December 7, 2013

The gift of reading: Children's book ideas for Christmas

I've added some new suggestions to this mostly-recycled list of recommended books for children. As you probably know, when you click through any of the Amazon links here, place an item in your shopping cart (whether it's something we've linked to or not) and eventually purchase it, we will get a small percentage from Amazon that doesn't add to your cost. We greatly appreciate any purchases you may throw our way.

Some favorites:

Narnia, of course.

George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie and The Princess and the Goblin make enthralling read-alouds. Amazon:

One of the most successful and beloved of Victorian fairy tales, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin tells the story of young Princess Irene and her friend Curdie, who must outwit the threatening goblins who live in caves beneath her mountain home. Macdonald’s pioneering use of fanstasy as a literary medium had a great influence on Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle, all great admirers of his work, which has remained popular to this day. "I write, not for children," he wrote, "but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. One of the most beautiful stories ever written. (Here are two versions.) It's also a wonderful read-aloud.

Joan Aiken:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Black Hearts in Battersea
Nightbirds on Nantucket 

Ms. Aiken, in my opinion, went off the rails with some of the later books in the series but I love the three above, and you might like them all.

Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Ralph Moody. Think of this autobiographical book and its sequels as Little House with a male protagonist. Young Moody possessed what they once called "initiative" in spades. He was a cowboy, a farmer, and an entrepreneur par excellence. Little Britches makes an excellent read-aloud, along with Man of the Family, Mary Emma and Company, and The Fields of Home. (There are more titles in the series, but these are the best.)

Anything by Marguerite Henry. We hope the current disturbing obsession with vampires hasn't killed off the American girl's passion for horses and horse stories. My daughters loved Misty of Chincoteague, Stormy, Misty's Foal, Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague, and King of the Wind, among others.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. The first book of a dozen about imaginative British children who live in the Lake District, sailing about in boats and having adventures. A much-loved classic. #2 daughter has collected all twelve.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. This book and its sequels were written for adults but teens will also fall in love with Herriot's Yorkshire and its inhabitants, both human and animal. Hilariously funny as well as dramatic and poignant. Try to save the excellent BBC series for viewing after you and your kids have finished the books. Like dessert.

Tintin in America and others by Hergé. Entice that reluctant reader with non-stop adventure, humor, and great drawings. My kids have read them over and over.

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein. Aliens, faster-than-light travel, and sliderules. #3 son says it's the second best book ever. (Best: The Hobbit.)

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and others by Eleanor Cameron. Irresistible:
WANTED: A small spaceship about eight feet long, built by a boy, or by two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven. The ship should be sturdy and well made, and should be of materials found at hand. Nothing need be bought. No adult should be consulted as to its plan or method of construction. An adventure and a chance to do a good deed await the boys who build the best space ship. Please bring your ship as soon as possible to Mr. Tyco M. Bass, 5 Thallo Street, Pacific Grove, California.
I rest my case.

The Tripods series by John Christopher. A riveting four-book series about what happens when horrifying aliens take over the earth with the help of mind-controlling "caps" that destroy the human will.
The White Mountains
The City of Gold and Lead
The Pool of Fire
When the Tripods Came*
(*I would read the prequel last.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are enormous favorites here. (See Roger Kimball's How to Reform Primary Education.)

Also highly recommended:

Half Magic by Edward Eager. A huge favorite of daughter #4, who says Eager is like E. Nesbit, but better. See also, Magic by the Lake, Knight's Castle, and The Time Garden.

The Moffats by Eleanor Estes. Not to be missed! The Moffats books make my top-ten list of kids' fiction. The others: The Middle MoffatRufus M, and The Moffat Museum.

Also by Eleanor Estes and connected to The Moffats series, Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye.

The Freddy books by Walter Brooks. Silly old-fashioned American fun with a multi-talented pig as the main character. Twenty or so books in the series.

The Mouse and His Child. I found this one fascinating. Here's a blurb from Amazon:
The mouse and his child are wind-up toys forever joined at the hands. But when their mechanism breaks they are discarded, separated from the doll house where they lived and the toy elephant that the child calls "mother" (much to her chagrin). And so begins a suspenseful journey that is heartbreaking [and] thought-provoking . . .
The author, Russell Hoban, also wrote the charming and funny Frances picture books. A few more great pre-school titles:

Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik. Don't let your kids or grandkids grow up without Little Bear. No need to bother with A Kiss for Little Bear, but the three in this set are required reading. Like the animated series but better.

Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. Also necessary to childhood. You have no idea how often we've finished up a house-wide search for missing keys with the phrase, "What a lot of trouble I have made for Frog."

Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown. I love this book. I've tried to link to the tiny, fur-covered edition but it's hard to tell, so buyer beware.

A House is a House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman. A tour-de-force in ballad form, in which everything is a house for something else. Infectious, in a good way.

Ox-Cart Man by poet Donald Hall. Lovely. It comes with an audio CD which I believe is read by the author.

Go, Dog. Go!  Weak on plot but rich in dogs -- dogs in cars, dogs in party hats, dogs in every color of the rainbow. Toddlers can't get enough of it.

Are You My Mother?



The Runaway Bunny 

The Story of Babar

Babar and his Children

The Little House

Millions of Cats

The Funny Thing

Nothing At All

Snippy and Snappy

Complete Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Angus and the Ducks

Annie and the Wild Animals

If you're looking for more ideas, please browse through all our favorites here.

While I'm recycling, here's a revised post I wrote a few years ago on how to raise an eager reader. Please excuse the didactic tone and obvious nature of the tips. :/

Raising Readers

A child who has a positive love of reading will reap a bonanza of advantages. In addition to the sheer enjoyment it provides, voluminous reading enhances one's vocabulary, spelling, and writing skills, and may very well sharpen the cognitive faculties. And all through a pleasant, or at least relatively painless process. Conventional schooling tries to enlarge a child's vocabulary by giving him a book full of words and definitions. It tries to turn him into a writer by lecturing on sentence structure and assigning the stultifying three-paragraph essay. But avid reading covers a multitude of academic sins, because a child can't spend a couple of hours with a book every day and not absorb the nuances of the language. Instilling an early love of reading is the easy way to educate.

Some basics on raising readers:

#1: Read a lot to your kids when they're small. Tip: It's best to find books that both you and your child can enjoy. Then, when junior toddles toward you wanting to hear his favorite story again, you won't have to fight off the urge to go hide in the bathroom, because he's clutching the delightful Horton Hears a Who. Not so if it's something like, say, Volume 12: Starring the Number 12 and the Letter S of the massive, and massively unreadable, Sesame Street Giant Treasury. A story limited to words starting with the letter 'S' does not make for a riveting reading experience. (But hey, Grandma's intentions were good!)

#2: "Model" reading. Consider it your parental duty to laze around and enjoy your own books when you get the chance. Go ahead and read that twenty-book series. Twice, if you get the urge. It's for the children.

#3: Phonics and practice. When it comes time for your little ones to learn to read on their own, make sure they understand phonics. You can't go wrong with Walt Pimbley's Kung Fu Phonics or Englemann's Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Then make sure they get daily reading practice. Without practice, some kids will get stuck at the beginning, when the effort is great but the payoff is small. (I have a theory that many people who don't like to read feel that way because it never became easy for them. Why read for pleasure if reading isn't pleasurable?)

At a certain point the new reader may need a gentle push to keep going, and real page-turners will make it worth his while. Now is not the time for bland material. Mysteries work well. After a child gets through the fifty or so Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books, he will be able to read. And he will probably have learned a few new words along the way from the not-dumbed-down language of these older series.

#4 Give them the good stuff. Make it your mission to feed the kids a steady diet of good-to-great books. If books are food for the mind and the soul, why fill them up with the literary equivalent of Cheetos? In our house, Dad headed to the library every weekend and came back with stacks of great material in all genres. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Marguerite Henry's horse books. Lassie Come-Home. A Little Princess. The Snow Queen. The Moffats. Little Britches. He brought home plenty of classics, but any book that was well written, didn't violate a child's innocence, and portrayed good and evil as such, merited a read.

CS Lewis was right when he wrote, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." There's a wealth of children's literature that can be enjoyed by adults, and if you can manage to read what your kids are reading you'll always have something interesting to talk about: favorite (and least favorite) characters, the best parts of the story, the funny or scary parts, good and bad endings, and so on. As the children get older and their reading material gets progressively more adult, the discussions will deepen. And you and your children will come to know one another better.

Good literature feeds the appetite for more, and a child who's been immersed in the good stuff won't be satisfied later on with garbage. Children who love to read will eagerly take on more difficult material as they mature. When the time comes for Plato or Shakespeare or Dickens or the Federalist Papers, these kids won't be daunted. Worlds that are closed to the non-reader will be wide open to them. So grab a great book and sit down with your kids. Neither you nor they will ever wish that time had been spent otherwise.


  1. Bambinelli Sunday: A Christmas Blessing
    by Amy Welborn and Ann Kissane Engelhart,
    These ladies were on EWTN's Bookmark with Doug Keck last week. Lovely pictures in the book, and a cute story.

  2. Someone will receive a copy of the out of print Frances book (Egg Thoughts) for Christmas. Can't wait. We've also fallen in love with the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books recently, and Mr. Popper's Penguins. I'm laughing so much reading Understanding Betsy because the intrusive narrator reminds me of Jane Austen books, and I can't wait until we can read those together in a few more years ; )

    Hope all is well in your neck of the woods. Need to get together for coffee soon. Back on low-carb madness, so can bake, too ; )

  3. Thanks, great post, so important to raise book-lovers. If you are still reading, a quick question: our older boys are making that transition into adulthood and are always asking for more books to read (they are mid-teen years). They love the Herriot we got them for Christmas, have read everything Conan Doyle has written (Holmes, Sir Nigel and beyond). Are starting Dickens but he can be dense for casual reading. Are they too young for Aubrey Maturin series? I'm not as concerned about violence as I am about romance (i.e. sexual content). I don't have time to skim the books so maybe you can help.

    If you're interested in recommendations, a series I don't think I found on your list was the Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright and The Mitchells books by Hilda Von Stockum (and A Day on Skates by HVS) All simply wonderful. All about sweet and wholesome family life and harmony between siblings. Cannot say enough good about these two series. My kids have read them over and over.

    Katy No-Pockets from the Curious George team was a favorite around here many years ago.

    We're close to the end of the Freddy the Pig books; I still read them aloud to my teens after all these years.

    Thanks again for the hard work of assembling this list! (And for the blog too of course!)


  4. Thanks for the recommendations. Always interested.

    About Aubrey-Maturin: There is definitely sexual content. Sailors in port, venereal disease, prostitutes, adultery, and more. Not a lot of graphic stuff, if I remember correctly, but certainly sexual immorality is there. Great, great books but written for adults.

  5. Thanks so much, very helpful! You are a great resource :) I feel good when I scan your list and find some of my own picks from over the years.

    Not to belabor recommendations, but since you haven't discouraged me :) currently we are reading books by Eilis Dillon, an Irish writer from early-mid 20th century. Many are out of print but The Lost Island and The Island of Horses were reissued somewhat recently; they are sweet, suspenseful boy books. My 11 yr old can't get enough and my teens hide within earshot when I read them aloud (which must be done with an Irish accent, no matter how horrible!). Hilda Von Stockum, though Dutch, settled in Ireland (was very Catholic and had a large family) and thus also wrote some sweet books about Irish children books: Francie On the Run, The Cottage at Bantry Bay and Pegeen.

    Love the music too! Keep up the good work.



  6. Thanks, Mary. Hadn't heard of the Dillon books. Here's our long list:

  7. OK, I'm a nudge. There's one other series you may be interested in: The Happy Hollisters, sort of family adventure stories for the 11 and under set. About 30 of these stories were written in the 50s and 60s and they are simple and sweet and readily available for under $10, unlike Eilis Dillon books which I pay through the nose for :)

    Thanks again for a great site,


  8. Daughter has read The Island of Horses but that's it. Thanks for the recommendation! She's always in need of good titles.


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