February 27, 2011

Top 11 Books to Read My Children

My children love books- chips off the old block!
As a child, my parents were proactive when it came to fostering a love of reading in their kids.  From a very early age, instead of the standard picture books we would read chapters from BIG books.  And my sisters and I loved them.  It was a wonderful imagination task- putting faces and scenery to a story being read aloud.  By the time I was eight or nine my favorite books in the world were all either "grown up" books or written during a time when children's stories had more adult themes and tones.  They had complex vocabularies and spoke in a voice that was never condescending or belittling.  Even as a tween, I found the tone of most books written specifically for children my age offensively simple.  I look forward with more glee and anticipation than I can say to reading a few of my childhood favorites to my own children.  That isn't to say that I don't love picture books, and that there isn't a place for them.  So without further ado, I give you my top eleven list of books (ten just isn't enough!) to read to my children.

Firstly, and the one for which I know I have M's undying support, is The Hobbit.  I LOVED this book as a little kid.  It has everything a child could want- fantasy, swordplay, music, magic... my parents had an incredible copy that was filled with random works of art from all over the world, illustrating different scenes from the story.  This was great, because peeking across the pages I would see myriad Gandolfs and Gollums, drawings both terrifying and silly.  It was a reminder, even as a very young child, that I was allowed to invent the characters as I saw fit- that my own interpretations were as right as anyone elses.  I was allowed to be as imaginative as I liked.  I would love to find another copy of that edition.

The next book on my must-read list for my children is The Good Master, by Kate Seredy.  I have often heard other women complain that there aren't enough books featuring strong female leads, and I have a hard time agreeing too wholeheartedly.  That is because I grew up on The Good Master.  It's a marvelous story set in rural Hungary just after the turn of the 20th century.  It follows "Cousin Kate from Budapest," who has moved to the country to stay with her aunt and uncle and cousin Jancsi for her health.  Like Kate, I (the child reader) found it hard to understand or accept the complexities of life in this setting, and learn along with Kate how to make my place.  But she's not just a city girl in the sticks, she's also a firecracker, and trouble maker, and the spunkiest kid you ever saw.  After a fight with her aunt and uncle, she runs away with Gypsies.  She gets herself trapped in the rafters of the house going after forbidden sausages.  She forces her cousin to teach her to ride a horse like a boy, despite all complaints that it's unseemly for a girl to go in pants.  She was my hero for much of my childhood, and the book is filled with wonderful glimpses into a life that seems almost magically idyllic.  It's a masterpiece of children's literature.

The next book, and one that I already read to my children (when I can get through it without weeping), is The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.  I have always been thoroughly moved by this book, even as a little kid.  It taught me, almost as much as my parents, what it means to love somebody.  It gave me the blueprint upon which I built the foundations of my personal philosophy, that to give of yourself in love and joy is the only way to truly give meaning to your life.  It also taught me about what is important- friendship and love, not possessions or petty wants.  While I know that my children are still too young to understand these deeper messages, I know that one day they shall.  And I hope they will be able to take that lesson deeply to heart.

Another of my favorites that my parents read to me was Watership Down, by Richard Adams.  This is one that many of my friends have expressed a lot of surprise about.  After all, it's war stories enacted by rabbits.  But it's also an incredible work of fiction.  And as a child, it's easy to relate to fluffy bunnies.  It has action and adventure, and even better- a beautifully constructed mythology.  I LOVED the tales of El-ahrairah- the rabbit version of the Coyote, Adam, and Hercules all rolled into one.  I have to admit there were probably a night or two that I lay awake, wondering how Hazel would escape General Woundwart, or how Bigwig would recover from being trapped in the snare.  But I think this is important for a child- to become enough entangled in a story that it becomes the most real and important thing in their lives for a time.  Learning to cope with story induced stress teaches you how to cope with stress in your real life.  And it makes a happy ending that much more rewarding.

One that I've tried on a few occasions to read the girls already is The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss.  They don't have quite the attention span for a book this long yet- it's longer by far than some of his other titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, or One Fish Two Fish.  But it is an extremely important and wonderful book.  While most of his stories have healthy morals (try news foods, a person's a person no matter how small...), this is one that I find particularly prescient.  It's about not wasting the precious resource that is our environment.  It's about being a steward of the earth, and not just using it up as fast as we can.  It was so far ahead of its time, and its message is more important than ever.  I plan to read this to my girls before getting them started planting their own flowers and vegetables in my garden each year- reminding them that they must care for the earth, protect it, and that our planet is capable of so much life. 

Another childhood favorite was Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Florence and Richard Atwater.  This story begins with the most sympathetic of childhood heroes- an adult who never let go of his dreams.  Mr. Potter always wanted to be an explorer, and after striking up a correspondence with one, receives a pet of a penguin.  He and his piano playing wife turn their basement into a penguin wonderland, take their amazing performing penguins on the road, and eventually to a new home.  I won't give it all away.  This is the sort of literature that can get a kid into non-fiction- get them excited about learning and developing their own interests.  Suffice to say, grown-ups with overactive imaginations are absolutely the best, and this is one of the best of those stories I know.

Now, this book is one I never read as a child, but would have adored.  I completely understand my parents' decision not to read it aloud, as it might have taken months, but it's in the cards here at SuperMommy's house.  The book is Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.  It has all the elements of a perfect story- love, battles, freedom, nobility...  It has children who become dynamic adults, the morals of personal freedom and honesty, and most importantly- Jean Valjean.  He is, I believe, the perfect hero.  Redemptive and humble, he suffers endlessly- but always striving to protect and aid the people he loves.  It's a story filled with good morals, with heartbreak and victory... it is one of the most perfect stories ever written, and when my children are old enough (eight or nine?) you can rest assured we will read it together.  I just hope they don't make too much fun of me for crying over it.

Up next on the list is A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  I know, I'm Jewish.  Who cares?  This is a fabulous story.  And on top of that, I would love to have it be part of our family's Christmas tradition.  After all, M is Lutheran- we're a two religion family.  So why not share this amazing book with our children each year as part of the build up to Christmas?  I'd rather this than watching endless cheesy movie tie-ins and schlocky cartoons.  Like The Giving Tree, this book is filled with lessons to take forward into your life.  Similar messages, even, about materialism and greed.  And that is so particularly important around Christmas. when so much of the world seems focused on buying useless crap for each other.  I'd love for my children to always associate Christmas with remembering to care for each other and fostering the best of themselves, instead of just thinking about what they want to find under the tree.

Of course, you could be sure that if I was putting a Christmas book on the list, there'd be some Jewish literature in there too.  The first of those books is The Devil's Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen.  I just cannot say enough good things about Jane Yolen.  Her works for teenagers, for small children, and for adults alike are all wonderful.  In this book a girl in the mid 90's opens the door for Elijah during a Passover seder, and is somehow magically transported to Poland in 1942- just before her family is relocated to a concentration camp.  Cheerful, no?  As the book goes on, she makes friends with a girl who's life she saves- a girl that goes on to become the very grandmother attending the seder at the beginning of the book.  I know, this seems like a total downer.  But surprisingly, it's not.  And most importantly this is a book that created a powerful connection for me with my own Jewish heritage.  It is so desperately important, as Jews, to remember our history and culture.  This is a book that really drives home that importance and the weight of those remembrances.

Hand in hand with The Devil's Arithmetic is another Holocaust related book- Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse.  This book I read over and over and over again.  Unlike most other Holocaust stories, this book features absolutely no camps.  Instead, it's the story of Rifka's family as they flee to the United States.  Rifka is quarantined on Ellis Island, trapped in limbo between the old world and the new.  As my own family came through Ellis Island round about the same time, this story connected me with my own history in a profound way.  The writing is simple and uncomplicated, told in excerpts from Rifka's diary.  In addition to the Jewish and historical themes, it is also a coming-of-age story, in which Rifka learns that she has become a competent young woman, versus the frightened girl she was as she began to flee the Nazis.  This is another book that will have to wait until my children are a little older.

Last but not least, the Harry Potter books.  I know, I'm a gigantic nerd.  But these books are wonderful.  I imagine I'll read them as my children come closer to Harry's own age- perhaps one a year.  I'm sure they'll find the movies for themselves. but let's be honest- those movies have NOTHING on the books!  The books are filled with adventure and wonder, and manage to maintain a few really worthwhile themes- the importance of friendship, loyalty, and goodness, for example.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow from quirky children into brave and triumphant young adults.  What more could anyone want for their own children?

Of course, there are so many other books I want to share with my children.  Great books, even a few bad books.  But these are the ones I KNOW I will share with them.  And I know that most of these books will have as much meaning for my kids as they do for me. 

A few runners up:  



  1. What a lovely, thoughtful post.

    A couple of other titles that came instantly to mind: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and The Princess Bride.

  2. Yes! Those were some of my favorites. Dad also could've mentioned Matilda (or almost any Roald Dahl book) or Eloise, and Mom read us Little Women.

  3. Stopping by from M&M.

    Love you Forever is one of my favorites, too. I can NOT read it without tearing up.

  4. Some good recommendations here. I'll have to refer back when my little one is old enough. ;)

    I'm on Ina May's Guide to Childbirth right now but Annie, surprised that I hadn't already read it, wants me to read The Giver by Lois Lowry when I'm done. Also, maybe some Laura Ingalls Wilder would be in order?

  5. David: Thank you so much. I love those books, too!

    Anderin: You know, I didn't read little women until I was practically a teenager. But it would be pretty perfect for the girls a lot sooner than that.

    Barbara: It's so difficult- you want to share something beautiful with your children, but it just gets so hard when you get all emotional... Good thing for me DD gives me kisses if I start crying. :)

    Ryan: Absolutely! The Little House books are definitely on my list!

  6. We read a lot of Little House on the Prairie and the CS Lewis series that are best known for "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe".

    My parents read to me and my sisters constantly and I'm positive it did us nothing but good. I, also, was reading books much more advanced than my age group because I was simply bored with the curriculum. When I told my 7th grade English teacher that my favorite book was the Count of Monte Cristo, she looked at me gobsmacked. That, also, would make a great read-aloud though it is a massive tome.

  7. Oh Pippi!!! Thank you for this wonderful list.

  8. I know and love almost all of these books. I look forward to checking out the ones I haven't heard of. We read Christmas Carol as part of Advent every year, as did my father when I was little. I think it's a great tradition to have.

  9. This post makes the English major in me smile! Our kids are going to have fun!

  10. This is a great list! I love the Giving Tree, I just gave it to my parents as a gift for Christmas.

    Did I also mention that I love your graphic up at the top? Did YOU (or someone you know) draw it? Really like it!

  11. What a great list of books. There are a couple titles I have not yet read...and you have sold me. I laugh at Watership Down for kids...I used to teach that to my sophomores, and they struggled with it. You must have been one prolific child reader!
    I LOVED Shel Silverstein and I still do! The Giving Tree is great, but I adore his poetry too. Thanks for the resource of ideas for my kids!

  12. The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O by Shel Silverstein

  13. Hi!
    Awesome list of books to read to your children. They will love them. Have a great day!

    Just Books

  14. Beautiful post. I would love to read The Devil's Arithmetic even if the subject matter is heavy.

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