November 14: Top Ten Books I Want My Future Children to Read (Or nieces and nephews, Godchildren, etc.)
Well, I don’t have children. In theory I’d like one or two someday, but we’ll see. I’m not ambivalent, so much as overwhelmed at the enormity of a parent’s job! But I do love kids. I have students. I’d want them to read these. I’d want any future godchildren I might have to read these. And if I do have children I hope they read them too! Books have contributed so much to making me the person that I am. I think that these had really positive impacts.
1. Matilda by Roald Dahl– As a kid, I liked this book because it was funny. I still like it for that reason, but I see more to it now. Matilda Wormwood is a character whose identity was largely formed by what she’s read. I believe that this gave her a strong sense of justice. Matilda hates a bully, and she’s surrounded by them. But while many children with abusive adults in their lives grow up to be abusers themselves, I don’t see this as Matilda’s fate. Her avid reading gave her a sense of the world. Her intelligence allowed her to understand the implications of what she read. The combination gave her a sense of right and wrong (certainly she’d never have gotten that from her parents!) and fueled her to become a person who doesn’t stand idly by while people are suffering. I think that’s an important lesson for any child.
So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.
2. Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards– I remember reading the “about the author” page of this, and being shocked and delighted that it was indeed written by that Julie Andrews! But Oscar/Emmy/Grammy winning author aside, it’s a beautiful story about an orphan who finds an abandoned cottage not far from the orphanage. She fixes it up and makes it truly hers. Eventually this cottage leads her to find a family and a place where she belongs. I see this book as being about the creation of a family. It’s not one that Mandy is born into but rather one that she makes for herself. I think it shows that whatever circumstances you’re born into, you can create a place for yourself. It might not be lavish or fancy. The people around you might not be perfect. But that’s not necessary for happiness.
“Mandy tidied the weeds and pulled out some of the summer flowers. It saddened her to do so. She was parting with beloved friends.”
3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hogsdsen Burnett– In some ways, this is probably similar to Mandy. It’s about an orphan creating a home and her family for herself. But the orphanage where Mandy lives isn’t hostile. It’s just not meeting her emotional needs. On the other hand, Mary Lennox finds herself in a house full of strangers, on the bleak moors of England (after having spent most of her life in India). Her guardian, her Uncle Archebold is a man who still actively mourns the wife he lost ten years earlier. He closed away the garden she loved after her death, and hides the son to whom she died giving birth. Uncle Archibold isn’t evil- he believes that he’s doing this for the boy’s delicate health. Nonetheless, he’s created an environment where it’s impossible to breathe. He’s buried his pain, but in doing so he has also buried the things that can help to ease it. It’s only once Mary opens the garden and brings her cousin outdoors that this family can begin to heal. Because it’s unhealthy to keep the past buried. Especially when it’s painful. Because then it festers and grows. Sometimes to only way to heal is to open up. It may be more painful at first, but the healing is genuine.
“One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live… surprising things can happen to any one who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.
4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott– I remember the first time I read this book. I loved all the characters but I wanted to be Jo. I remember sobbing at Beth’s fate. And unlike many readers I remember being sort of glad that Jo turned down Laurie’s proposal. Even at ten I saw that they made great friends, but as life partners they’d be disastrous. But this is really a beautiful depiction of family life. At home and at a distance. Jo has a pretty happy home environment, but she’s not satisfied until she exposes herself to more of the world. A happy childhood with a loving family is a wonderful foundation in life. But most of us need to spread our wings at some point. If we’re lucky, we can do that, knowing that home is always a place where we can return when we need to, and that family will be there for you no matter what.
I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end.
5. Anne series by LM Montgomery (as well as Montgomery’s other work, but Anne is non-negotiable!) I’ve mentioned my Anne obsession before in this blog. She was my first literary kindred spirit. I felt like I grew up with her. As a younger kid there was Anne of Green Gables, as I grew a bit older there was Anne of Avonlea, and so on. Anne’s optimism always stands out for me. I try to be optimistic, but I find it very hard! Anne has every reason to expect the worst, but still manages to see what’s good, and beautiful around her. Her romanticism can get her into trouble sometimes, but it also makes her wonderfully resilient. That’s a good lesson for any kid to learn.
“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.”
Anne of Green Gables
6. The Sneetches, The Lorax, Horton Hatches the Egg or The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss- I think that Dr. Seuss is great. I love the stuff that’s pure silliness a la The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. But I’m always impressed by his ability to teach a lesson in rhymes and colorful pictures. He illustrates the tragic absurdity of racism and war in The Sneetches and The Butter Battle Book respectively. He illustrates the heartbreaking shortsightedness that polluters show in The Lorax. And Horton Hatches the Egg proves that it’s love and care, rather than just biology, that truly makes a parent. I can’t choose just one because I think that these are all important lessons for kids to learn.
“But now,” says the Once-ler, “now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
7. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling– I know so many kids who fell in love with reading thanks to this series. Even if I didn’t think it was a great read (which I do!) it would be worth putting on for that reason alone. But though JK Rowling writes about kids and for kids in this series, she doesn’t talk down to them. The reader is able to grow with the characters. The first few books are shorter with narratives that are seemingly self contained. But as the series progresses (and the readers and characters get older) the books become more involved. We start to see a much larger story arc being built. It grows darker. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed for all the characters. But it also shows a world where elves, ghosts, wizards, and witches coexist. There are struggles, but those struggles teach empathy (who hasn’t felt bad for a house elf now and then?). In fact, some studies have shown that Harry Potter fans are more likely to be empathetic people. I believe that empathy, and the ability to act on it, is one of the things that then world desperately needs.
“Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
8. The Fudge Books by Judy Blume– Choosing just one book by Judy Blume is a close to impossible task. You can check out a little essay I wrote for Girls at Library a while back discussing how she’s impacted me as a reader. I chose this series for a few reasons. I loved a lot of Blume’s “pre-teen girl” books like Are You There God It’s Me Margaret (the book which made me think that menstruation was going to be the most fun thing ever, and led to some significant disappointment a few years later) But not every reader is a girl. For the record I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a boy reading a book intended for girls. If anything it can combat ignorance. But my first exposure to Judy Blume was simple fun. I read Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing with my dad several years before I was actually in fourth grade. But I loved it. I loved the Hatcher family. I loved Fudge. I loved Turtle (who happens to be a dog), and Sheila the Great, and Peter. I read a few of these to my students over the years and they loved them too. Sometimes it’s nice to have something that just makes kids enjoy reading.
“I wanted them,” Fudge whined.“I know you did. But we can’t buy everything you want.” Mom told him.
“We don’t have the money to buy…” I could tell Mom was having a hard time explaining this. She thought for a minute before she finished. “…just for the sake of buying. Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“I know it doesn’t grow on trees,” Fudge said. “You get it at the ATM.”
“You can’t just go to the ATM whenever you want money,” Mom told him.
“Yes you can,” Fudge said. “You put in your card and money comes out. It works every time.”
“No. You have to deposit money into your account first,” Mom said. “You work hard and try to save part of your salary every week. The cash machine is just a way to get some of your money out your account. It doesn’t spit out money because you want it. It’s not that easy.”
“I know, Mom,” Fudge said. “Sometimes you have to stand on line.”
Mom sighed and looked at me. “Got any ideas Peter?”Double Fudge
9. The Henry, Beezus, and Ramona books by Beverley Cleary– Henry Huggins lives on Klickitat Street alongside Beezus and Ramona Quimby. We follow these characters as they bond with animals, build clubhouses, prove themselves worthy of jobs, deal with annoying siblings, and try to behave like grown ups. I found these characters easy to love because they thought like kids. They saw the world as kids do. They understood parts of what they experience, and what they didn’t understand their minds filled in, often with hilarious results. I put these on here, because childhood is often confusing. Kids get all kinds of mixed messages, from adults, from the media, from their peers. Sometimes it’s helpful to have some literary friends who, like you, are just trying to figure it all out.
“Ramona could not understand why grown-ups always talked about how quickly children grew up. Ramona thought growing up was the slowest thing there was, slower even than waiting for Christmas to come.
She had been waiting years just to get to kindergarten, and the last half hour was the slowest part of all.”
Ramona The Pest
10. Fairy Tales– I think I’ve shared one of my stranger childhood habits on this blog before: I used to go to the library and take out as many versions of a given fairy tale as I could find. Then I’d compare and contrast. “In this version the stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper” vs. “In this version they just try to shove their feet in.” Then of course there was Cinderella’s fairy godmother doing her favors vs. her mother’s ghost. And no, I did not just limit myself to Cinderella. But my own childhood weirdness aside, I think that fairy tales and folklore have a lot to teach us. They speak to something really primal in us. I believe that’s why we see the same themes appear in so many stories from around the world. That’s why they inspire so much of my own writing. They address the child’s fear of not being loved and cared for (whether it’s through inadequate, or absent parents), the fear of being lost in the woods, without resources. They look at the hope that we have when we make a wish, as well as the risk that comes with getting something for nothing. Some of our societies greatest artist in a variety of fields, from Neil Gaiman, to Stephen Sondheim, to Anne Sexton, have been inspired by these stories and the warnings and lessons therein.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Neil Gaiman (Coraline)
11. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown– (am I allowed to do this? Because just 10 won’t do in this case!) Yes this is a book for very young children. But I loved it. There was something so reassuring about it. The predictability, the consistency. I remember that my parents would read it as a bedtime story, and afterward, I’d say. “goodnight” to the things in my room. I think that there is something lovely about taking stock of your surroundings, even if they’re nothing particularly remarkable, and just acknowledging them.
“Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.”
As I look at this list, I notice that a lot of these are books by white writers, featuring white characters. I think part of the reason for that is the fact that when I was a kid there was even less diversity in publishing than there is today. But I wouldn’t want my hypothetical kids/godkids/whatever to only read books that reflect only a small portion of humanity. In terms of children’s books featuring POC I’d encourage them to read many books including The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Come on Rain by Karen Hesse, My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvitis, Esperenza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. I realize that by tacking this on to the bottom of my list it seems like I’m just doing it to be PC. I’m not. I really believe that’s its important for children to see their own experiences reflected in literature. This books on my list reflect my experiences to an extent. But having read about other ways of life, other kinds of families in different parts of the world, has been a huge factor in giving my an appreciation of the diversity of human experience. I think that’s important for every kid to have. I wish I had time to go into more about why the books I mentioned are good but I don’t.