1986: A Field Guide to Dinosaurs, David Lambert
No nonsense. Laid it all outhow big, which continents, which section of the Triassic or Jurassic or Cretaceous, all taxonomically arranged. There are two orders of dinosaurs, the Saurischia and the Ornithischia, distinguished by their hip structure: the Saurischia split up into the theropods (Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Compsognathus) and sauropods (Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus which dino geeks know is the correct name for Brontosaurus). Ornithischia are different sorts of plant-eating dinos (Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus), except for Troödon, which was thought to eat meat. Pterodactyls are technically not dinosaurs but related archosaurs (ruling reptiles!), plesiosaurs are even more distant. Better stop here.
1987: My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell
I read almost all of the Durrell books the year my family lived in England, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite, but this was the first. A family friend recommended it because everyone knew I was into animals, but of course the animals were a gateway into the arch and dry British memoir, which was a sort of humor that I had not previously encountered and which I took to immediately. I tried to write about my own family in a similar style (every child takes as an article of faith that their family is crazy!), but I did not have Corfu at my disposal, nor water snakes, nor a literary older brother, so they never amounted to much.
1988: The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani), transliterated, translated, edited, and generally explained by the inestimable E.A. Wallis Budge
I had to turn to something after we all tired of the Catholic church. I remember my mother coming up to me one afternoon, as I was reading through this book for the fiftieth time, and hesitantly asking “You don’t actually believe this stuff, do you?” “No,” I cried instantly, which was mostly true, but I do remember pressing blades of grass from the backyard into small sheets of papyrus, which I then whitened with Liquid Paper and covered with short hieroglyphic spells. Whatever their goal, it was not achieved; but Egyptian religion seemed a jolly life-affirming affair on the whole, kept interesting by a heavy lacing of mystery and menace, and by the key benefit of a magical language. Budge’s edition had three parallel texts: the hieratic script rendered in a beautiful hieroglyphic font, then the transliteration with all of the missing vowels filled in per convention by the letter e, then the word-by-word translation whose syntax you had to rearrange yourself. I never quite expected to find myself before the scales of Anubis, should a heart attack take me in the night; but I did know the proper incantations to pass through, just in case, and given the alternative of fourth grade turning into fifth grade, it was starting to seem an unobjectionable fate.