What should I read my children? What should my children read? This teacher’s answers to those questions just may point out books you’d like to read for yourself!
By Pat Magness
Reading is one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children. It is especially crucial for Christian parents for whom the reading of the Word is central to their faith. The love of reading is best nurtured long before children are reading for themselves: the best reading teacher is the one with a child on his or her lap, reading aloud in a total context of love and trust. As one parent of avid readers told me, “Read constantly, read anything, reread, and read above their level.”
Children are never too young to begin to hear stories from the Bible, and—as the current popularity of The Story, a chronological retelling of the Bible, shows us—never too old. Illustrated children’s Bible storybooks have a long and beautiful history, and many of these books are works of art in themselves. Look for books illustrated by Tomie dePaola, Brian Wildsmith, Tim Ladwig, and Jan Pieńkowski—to mention just a few of the artists who have devoted their abilities to illustrating Bible stories for children.
For a single book collecting stories from the Old and New Testaments, try The Puffin Children’s Bible, with stories retold by Pat Alexander, or Story Bible for Young Children, by Anne DeVries. David and Karen Mains produced the much-loved Tales of the Kingdom.
For a little humor in the retelling, try A Pillar of Pepper by John Knapp II or How God Fix Jonah by Lorenz Graham.
The Arch Book series of small, inexpensive paperbacks retells many Bible stories in a witty, rhyming way that delights children as well as parents.
For teens, especially teenage girls, the scriptural allegory Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard can have a deep spiritual impact.
Many teachers of reading are willing to let children read anything in order to develop the skill of reading, and their argument makes sense. On the other hand, we are also deeply formed by the things we read as children.
I experienced this truth recently when I posted a question on Facebook asking for recommendations about books read in childhood. I was overwhelmed by the response! Some people offered long lists, while others described particular books, and then people began writing to each other, sharing memories of special books. The authors Sandra Boynton, Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Beverly Cleary, Richard Scurry, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Kate McMullan, among others, were great favorites to read aloud or read with children.
Telling bedtime stories is a long tradition and one that inspires both reading and writing. You might know that the beloved Winnie the Pooh books came out of the stories A. A. Milne told his own son, the original Christopher Robin. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame had a similar origin. In our own family, my husband, Lee, turned his bedtime stories into Silver Dasher, a fantasy book with an underlying Christian allegory that appeals to upper elementary students.
Laurie Barnes, librarian with Open Door Libraries in Prague, approaches the task of book selection very deliberately, suggesting books to meet specific needs, goals, and interests. “The Topsy-Turvy Kingdom by Josh and Dottie McDowell, about right and wrong, is one of my all-time favorites,” she says. “Sidney and Norman: A Tale of Two Pigs by Phil Vischer is about individual differences. The Tale of Three Trees by Angela Elwell Hunt is highly inspirational in terms of God’s calling on our lives. Books that are not specifically Christian include Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco about dealing with fear.”
Helen Bowman, a beloved teacher of children’s literature, recommends the Mo Willems series about Elephant and Piggie as a great way to help young children talk about friendship and sharing. Elementary students will benefit from Patricia MacLachlan books like Sarah, Plain and Tall and Journey. Journey, for example, centers on four main characters, two children and their grandparents, as they deal with anger while building a family together.
To help open a conversation in your own family about race, there are a number of great books. Tim Ladwig’s illustrated book Psalm Twenty-Three uses the daily life of a black child in an inner-city neighborhood. While the words are directly from Scripture, the child’s understanding of the words comes out in the illustrations, and each scene offers opportunities to open the eyes of a suburban child.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, is historical fiction telling of a family from Michigan visiting relatives at the time a church is bombed. Told from the point of view of a child who can’t understand what is happening, the story invites a great teaching opportunity about the history of violent racism in our country.
While most of us are familiar with the Newbery and Caldecott awards in children’s literature (great sources of recommendations for excellent books), we also need to become familiar with the Coretta Scott King awards, whose winners have included: for 2015, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson; for 2013, Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America by Andrea and Brian Pinkney; for 2007, Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper.
Upper elementary and middle school readers are often inspired by biographies. The classic Landmark series of biographies features American leaders from George Washington and Abigail Adams to Martin Luther King Jr.
Other biography possibilities: Contemporary author Jean Fritz has written many notable books, on everyone from Harriet Beecher Stowe to George Washington’s mother. The life of Helen Keller, whether read in her own words or in the play The Miracle Worker, can help privileged adolescents develop empathy with others.
From my own adolescent reading experience, I recommend The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank as a powerful introduction to questions of life and death, war and suffering, family relationships, and the movement from childhood to adulthood.
For reflection on Holocaust issues from a specifically Christian standpoint, read and recommend The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. Recent fiction that helps adolescent readers understand the implications of the Holocaust includes The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.
My father was a great reader of nonfiction—the Bible, sermons, biographies, and histories—and I don’t think he ever learned to appreciate the joys of fiction. Perhaps that is why I feel it necessary to defend fiction, fairy tales, and even fantasy. Fantasy, like science fiction, allows the creation of alternate worlds, and in these worlds readers can see good and evil, safety and danger, selfishness and generosity, temptation and faithfulness, and so forth, at work in all their many variations.
The single most frequently recommended book from my Facebook respondents was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. And the Chronicles of Narnia were, as a whole, specifically mentioned for their spiritual impact. One teacher who has her class read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reports that every year children see the theological implications. An adult friend reports that The Last Battle continues to inform his understanding of the nature of Heaven.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien are loved by adults, high school, middle school, and even some elementary school-age readers. Because they appeal to such a wide range of readers, they are great for family sharing and discussion. They underline the nature of evil and the importance of one’s own individual choices, even when we feel insignificant.
Other wonderful books with a significant element of fantasy include A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and Watership Down by Richard Adams.
Our grandchildren introduced us to the Harry Potter series, and both the books and the movies have provided good opportunities for conversation. While some object to the witches and wizards, we have found that these books bring out the importance of friendship, the reality of both good and evil, and the amazing power of family life and love.
For younger children (but enjoyable even for adults), some good fantasy books include Redwall by Brian Jacques, Crispin by Avi, and The Tale of Despereaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo.
Many parents tell me they enjoy reading books by Nancy Tillman (On the Night You Were Born; I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love) and Max Lucado (You Are Special; Just in Case You Ever Wonder) to their children as a way of expressing their deep love in words more poetic than their own.
One problem with recommending books is I am sure I have omitted your favorites, but please don’t feel slighted: I have omitted many of my favorites, too. The good thing about recommending books is it is a great way to begin a conversation, and I hope you will share your recommendations as we continue to read our old favorites and discover new treasures.
Pat Magness is Professor Emerita of Humanities and English with Milligan College in Tennessee. She established the Gail Phillips Collection of Children’s Bible Story Books in the P. H. Welshimer Library of Milligan College. She is also coauthor of A Guide to Children’s Bible Story Books in Twentieth Century America: To Hold and to Have.
Some Tried and True Favorites
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Lost Princess by George McDonald
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Looking for More Ideas?
Visit www.cbcbooks.org for the latest publications in children’s literature. The Children’s Book Council compiles lists of recommended books by age and by special interests. The website includes pictures and reviews to help you make your decisions.
For outstanding children’s Bible storybooks from the past, check out the collection in the
P. H. Welshimer Library at Milligan College, or use A Guide to Children’s Bible Story Books in Twentieth Century America: To Hold and to Have, coauthored by Joyce Potter and Pat Magness.
Eerdman’s Press, publisher of Christian books, has been putting particular emphasis on illustrated children’s books over the past decade. Find current publications at www.eerdmans.com/youngreaders.