Despite appearances to the contrary, we here at Times and Seasons do not spend all our time debating the finer points of church doctrine, history, culture and theology. A lot of the time, we talk about our kids. And since raising kids–and in particular, finding good books to read to them and with them–is something a lot of our readers can relate to, we thought we’d open the blog up to some discussion and recommendations of that topic. First up, a guest post from my wife, Melissa Madsen Fox, who besides being a great consumer and critic of youth fiction, also maintains a blog where she reviews much of the same. Take it away, Melissa!
First, a confession: I love reading children’s books. Someone once asked me if I read so many children’s books so I could “screen” them for my children. I, very unabashedly, said, “No. I think the best writing out there is for children.” That kind of dead-ended the conversation. I admit that I’m bit of an oddity: I’m neither a children’s librarian, a grade-school teacher, or a children’s writer. I’m just an avid reader who happens to love children’s literature.
That being said, I have several disclaimers before I jump into my favorite books. First, this is in no way a comprehensive, or even thorough list. There is just not enough time out there for me to read everything. And I have some self-imposed limitations to what I read: I’m usually not a fan of really long novels, and I don’t like books with excessive violence, sex or foul language, though I will tolerate a some of each. Also, I rarely read Church books. There are many reasons for this, availability being one the main one. Outside of Utah, LDS fiction is pretty hard to get. Granted, we now live an hour from Nauvoo where there is a church bookstore, so the availability has increased. But I also hate buying books I don’t like. There’s nothing worse, for me, than to buy a book and hate it. That’s what libraries are for. You check it out, you don’t like it, you take it back, no money down the drain. And outside of Utah, it’s pretty rare to see Mormon fiction in a library. Plus, I have had bad experiences with the Mormon fiction I’ve read. It seems to me that children’s fiction in the Church is more about reinforcing doctrine and values than about telling good stories. I’d love to be proved wrong; nieces have told me that they’ve enjoyed the Tennis Shoes Adventure series, but since I can’t check them out, until someone lends them to me, I probably won’t be reading them.
My main goal when I read is to find good stories. I love a story that drags me in, captivates me and then leaves me with a good ending. If any one of those is lacking, I probably won’t be that thrilled about the book. I also have to admit that my mood and what I’ve most recently read effects what I think about any particular book.
Before I get started, let me recommend my favorite book-idea place: the Chinaberry catalog. They usually have great books, and even take the time to divide them up by age group, with recommendations for both read-aloud and read-alone. It’s a great resource, even if you don’t purchase the books from them (which I try to do, once in a while, just so they keep sending me the catalog).
Oh, and one final thing: I have a much more thorough list of all the books I’ve read (and I don’t just read youth fiction, though I do read a lot) at my blog, if you’re interested. And since there’s a lot more traffic here than I get, I’ll pose the same request that I pose there: I’m always looking for recommendations of good books to read. Please pass some along!
Infant/Toddler–I believe you can never start reading to your baby too soon. I love all the books with baby faces, and Tara Hoban’s Black/White and White/Black for infants. But I also love it when my children get to the point when I can start reading them “real” books. My first rule of toddler books is: if I can’t stand to read it five times in a row, it’s not a good book. That being said, the ones that I still like, even after reading them to three children:
* Miss Mary Mack, Mary Ann Hoberman and Nadine Bernard Westcott
* Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See?, Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. I also love most of Eric Carle’s other stuff, but especially The Very Busy Spider
* We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
* anything by Sandra Boynton, but especially Blue Hat, Green Hat, which goes by “Oops!” in our house and Barnyard Dance, which even my 9-year-old likes to “dance” to.
* Goodnight Gorilla, Peggy Rathman
Preschool–the same rule for toddlers holds here. I look for books that are wonderful to read over and over, which is why I hate the Berenstain Bears books, even if my kids like them. Some favorites from our personal library (there are tons more at the public library!):
Sweet, quiet books:
* The Fairy Went a-Marketing, Rose Fyleman and Jamichael Henterly
* Noah’s Ark, Peter Spier
* Dance Tanya, Patricia Lee Gauch and Satomi Ichikawa
* Sleepy Bears, Mem Fox and Kerry Argent
* Bunny Cakes, Rosemary Wells
* Lottie’s New Beach Towel, Petra Mathers
* If You Give a Pig a Pancake, Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond. I know there are other “If You Give” books, but this is my personal favorite.
* Click, Clack, Moo–Cows that Type, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin
Books that sound great when read aloud:
* The Maestro Plays, Bill Martin Jr. and Vladimir Radunsky
* Where the Wild Things Are, Marurice Sendak
* Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans
* What Can You Do With a Shoe? Beatrice de Regniers and Maurice Sendak
Older Kids–don’t let them kid you; even older kids like a picture book now and again. A plug for the Caldecott books: they really are wonderful.
* The Tale of Custard the Dragon, Ogden Nash and Lynn Musinger
* The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, Jon Sciezka and Lane Smith. To be honest, I love all their books; we just happen to own this one.
* Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett
* So You Want to Be President?, Judith St. George and David Small
* Owl Moon, Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr
* Mailing May, Michael O. Tunnell and Ted Rand
* When Jessie Came Across the Sea, Amy Hest and P.J. Lynch
* Paul Revere’s Ride, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, illustrated by Ted Rand. Here is a book that pretty much sums up what makes a good picture book: you can put whatever text you like and if the pictures are wonderful, kids will eat it up. My oldest, when she was 4, loved hearing this book, if only because the pictures are so captivating.
I think when to read a particular chapter book to your child is really a personal decision. You know your child best, and what that child can handle. My oldest didn’t want anything to do with the Narnia series or Wizard of Oz; both were too scary. My second has eaten them up, the Wizard of Oz being her favorite book. I haven’t allowed my oldest to read past the fourth book in the Harry Potter series (though reading the fifth is under negotiation), mostly because of her tendency to be terrified.
I’m not going to list Harry Potter, the Little House series or Narnia; I think they’re a given as good read-aloud books. I could go on and on in these lists, but I’ll limit myself to 10.
* The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum. There are others, some of which I’ve read. But the first is the best.
* Secret Garden and/or The Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Get the editions illustrated by Tasha Tudor, they’re priceless.
* The Indian in the Cupboard, Lynne Reid Banks
* The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein. I probably would have loved this book as a kid had someone read it aloud to me.
* All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor. A great book about a Jewish family. One of my first exposures to Judaism as a kid.
* Anything by E. Nesbit, but especially Five Children and It or the Railway Children
* Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery. Her other books in the Anne series are good, too, but for older readers.
* The Mixed-Up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg. But her other books are really good too.
* The Tale of Despereaux, Kate Dicamillo. This book is really meant to be read aloud; I didn’t really like it at all until we listened to it on CD.
* Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien. So much better than that old cartoon.
Read alone: Again, use your judgement. I think most kids tendencies are to read books they can, rather than books that are geared toward their age level. I was reading Agatha Christie at age 13, and was proud that I could. I regret that now: there are so many books I could have read that I missed out on. I enjoy series because there’s always one more adventure to go on with the characters I already love; my favorites are the Prydian series by Lloyd Alexander and The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. The Newbery list is also a great source for chapter books.
* Holes, Louis Sachar
* anything by Robin McKinley, especially if you’re a girl. My favorites
are Beauty and The Blue Sword. I also like Hero and the Crown, but that’s for young adult readers.
* Bud, not Buddy and/or The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, Christopher Paul Curtis
* The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
* Wrinkle in Time and Wind in the Door, Madeline L’Engle
* The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth Speare
* Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine. Though this one is also really fun to read aloud. Don’t watch the movie. It sucked.
* anything by Roald Dahl, but especially Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG
* Because of Winn Dixie, Kate Dicamillo
* Tuck Everlasting, Natatlie Babbitt
Ah, my favorite. It’ll be hard to limit myself to 10, so I’m allowing myself 15. I don’t go for the angst-ridden ones, though I have liked several coming-of-age books. Oh, and don’t forget the “classics” like Little Women and Treasure Island.
* Crispin, Avi.
* The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale
* The Giver, Lois Lowry. The Messenger, which is kind of a sequel to The Giver is also good. I found Gathering Blue to be a bit weak, though.
* Jacob Have I Loved, The Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson. Wonderful, beautiful tear-jerkers.
* The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth Speare
* Just Ella, Margaret Peterson Haddix
* Jackaroo, Cynthia Voight. I would recommend Dicey’s Song and Homecoming, too.
* Quest for a Maid, Frances May Hendry. Actually, I like historical fiction in general. Ann Rinaldi has written several excellent books, as have Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. An Acquaintance with Darkness (Rinaldi) and The Ghost at the Tokaido Inn (Hoobler) are both excellent.
* Things Not Seen, Andrew Clements
* The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer
* Shadow Spinner, Susan Fletcher
* Standing Tall and Sticks, Joan Bauer. She generally writes “coming of age” books, and fairly well, too. These two are my favorites.
* Pirates!, Celia Rees
* Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli. He won a Newbery for Maniac Magee, which is good. But I like this one better.
* Point Blank, Anthony Horowitz. If you even think you’d like Artemis Fowl, you’d love this one. However, I can only recommend the first one (there’s a whole series), because after that, unless you’re a 13-year-old boy, it gets kind of old.