What are good books for kids to read?
Kat asked me to offer some thoughts on this topic. My first thought is to have a lot of books around the house. Perfect would be the huge oak paneled study with thousands of books behind glass doors and large chairs to curl up in and read while looking out the large French doors leading to the beautiful English garden. My parents had a study – a converted porch with 1950’s glass brick – and it had shelves and shelves of books. The best thing in the world was to discover a book there without anyone recommending it; although I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted, it felt deliciously clandestine taking down a book from the shelf and deciding to read it. I found some of my favorite books that way, like I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, She and King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard, and Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. My own daughters did not get a study to explore but we did have lots of books around for them to find on their own and they talk about that same pleasure in the discovery. When I asked them recently about such “discovered books” they mentioned Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag, Mutiny on the Bounty and Pitcairn’s Island by Charles Nordstrom and Tales of Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb
A (very) little background about me
I am not an expert and my only qualifications are two daughters,(plus 4 step-daughters, a step-son – none of whom are great readers) and a lot of grandchildren. Both my own daughters and two of my grandchildren are avid readers. My plan is to write a little bit every week about books that I, my kids or my grandkids really liked (we are ages 66, 43, 40, 21,19 – and 5 weeks but she is not reading much yet). All but one of us is female – but I will point out books that Paul particularly liked. Some of these books you all probably know already. Some topics will be newer and unexpected.
History, mostly American
I loved history stories as a child and so did my children and, in fact, they both earned bachelor’s degrees in history – almost as useful as my own degree in German literature!
All of us were avid readers of biographies and still are. I had a set of Bobbs-Merrill biographies and my kids inherited those. We read them nearly to bits but were careful with the dust jackets because we liked the pictures. My absolute favorites were John J Audubon (I believed I would marry him) and Louis Pasteur – interesting that my life long passions have been birds and public health. I did not like Mad Anthony Wayne and probably only read that book 10 times. My kids report that Audubon was also their favorite. I have a friend who read the Landmark Biography set and he reports that he also read and re-read them. I don’t know if either set is readily available any more, but there are undoubtedly others. These were definitely a set that was worth owning – library books are great but they lack the intimacy of an owned book and when you own a book you can read it whenever you want. A lot of biography sets now include many lesser heroes and that is okay, but I think we need to read some of the big guns first – I learned so much about health and public health reading about Louis Pasteur. I also remember reading Lincoln, Washington, Betsy Ross (probably the token woman), Robert E. Lee, Thomas Edison, Davy Crockett (who I was also going to marry), and Daniel Boone. More women and more ethnic and racial diversity would be good.
A word about this re-reading thing. I was a major re-reader when I was young but am not now. Both of my kids were major re-readers and have remained re-readers. It may be worth noting that I was about 11 or 12 before my family had a TV set and we watched it only in the evening and rarely. After leaving home I probably only had a TV for a total of 15 years – mostly while in NC – and I am again blessedly TV-less. Both daughters, therefore, grew up mostly without a TV and one is still TV-less. All of us also grew up before video games were widely available and before computers were in every home. Reading was our entertainment and also our way of wasting time or avoiding other tasks. When my kids were teenagers we called re-reading Betsy, Tacey and Tib Go over Big Hill (or something equivalent) for the 42nd time “watching TV.” Re-reading something like To Kill a Mockingbird was given higher value.
Don’t overlook the obvious: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Another wonderful source of history is the Laura Ingalls Wilder set. Although I read and re-read these books myself, they were also one of the sets of books that my mom read aloud to me. I also read them aloud to my daughters. There is so much history here – the western frontier kind of history - and lot about food and daily life that makes history much more alive. Our family lived for four years in a cabin near the Canadian border without electricity or running water or telephone and sometimes we managed to get through tough times by being Laura and Mary. We did a lot of Laura and Mary type cooking and called on them when we had to chop wood or haul water. When my kids were young they thought that I had been friends with Laura and Mary when I was a child.
And a newer recommendation
A newer set of books that we all loved was the Dear America Series. These books are in diary form written by girls about 13 years old over the course of one year that corresponds to some event in American history. These came out when my grandchildren were a perfect age. I read all of the ones available before sending them to my granddaughter when she was about 9-11. Her mom also read them and says they could be used as basic texts for much older students. The girls in the books have strong characters and deal with many issues such as moving away from home, strange new people and places, loss and death. The historical information seems to be accurate and has context for real life. I think they make a great starting point for discussions of a particular historical time period or event such as the Oregon Trail or immigration and Ellis Island. There is a similar series for boys called My Name is America, a series for younger girls called My America and a series of Royal Diaries by people like Elizabeth I. I read several from each of these series, but did not find them as compelling. The authors used to do book tours and readings and my granddaughter loved going to meet the authors.
I found a website from Scholastic http://www.scholastic.com/dearamerica/books/dearamerica/newworldfs.htm that has a list of all the titles plus some nice suggestions for cooking and other activities. We used to cook a lot based on these books (as well as the Laura Ingalls Wilder books), and I wish we had had these sorts of suggestions.
There are probably many more new titles now, but some of my favorites were:
Dear America: Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, 1847
by Kristiana Gregory
Dear America: Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, New York City, 1903
by Kathryn Lasky
Dear America: Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, R.M.S. Titanic, 1912
by Ellen Emerson White
Dear America: West to a Land of Plenty:The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883
by Jim Murphy (This one was our all time favorite)
Dear America: Standing in the Light:The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763
by Mary Pope Osborne
Next time (maybe): survival and adventure