoberts Brothers
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim travel down the Mississippi in this literary classic. Buy now: The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnChatto & Windus
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins sets off on an adventure through Tolkien’s ingenious world in the prelude to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Buy now: The HobbitGeorge Allen & Unwin
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by Frank L. Baum. Dorothy is swept from her Kansas home to the Land of Oz in Baum’s 1900 novel that was successfully adapted for Broadway and film. Buy now: The Wonderful Wizard of OzGeorge M. Hill Company
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. The behavior of a group of boys marooned on an island devolves into primitive terror in this boundary-pushing classic. Buy now: Lord of the FliesFaber and Faber
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. Charlie Bucket explores the wonders of Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory. Buy now: Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryPenguin Books
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. Alice wanders through a fantasy world of talking rabbits, royal playing cards and smoking caterpillars. Buy now: Alice's Adventures in WonderlandMacmillan
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. Jesse becomes close friends with a new girl and fellow runner at school, but a heartbreaking tragedy in their secret invented world in the forest leaves him and the reader suffering. Buy now: Bridge to Terabithia Crowell
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. Buck, a domesticated dog in California, is stolen and forced to become a sled dog in Alaska, where he ultimately must decide whether to remain with humans or enter the wilderness. Buy now: The Call of the WildMacmillan
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. Competition between two friends at an elite prep school reaches a climax when one of them impulsively shakes a tree branch the other is standing on and knocks him off, changing both of their lives forever. Buy now: A Separate PeaceSecker & Warburg
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Eleven-year-old Harriet records her observations about friends and classmates in a notebook as training in the hopes of one day becoming a spy. But when her friends come across the notebook, Harriet must confront their anger over her sometimes too honest notes. Buy now: Harriet the SpyHarper & Row
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier. A New England Catholic school student tries to "disturb the universe” by challenging the school hierarchy and is forced to face his subsequent isolation. Buy now: The Chocolate WarPantheon Books
Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson. Sara Louise “Wheeze” Bradshaw struggles to escape the shadow of her sister Caroline. Buy now: Jacob Have I LovedCrowell
A Series of Unfortunate Events (series), by Lemony Snicket. Three orphan siblings attempt to escape and outwit an evil relative who is trying to steal their parents’ fortune. Buy now: A Series of Unfortunate Events (series)HarperCollins
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. After his single-engine plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness, 13-year-old Brian Robeson must survive with the hatchet gifted to him by his mother. Buy now: HatchetSimon and Schuster
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Hobbits, elves, wizards and men battle for control of the ring that will rule all of Middle Earth in this classic that all lovers of fantasy must read. Buy now: The Lord of the RingsGeorge Allen & Unwin
Feed, by M.T. Anderson. A dystopian critique of consumerism and reliance on technology. Buy now: Feed Candlewick Press
The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott. The most famous alchemist in the world, Nicholas Flamel, supposedly died in 1418—but his tomb is empty. Could he have discovered the elixir of life? Buy now: The AlchemystRandom House
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. Before the beloved movie, there was Goldman's book-within-a-book recounting the misadventures of a pair of starcrossed lovers, a righteous outlaw, and the scoundrels who get in their way. Buy now: The Princess BrideHarcourt Brace Jovanovich
Beezus & Ramona, by Beverly Cleary. Beezus and her younger, animated sister Ramona navigate a bumpy relationship. Buy now: Beezus & Ramona William Morrow
Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan, an orphan, is adopted by apes in this classic adventure novel that led to more than 20 sequels. Buy now: Tarzan of the ApesA. C. McClurg
Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Young Johnny Tremain is caught up in the fervor of the American Revolution. Buy now: Johnny Tremain Houghton Mifflin
The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. In his will, the millionaire Sam Westing challenges 16 heirs to solve the mystery of who murdered him. Buy now: The Westing GameE. P. Dutton
Best Children's Books: The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Four friends—a mole, toad, badger, and rat—seek out adventure in this elegantly written British classic. Buy now: The Wind in the WillowsSterling Children's Books
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Melinda, an incoming freshman, is raped by an upperclassman at a high school party, but she struggles to communicate the trauma to others. In her pain and growing isolation at school and at home, she turns to her art for expression. Buy now: SpeakFarrar Straus Giroux
Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers. Mary Poppins, nanny to the Banks children, reveals a magical world to the unsuspecting children in her care. Buy now: Mary PoppinsHarperCollins
The Fault in Our StarsBy John Green. Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient whose prognosis is dim, has her life transformed when she falls in love with a young man she meets at a support group.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient whose prognosis is dim, has her life transformed when she falls in love with a young man she meets at a support group. Buy now: The Fault in Our Stars Dutton Books
A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly. Against the backdrop of the real life 1906 murder of Grace Brown in upstate New York, fictional Mattie Gokey struggles to decide between staying in her impoverished farming community or escaping to college in New York City. Buy now: A Northern Light
The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. A young boy’s attachment to his pet deer becomes a problem for his impoverished family living in the Florida backwoods in the late 19th century with hardly enough to feed themselves. Buy now: The YearlingCharles Scribner's Sons
The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins. In a dystopian society where a group of children is annually required to battle to the death in a televised spectacle, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight in her sister's place. Buy now: The Hunger Games (series)Scholastic
For Freedom, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. A teenage aspiring opera singer in occupied France becomes a spy for the resistance. Buy now: For FreedomLaurel Leaf
The Wall, by Peter Sis. An illustrated memoir of the author’s youth depicting what it was like to grow up in communist Czechoslovakia. Buy now: The WallFarrar, Straus and Giroux
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. A monster helps a boy cope with his mother's terminal cancer. Buy now: A Monster CallsCandlewick
Percy Jackson & the Olympians (series), by Rick Riordan. Percy, a demigod son of Poseidon, must go across the U.S. in search of Zeus's stolen lightning bolt, adventuring with humans and gods along the way. Buy now: Percy Jackson & the Olympians (series)Puffin
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury. A collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, some as hair-raising as others are imaginative. Buy now: The Illustrated ManDoubleday and Company
A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson. A narrative poem explaining and memorializing the death of Emmett Louis Till, the 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Buy now: A Wreath for Emmett TillHoughton Mifflin
Every Day, by David Levithan. A teenager called A wakes up every morning in a new 16-year-old’s body, a fact he adjusts to until he falls in love with Rhiannon and grapples with trying to stay with her. Buy now: Every DayEmber
Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley. Whaley weaves together the stories of a depressed 17-year-old birdwatcher in Arkansas and a young missionary in Africa who has lost his faith. Buy now: Where Things Come Back Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. Annemarie Johansen risks her life to help Jewish families escape from Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Buy now: Number the StarsHMH Books
Blankets, by Craig Thompson. An autobiographical graphic novel that chronicles Thompson’s childhood in an Evangelical Christian family. Buy now: BlanketsTop Shelf Productions
Private Peaceful, by Michael Morpurgo. A soldier recounts his life from the trenches of WWI, eventually shifting into the present tense and encountering the realities of battle. Buy now: Private PeacefulHarperCollins
The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. The ever spirited and goodhearted Kit Tyler is sent to colonial Connecticut in 1687, where her manners—and her friendship with an old woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond—make her suspicious to the townspeople. Buy now: The Witch of Blackbird PondHMH
Dangerous Angels, by Francesca Lia Block. A seven-book series about Weetzie Bat and her magical adventures in Los Angeles with friends and family. Buy now: Dangerous AngelsHarperTeen
Frindle, by Andrew Clements. Fifth-grade prankster Nicholas Allen invents a new word for a pen to defy language teacher Mrs. Granger. But the word, “frindle,” quickly gains traction and spreads beyond Allen’s control. Buy now: FrindleAladdin Paperbacks
Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang. Two companion graphic novels that follow the divergent political and religious paths of Little Bao and Vibiana during the divisive time of the Boxer Rebellion. Buy now: Boxers and Saints First Second Books
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Bod, who was adopted by ghosts and has become a part of the community of supernatural beings living in a graveyard, faces adventures and obstacles in the graveyard and natural world alike. Buy now: The Graveyard BookHarperCollins
City of the Beasts, by Isabel Allende. Alex and Nadia are pulled into an adventure together in the mystical Amazon. Buy now: City of the BeastsRayo
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. A graphic novel that jumps back and forth between a Chinese folk tale and the stories of a young Asian American and his white alter-ego growing up in a San Francisco suburb. Buy now: American Born ChineseFirst Second Books
The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge. In a fantastical and harsh world of jungles and colonists, Hathin—who has grown up in her sister’s shadow—must endeavor to save them both. Buy now: The Lost ConspiracyHarperCollins
Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones. Sirius, the guardian luminary of the Dog Star, is sentenced to a lifetime as a dog and must overcome worldly obstacles to find the supernatural Zoi tool. Buy now: DogsbodyMacmillan
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel. John and Lorraine’s prank call unexpectedly leads to an enduring friendship with widower Angelo Pignati, whose care for the children transforms their lives. Buy now: The PigmanHarper Trophy
Alabama Moon, by Watt Key. Ten-year-old Moon leaves his sheltered home after his father dies and must adapt to the outside world. Buy now: Alabama MoonSquare Fish; Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan. Mexican farm workers adapt to life in Depression-era America and post-Revolutionary Mexico. Buy now: Esperanza RisingScholastic
The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness. In a dystopian world where everyone can hear each other’s thoughts as “Noise,” Todd comes across an area that is entirely silent and is forced to flee with his newfound knowledge. Buy now: The Knife of Never Letting GoCandlewick
Boy Proof, by Cecil Castellucci. A geeky girl in Los Angeles who proudly considers herself “boy proof” falls for a boy at school. Buy now: Boy ProofCandlewick
Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers. A young man from Harlem can't afford to attend college and instead joins the Army just as the Vietnam War is escalating. Buy now: Fallen AngelsScholastic
A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes. A dark 1929 novel about children who are kidnapped by pirates and develop complicated, nuanced relationships with their captors and each other. Buy now: A High Wind in Jamaica New York Review Books
The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo. Rob, sickly and devastated by the death of his mother, moves to a motel with his father for a new start. But after he comes across a caged tiger in the woods outside the motel, the unexpected find helps him overcome his sadness and open up to a new friend. Buy now: The Tiger RisingCandlewick
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. Life in 1970s New York City takes a turn for the bizarre for young Miranda Sinclair. Buy now: When You Reach MeYearling
Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay. The eccentric Casson children set off on separate adventures that are filled with hilarity and human emotion. Buy now: Saffy's AngelHodder
The Grey King, by Susan Cooper. Will Stanton, sent to Wales by his mother to recover from an illness, finds himself a protagonist in Welsh legend and must awaken other immortals to join him in a fight between good and evil. Buy now: The Grey KingAtheneum
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien. The extraordinary rats of NIMH come to the rescue of Mrs. Frisby and her endangered mouse family. Buy now: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAtheneum
The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke. Brothers Prosper and Boniface escape home and flee to Venice, where they join up with a gang of street children while on the run from a detective hired by their cruel guardian aunt and uncle. Buy now: The Thief LordScholastic
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. Four intellectually gifted children are sent to investigate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a mysterious organization suspected of sending out cryptic, mind-controlling signals over television waves. Buy now: The Mysterious Benedict SocietyLittle, Brown
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. A boy who lives in a Parisian train station investigates a hidden message from his late father in a story that was the basis for the Martin Scorsese 2011 film Hugo. Buy now: The Invention of Hugo CabretScholastic
Sabriel, by Garth Nix. Sabriel travels into the depth of the mystical Old Kingdom to save her father, where she confronts a dark world of spirits and the undead. Buy now: SabrielHarperCollins
Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson. In a prequel of sorts to Peter Pan, Anderson uses Tinkerbell to tell the story of Peter’s relationship with Tiger Lily before he falls for Wendy Darling. Buy now: Tiger LilyHarperTeen
Secret (series), by Pseudonymous Bosch. Three children must protect a mysterious secret in this layered series written by the equally mysterious Pseudonymous Bosch. Buy now: Secret (series)Little, Brown
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The first novel in the Earthsea series, the book follows the adventures of Ged in his youth before he became Earthesea’s greatest sorcerer. Buy now: A Wizard of EarthseaParnassus Press
Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edgar Allan Poe. A classic compilation of some of Poe’s wildest stories. Buy now: Tales of Mystery and ImaginationCalla Editions
Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher. A high school senior with a diverse background (black, Japanese and white) challenges the establishment by forming a swim team compiled of school misfits. Buy now: Whale TalkHarperCollins
The Chronicles of Prydain (series), by Lloyd Alexander. Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper sets off to become a hero and joins a battle between good and evil in this exemplar of fantasy fiction for children. Buy now: The Chronicles of Prydain (series)Square Fish
Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl. Danny and his father attempt to foil a wealthy landowner's pheasant hunt by poaching all the birds from his property. Mischief and mayhem ensue. Buy now: Danny the Champion of the WorldPuffin
Twilight (series), by Stephenie Meyer. Bella Swan discovers her crush comes with more complications than the average teen romance—her beau, Edward Cullen, is a vampire. Buy now: Twilight (series)Little, Brown

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