One of the activities I most anticipated in life was getting to read to my own children. I had grown up with books myself, and was so looking forward to enriching my children in this way, getting them to love the written word.
My experience reading to my two daughters, now ten and twelve, surpassed my expectations. I had the privilege of staying home with them when they were small, and started my older daughter on books almost as soon as she could hold her head up. They were books that rattled and squeaked at first, and then we graduated to alphabet and other concept books. And of course we didn't forget the ones with adorable bunny rabbits and birds in search of their mothers. Soon we found out where the library was and were making regular trips, emerging with stacks of beautifully written and illustrated stories. Yes, we can overindulge in anything.
The point is, that although there was no guarantee that my children would be innately wired to love reading, my investment paid off. Now both my daughters read avidly, and fast--by some mysterious process, they consume a book cover to cover far more quickly than I can.
My kids get to choose most of their reading material from vast collections at the school and public libraries, which cater to every interest, stage, and ability. They are also known to borrow books from their classroom shelves; they would keep them kicking around indefinitely if I didn't get on their backs about returning them. And we are at any venue that sells used books for a quarter or two--thrift stores and garage sales--browsing and buying and cramming purchases on our crowded shelves. There is such an abundance of paperbacks for my kids to consume, probably more than ever before, and we have been taking full advantage.
But, what if availability were limited, building a collection was more expensive, and the reading choices our children had were narrowed to what we could offer them on one bookshelf at home? What should we select for them?
I've been wanting to write, not about the thousands of picture books in print for very young children, but about a core of classics old and new that would entertain, challenge, and grow our kids from about ages six to twelve. These books should be pleasant to read aloud, and they should contribute to a child's store of cultural references he shares in common with other educated Americans. I think that amongst the flood of written material my kids can access on our shelves and elsewhere, I have covered much of value with my girls, but now and then I make discoveries and Ricochet readers always offer pleasant surprises in questions like this. Here is at least the beginning of my core collection:
1.) The Bible. This is something that I have neglected--the opportunity to help my children become biblically literate. I need to be systematically teaching my children the tenets of our Christian faith. We have some basics down, but my children are ready for much more. So I would have to put the Bible down as my first pick--if I had only one choice, this must be it. I have only recently begun to see the beauty of the writing in Scripture, and it is a huge store of common cultural references, but there is far more that my kids need to get from it.
2.) Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. Although these have some fictional elements, which probably functioned as lubricant for the narrative, they have much in them that was real set in spare, strong prose. For a start, our children should know about the quality of the men and women that spread out across our country and settled the West.
Laura's family and Almanzo's both worked unceasingly. They were self-disciplined, uncomplaining, and appreciative of any small privilege that came their way. The Ingalls lived in tiny quarters simply furnished. Pa built their homes and their furniture. Even reading material was rare and special in Laura's world. If Laura received a penny and a tin cup for Christmas, she cherished those gifts. And orange from a birthday party would be carefully saved to share with a sibling at home. In our day when possessions and privileges are poured into our laps, these books are indispensible to any children's library.
3.) C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. Maybe I'm programmed to recommend these because my mother read them to us nightly at bedtime for years. She went through them twice, I believe. Lewis is an eloquent storyteller and these seven books are excellent read-alouds. In them, there is a strong sense of God's sovereignty and love. I was always a little bit disappointed by the last one, because in it, the Narnia that the four Pevensie children knew falls apart. But there is a new Narnia, that looks small from the outside but goes on and on from the inside--one of those Lewis philosophical constructions that I find intriguing but never really get. I think that these books are powerful enough to shape a child's view of life. I think it shaped mine.
4.) Charlotte's Web, because it's a classic by a prominent writer. I introduced this to my kids when they were preschoolers with the book on CD--a good way, I discovered, to multiply opportunities to engrain rhythms of language and vocabulary into little children's minds. Charlotte's Web was pleasant and lyrical read aloud by a professional. My kids didn't necessarily listen from beginning to end, but the story ground away in their room for some time. Children should know the story of a farm pig saved by the ingenuity and hard work of a clever, compassionate spider.
5.) The Secret Garden, A Little Princess. Although written early in the last century, these books still appeal to young audiences. Okay, I can still enjoy the stories, too. Accounts of orphaned children who find hope and success, and furthermore enrich the lives of those duty-bound to help them, are almost always gratifying. And this is one of the few times that a good book has been followed up with an excellent movie.
6.) Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon. Speaking of gratifying stories of orphans, these are two written around the same time as Frances Hodgson Burnett created her heroines. I received Anne as a gift when I was nine or ten. I was told it was a wonderful story. I flipped it open and was immediately discouraged to read pages of description of brooks and woods, houses and an older, gossipy woman. I almost gave up, but then was so glad that I stuck with it. Anne is an immensely satisfying read. I do not recommend the sequels, however. The two mini-series from the 1980's do a better job with Anne's life following the first book than L.M. Montgomery did. I was gifted with Emily when I was eleven and read it on a long car trip. Emily might even be better than Anne.
7.) 101 Dalmations. I first read this absorbing story when I was eight or nine and I've purchased it used for my kids. I remember having a strange dream soon after reading it wherein my young brother and all the youngest siblings of my friends were about to undergo a fate similar to the ones awaiting the captured dogs. I read portions of it aloud recently, and what a pleasant voice that author has, what a cozy British atmosphere, what subtle humor, and what clever turns of phrase. Definitely a keeper.
8.) Beverly Cleary's Ramona books. I once read a piece by a book reviewer who said that the children's authors we enjoyed in the 80's were appreciated just because they existed--we did not have the choices we do now. I'd give him that for Judy Blume and a few others. But Beverly Cleary's work is a treasure.
The Ramona books are simply written, but these stories of growing up bring us into the life of a bright little girl who faces difficult teachers, an imperfect family, some unfair circumstances, and messes she creates for herself. The books affirm the strong family unit, mothers and fathers who are strained financially but who work hard, love their children, and provide for them the best they can materially and emotionally. Sometimes they have to ask hard things from their daughters so that they can pay the bills. But by the end of each book, familial love is re-confirmed and Ramona grows up a little more.
I also love that the Ramona books are dated. They hark back deliciously to a time when children walked to school, went to the park by themselves, and put on birthday parties where five-year-olds were dropped off to be entertained by strangers.
Cleary's accomplishment is more astonishing when I take into consideration that, according to Cleary's autobiography, her own childhood had its unhappy struggles with a mother who wanted to live vicariously through her daughter. Cleary herself does not come across an upbeat person in her memoirs. But her children's series are hopeful and peopled by real but ultimately happy families.
9.) A good illustrated poetry collection. These should be a mix of nursery rhymes and poems by solid authors such as Robert Lewis Stevenson who write for children. As kids, we enjoyed this richly illustrated collection from Childcraft, possibly one of the best volumes of children's poetry out there. Reading poems to young kids and discussing their meanings where necessary is a good way of introducing them to poetic language.
10.) A nonfiction series. I suppose this could consist of encyclopedias, but I will say that we had the entire set of Childcraft from when we were tiny, and we probably looked at them every day. They offered color pictures and photos, a different focus in each volume (stories, poems, how things work, make and do, the body and health, plants, animals, and more), and lots of background-building information presented in a manner that drew us kids much more than a set of encyclopedias was likely to do. I've noticed that more recent Childcraft versions have evolved and become p.c. We had the ones from the early 1970's, and they were wonderful.
11.) Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. This is one of those recent discoveries. My daughter's third grade teacher read it aloud to the class, and so my daughter found herself a copy. I wish I had known it as a child, since it is full of pleasing details about the houses of mice and clever rats. Drew from Wisconsin writes winningly about the book, and I hope he posts more on books for budding conservatives. (Drew, would you mind sending me the link to your member feed post, since I am unable to find it right now?)
12. Winnie the Pooh and A.A. Milne poems. Milne's writing is sophisticated, still a bit too sophisticated for me at times, but cozy for reading aloud to young children.
Now it's your turn. What else belongs in this library?