13 classroom classics that should be made into movies

The movie version of The Giver hits theaters today. It’s followed next weekend by If I Stay. If neither title rings a bell, ask a fifteen-year-old. A long line of young adult (YA) novels and series have made it to the multiplex in recent years, including some big Hollywood hits like The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, The Hunger Games, and, of course, Harry Potter that were well known to teens and tweens long before Hollywood took notice.

If the studios are looking for the next big thing, maybe they should hold pitch meetings in middle school. Here are our favorite YA novels still waiting for their adaptation to the silver screen.

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

The Giver is Lowry’s best—and best-known—novel, but Number the Stars might make a better movie. Set in Nazi-occupied Denmark during World War II, it tells the story of ten-year-old Annemarie and her family, who protect the girl’s Jewish best friend by pretending she is Annemarie's late older sister, a resistance member who had died earlier in the war.

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers

Myers, who died last month at age 76, is the August Wilson of YA fiction. He wrote dozens of books chronicling the lives of young African Americans, usually boys, any one of which would make terrific films: Hoops, Scorpions, Fallen Angels, and its sequel Sunrise over Fallujah. How is it possible that his 1999 book Monster not already a Spike Lee movie? The story of a sixteen-year old charged with murder in a botched drugstore robbery (the prosecutor calls him a monster) is even written in part as a screenplay, and it has never felt more relevant and topical.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

A dark and depressing narrative about teen suicide, this isn’t a “great” book—but it will make a terrific movie. The story unfolds through the voice of a deceased young woman who has left behind cassette tapes, passed along chain-letter style, explaining to twelve other kids their role in her decision to die. It was optioned several years ago as a vehicle for Selena Gomez, but she’ll probably be too old to play Hannah Baker by the time this movie gets made.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Yes, it’s already a movie, and a pretty good one, but it’s time for a remake—a black and white movie might as well be a homework assignment for the fourteen-and-under set. It’s a pity Sam Waterston is now too old to play Atticus Finch. The Gregory Peck role will end up being reprised by Matthew McCaugheney (furthering the McConaissance), Johnny Depp, or, inevitably, George Clooney, but it’s still well past time to update this classic for today’s teens.

Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli

Spinelli is another terrific author largely unknown outside of middle school. His Newberry Award–winning Maniac Magee would be the most obvious choice for film adaptation, but Wringer would be the better one. Every year in Palmer LaRue’s hometown, the big annual event is a pigeon shoot. Boys can’t wait to turn ten years old so they can become “wringers” and compete to snap the necks of wounded birds. But Palmer is the only boy in town who doesn’t want to be a wringer. In fact, he secretly owns a pet pigeon. And he’s nine.

Hatchet, by Gary Paulson

Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is the sole survivor of a small plane crash in the Canadian wilderness. He’s lucky enough to have a hatchet, but not much else, and must learn to make fire, hunt, and build a shelter while day by day his hope for rescue fades. The book was apparently made into a cable TV movie twenty-five years ago called A Cry in the Wilderness—think Castaway for teens and tweens.

Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

A young orphan armed with a few mementoes from his mother goes off in search of musician Herman E. Calloway in Depression-era Michigan, convinced that the jazzman is his father. Denzel Washington is now old enough to pull off the gruff and irascible Calloway. And who is the kid who stars in the YouTube Kid President videos? He is Bud.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

We queried a number of teachers on books they’d love to see turned into movies. A Wrinkle in Time was among the most frequently cited. Honestly? It’s wildly overpraised and at times incomprehensible. However, Wrinkle’s been optioned by Jennifer Lee, who most recently directed Frozen, so we’ll see how she does without Idina Menzel’s vocals to carry the film.

And speaking of Frozen, here are a few for Disney to consider:

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

This modern children’s classic—about a young girl living in Manhattan, her family, and her favorite stuffed animal—is ripe for a transition to the big screen. A live action/animated mix, in which Knuffle Bunny is animated but actors play Trixie and her parents, would be perfect. Dad would be an affable shirt-untucked kind of dude (James van der Beek in glasses, most likely). Jessica Alba—an actress now also known for being a mom—would be pitch-perfect as Trixie’s mom.

A Chair for My Mother, by Vera B. Williams

Any Vera B. Williams book is ripe to be made into a family classic, but this tale about a young girl, her grandmother, and her hardworking single mom who save to buy a new chair after a house fire should be first in line. It features great characters, imagery, and a relatable storyline with plenty of feel-good stakes. Quevenzhane Wallis would play the lead, while Jennifer Hudson could play the waitress-mom. 

Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes

The classic tale of a slightly self-centered but hilariously entertaining young mouse and her family would probably be a better animated TV series, a la Arthur, but any Kevin Henkes book would make for a lively, kid-friendly movie. George and Martha is another book that would probably translate better to TV as well, and should happen.

The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf

This political allegory would make a great darkly animated movie (think Coraline or any Tim Burton classic). It would be fun for kids but also engaging for parents, and Sandra Bullock, who read the book over and over again to her on-screen sons in The Blind Side, should voice the mom.

In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak

Paging Spike Jonze. The director, who made a divisive adaptation of Sendak’s most famous book, should also take on the late author’s most controversial, about a young boy’s dream journey through a baker’s kitchen.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.