Essential Reading: Children’s Books
As a Literary Mama, passing on a love of reading to your children is probably a top priority. For me, books offer our children not only the gift of words, pictures, and the opportunity to explore fascinating places or periods in the past, present, or future, but also the space to sit quietly and focus—a skill which is being gradually eroded (and not only from our kids lives). This month, we’d like to connect you with some of our favorite children’s books, from picture books to middle-school titles, classics, and new offerings.
Editor-in-Chief Amanda Jaros starts the ball rolling with this classic: “When I think of children’s books, I immediately turn to nonfiction picture books, which is one of my favorite genres. I adore science and nature picture books, which often marry simple, poetic words, fascinating facts, and luscious artwork. At the top of my list is Dianna Hutts Aston’s A Butterfly is Patient, with illustrations by Sylvia Long. Each page gives a lyrical line about what a butterfly is: creative, helpful, thirsty, etc. Each page also includes scientific information that explores butterflies in depth: how a caterpillar creates a chrysalis, how butterflies pollinate plants, or how they taste with their feet. The words are accompanied by Long’s gorgeous and scientifically-accurate color paintings, with each species of butterfly labeled by name. Hutts Aston and Long have teamed up for several books in this series, An Egg is Quiet, A Seed is Sleepy, and A Rock is Lively, to name a few. Each is as stunning as the last. A Butterfly is Patient can be read with a small child, appreciating the vibrancy and poetry of the pages. Older kids can read it and learn interesting facts about the variety of butterflies in our world. Of course, grown ups like me keep these picture books on my shelf because they remind me that science, art, and poetry is the perfect blend to pique children’s interest about nature. But aside from all that, mostly I love these books because they are just plain beautiful.”
Abigail Lalonde, Social Media Editor, enjoys reading this one with her little girl: “I first picked up Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild from the library based solely on the illustrations. My toddler daughter and I quickly fell in love with the characters, so after several renewals I bought a copy. Mr. Tiger lives in a civilized world where animals walk upright, wear formal clothing, live in apartment buildings, and speak the Queen’s English. Stifled by his daily life, one day Mr. Tiger goes wild. His behavior is too much for his community, and they kindly suggest that he leave the city. At first, he’s in love with his new wild life (naked and walking on all fours in the wilderness), but he soon finds himself lonely. Mr. Tiger returns home to find that he has inspired his friends to loosen up and go a little wild themselves. I love the simple message of the book—to be yourself and not be afraid to roar and express yourself. My daughter loves to roar along with Mr. Tiger and point out the different animals in the book. The illustrations are eye-catching and enjoyable. I hope that Mr. Tiger will be a staple in our reading rotation for many years.”
For grade-school readers, Juli Anna Herndon, Poetry Editor, would like us to revisit a classic: “One of my favorite novels as a child was The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli, which luckily has stood up to my adult readings as well. De Angeli sets her novel in medieval England, where she follows Robin, whose dreams of becoming a knight like his absent father are dashed when he contracts polio and loses the use of his legs. Robin is taken in by an itinerant friar who nurses him back to health and teaches the spoiled, petulant boy how to use crutches, swim, whittle, and navigate the world as he adjusts to living with a disability. When Robin’s father finally sends for him, he sets off on a grand adventure that ultimately puts his new skills—and his valor—to the test. De Angeli’s picture of the Middle Ages is lush and immersive, and tracking Robin’s character growth from brat to hero is rewarding. The central adventure—and especially Robin’s espionage mission at the end—is superbly exciting. I love that de Angeli touches on medieval vocabulary in this book; the dialogue is peppered with ‘thous’ and ‘thines,’ and there is quite a bit of specialized liturgical and other vocabulary, and even some Latin. The pacing is also just right, which is significant because much of the action involves Robin learning how to do new things, which could be disengaging in the hands of a poorer writer. This is a beautifully written story that is at once a rollicking adventure and touching tale of triumph over adversity centered on a complex, capable child. While this book did win the Newbery Medal in 1950, I rarely see it mentioned among quality, classic children’s fiction; I believe this story is ripe for a renaissance!”
Kelsey Madges, Profiles Editor, offers us a modern adventure: “Harbor Me is the newest middle-grade title from blockbuster author Jacqueline Woodson. In it we meet six students who have been placed in Ms. Laverne’s class as a sort of experiment. They all know they don’t learn in quite the same way as the ‘other kids,’ and are given the chance to learn in a small group, with a very special teacher who believes in them. While Ms. Laverne is clearly an important part of these children’s lives, she is not the heroine of this story. One Friday in September, Ms. Laverne leads her students to an unused art room in the school and tells them they get to finish every week with a half hour of time to talk—just the students—no adults. At first the group is apprehensive and unsure about how to use the time together, but over time, they begin to share their stories, prompted in part by a digital recorder brought in by one of the children. As the children tell their stories, readers are confronted with issues of bullying, incarceration, immigration, and racial profiling—heavy topics for a children’s book. However, the beauty of the story lies in Woodson’s ability to present these issues in a way that is both realistic and not sensationalized. She deals deftly with the weighty subject matter and emphasizes the importance of caring for each other. One of the students quotes her teacher, ‘If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she says, ‘I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.’ Harbor Me beautifully invites us all, children and adults, to ask this question of ourselves.”
Which children’s books would you recommend to other parents? We’d love to hear in the comments or tweet us @LiteraryMama. You can also follow us on Instagram @Literary_Mama and Goodreads for more recommendations.