This post has updated information, below!
Do you know this “eat this, not that” series of books? The idea is to help you make good choices in food and drink to avoid hidden calories that will tank your health. Well, Rosie had the thought that we could do something similar with books for the Library Project*.
I am concerned when I see reading lists out there for children, that a lot of them have books from a 20-year time period — that is to say, from now. And they are about “now” — about kids “like you” — only, how does that work? Could it sometimes work that a child reading these stories acts more like the child in the stories… who are supposed to be just like him? Maybe that’s not such a good thing. Modeling behavior that reflects your own behavior will tend to spiral downwards, behavior-wise. We don’t want that.
And then, not only do we want our children to read good books, we want them to know how to find good books on their own.
Call it a “lost tool of learning” — the skill of being able to find things to read on one’s own.
Truly, this was one purpose of the public library: to allow the reader to follow his nose. Sadly, unless your library is old and too poor to have purged its stacks, you probably can’t trust it enough to let your child loose in it.
(Teaching children to be active about finding what they are interested in is another reason I highly recommend the Bobbs-Merrill readers, old as they are. Many of the selections have, in the “assignment” section, suggestions for looking things up in the library. You will find that they are so helpful for getting your child to learn to look things up in the library and go on a hunt of his own.)
And that is why I do recommend having more books, actual, physical books, in your home than you are necessarily reading at the moment, even if it goes against your minimalist tendencies, and even if you do have good reading on the Kindle. It has to do with exposure, and a sort of externalizing of the list — putting it out there where it can be seen, handled, explored, and even abandoned for the moment.
The other day I got down a couple of boxes I had stowed in the attic. And so I came across these books again:
They are called Best in Children’s Books, published by Doubleday. They are out of print, but you can get them for pretty cheap ($5 or so including shipping). You can probably find them at book sales. You could get them one by one and it would be like having a hard-cover literary magazine for your children, delivered! You can find a whole list of them, in order, here.
Each book has a fantastic assortment of poetry, tales, history, and geography. The illustrations are charming. There’s something for each age level, which I endorse, because not only does it challenge the slower/younger reader to do more, but it allows the faster/older reader to linger on material that might still offer something for his development. And then, there’s always the possibility that your older child will read something to the younger ones!
If your child finds a story he likes, why, you can help him find more of the same author.
#I’ve updated (with bold #s) the section below with some changes and cautions. These books, below, are good ones. Yet, a couple do contain some objectionable content that I need to point out to you. Some books are just not worth the trouble they cause — this is how this series-within-a-series got started in the first place: I was impatient with a book that looked good but the content of which just didn’t make its flaws possible to overlook. (You can read that post here.)
But there are books on the “1000 Good Books” list — both the official one from John Senior and the unofficial one we are compiling here, leaning on his strong arm — that are good reads but not without issues. But I need to be consistent, and I know you trust me! (Or if you don’t, please bring your thoughts to my attention!)
It gets trickier, however, as children get older. Just think of the themes in Shakespeare! Think of Les Misérables! Think of Quo Vadis! (I write more about this issue of worldly themes in that post.) I think we can agree that having “themes” doesn’t automatically mean that a book “glorifies” them; yet, in some books, certain episodes can be problematic.
Your standards may be different from mine — certainly our tastes are different and our children are different as to what will cause them trouble. Each parent has to take all these things into account — it’s especially up to the parent to be able to discern what’s best for his own children.
I am not of the camp that thinks a child must be given a whitewashed version of life in art, because what will surely happen is that we’ll have to make up some sort of pretendy literature for them, which is counterproductive to education (in the broad sense). Children need to read real books — that is, books written honestly for their audience, not out of pedagogy, even if the result is imperfect. I mean, most books are not perfect! The list of those is very short. What differentiates an imperfect yet readable book from a book to be simply avoided, in my opinion, is not a matter that is susceptible to a scientific formula. And that makes it difficult for us to recommend books to each other with certainty.
The best books make a world for us to inhabit. Even lesser books do this well. For example, I’ve stated my issues with Harry Potter (various places but most recently in the comments of that same post), but the fact is, it’s a world of delight that no pedantry can destroy, and it’s precisely the magic that makes it so, because the magic is the rules of that world.
I’ll tell you the ways the books I recommend below might be flawed, but in the end, I do think that the world they offer is worth the caution that you, the parent, need to exercise when choosing your library. I will do my best to give you the information I have. And I really appreciate the comments that alert me, where I have not been aware of difficulties.#
I also want to be sure to mention some other authors for your older, more voracious readers, both boys and girls, although perhaps the boys will enjoy the first ones more:
- C. S. Forester, the Horatio Hornblower series. High adventure featuring a boy who has to work with his unhardened youth and essential sensitivity to survive in a man’s world. The TV shows were very good as well, but of course, read the books first. #This series satisfies the adventure-craving reader; so much so that although there are a few places where Horatio’s conduct is less than moral, and one place in particular where it is downright immoral, most reviewers don’t really remember about those parts. But of course, we have to be alert, and thanks to a comment, I realized that I need to tell you just to skip Flying Colours (#3 in the series, although the events take place further along the internal timeline), in which there occurs an episode where Horatio commits adultery. The scene is a bit lurid for the standards that we want for our children. (If you want to ascertain for yourself, it occurs at the end of Chapter 9 and the beginning of Chapter 10.) The series can be read without this book. Until you read them for yourself, also skip Ship of the Line and Lord Hornblower. I will say, however, that this series, besides skillfully depicting that world we would know nothing about without the author’s imagination guiding us, helps the growing boy address the issue of fear. Horatio’s adventures center around his fears and his courage in overcoming them. For that reason, I think these books are worth the read and will be loved by your sons — and again, Horatio’s weakness around women — and the failure of Forester to resolve it — does seem to go right over their heads.#
- Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers and its sequels. Robert Louis Stevenson loved this book, and why not? Adventure, romance, friendship, swashbuckling swordplay! The only thing to prevent a young person from adoring this book is the first page. Just tell him to keep at it. #Again, this is a world — the Musketeers are not stellar people! They gamble, they fight. It would be fine to read an abridged version.#
- Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel. A romantic and adventurous tale of hidden identity set during the French Revolution.
- Also by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. Nothing, nothing can compare with the beginning of this book, with its tale of unjust imprisonment and impossible escape. #Have you ever seen the movie Shawshank Redemption? I would say that the first part of Monte Cristo is even more heart-rending and exciting than that.# Even though the second part of the book doesn’t quite live up to the first, it’s a story well worth reading. Kind of the ultimate beach book, going on and on… #Does this book glorify some bad behavior? Well, not glorify. Bad behavior occurs — most notably, the Count is motivated entirely by revenge, which is hardly a Christian virtue. He’s not a person to emulate in this regard. However, at the end of the book, he definitely has a crisis of conscience. He movingly questions the cost he has incurred in pursuing his goal of retribution. I’m not sure that this denouement absolutely redeems the vast quantity of revenge he has indulged in, but it must suffice.#
Don’t get abridgments, by the way. The whole point is to keep them reading! #I will modify this to say that abridgements of the Dumas books will probably be fine and take care of objectionable content.#