The only good thing about the pandemic was how many books we read out loud. We really got back in the habit, and I’m so glad, because read-aloud nights are almost always good nights. I read mostly to the youngest kids (now ages 10 and 7), but pretty often, the older kids casually drift in and hang around to listen (not that I notice or secretly overflow with glee).
We gravitate toward books that are funny and adventurous, with strong dialogue, and not necessarily books that have any strong intellectual or moral content. A good story is good enough.
Back in 2016, I made up a list of ten such books. Now here’s an update, with twelve more books we liked and recommend:
Oops, this was on the list last time, too! Well, I’m including again, because we read it again, and also to give you permission to skip the songs. I know, I know. They’re integral! But if they’re bogging you down and making you want to stop reading, then it’s fine to skip them and keep reading. Don’t settle for watching the movies! (Which I also liked!)
As I said last time, everyone loves the story and characters, but you may have forgotten how wonderful the writing itself is. Here’s a tiny excerpt:
Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dust down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell.
Clearly designed to be read out loud. So good.
It’s trendy to snicker at C.S. Lewis for being heavy handed (“If every last reader doesn’t understand that Aslan is an allegory for Jesus, I will set myself on fire!” goes the meme) but this is mainly a backlash against over-analyzers who behave as if he’s the only Christian writer who exists. Don’t you believe it! Even after all these years, I find each book fresh and compelling, and they stand up as independent stories without any subtext, or else they wouldn’t have lasted all these years. Lots of action, lots of cliffhangers, lots of comedy, lots of beauty and images you will keep returning to. And the dialogue deft and reveals things about the speaker. This is a rare gift. (I cannot get myself to care about which order the books are supposed to be listed in, though.)
We just finished The Silver Chair, and I still haven’t gotten tired of the part where Puddleglum stamps out the fire and the unenchanting smell of burnt marshwiggle fills the room.
I am, however, finally ready to admit that the Pauline Baynes illustrations I grew up with are really lacking, and I would not mind a completely different, less constricted approach.
3. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
May require some more patient listeners, as some of the chapters include lots of description, and some of the sentence structure is fairly sophisticated, but it’s some of the most lush and gracious lyrical writing you’ll even encounter in a children’s book. And it’s funny, and tender, and most of the chapters are full of action, and it tugs at your heart, and has wonderful characters that will stay with you for life.
Warning: Toad’s car horn goes “Poop-poop.” Some children may never recover from this. (Come to think of it, the Narnia stories with ships in them also mention the poop deck, and some of your worse children may not get over that, either.)
4. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Damien has read this aloud to some of the kids a few times, and they were absolutely riveted. You will be required to do some accents/pirate voices, but you can do it. This book is completely thrilling. Just absolutely nobody writes like this anymore. I can’t get more specific because I was pregnant when he was reading, and dozed through it, but I got the general impression wonderfully crafted prose and everyone on the edge of their seat.
5. Dominic by William Steig
We’re very familiar with his offbeat stories and deliberately ornate vocabulary in Steig’s picture books like Shrek!, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Doctor De Soto, the surprisingly existentialist Yellow and Pink, and others, but I think this may be his only chapter book.
It’s about a dog, and it starts off:
Dominic was a lively one, always up to something. One day, more restless than usual, he decided there wasn’t enough going on in his own neighborhood to satisfy his need for adventure. He just had to get away.
And off he goes. Very lively and fast-paced. It ends in a slightly unsettling way, as many Steig books do, but I don’t recall that it’s actually upsetting; it’s just a little weird.
6. The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
Kind of a mannered fairy tale that you may find absolutely delightful or somewhat irritating.
Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there live a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, an he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins o the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales, He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.
You can absolutely tell Thurber wrote it when he was supposed to be working on something else.
The hero and heroine aren’t much, but some of the minor characters are unforgettable (Hagga who used to weep jewels, but who weeps no more; and of course the Golux with his indescribable hat, and the Todal that glups) May be a little creepy for especially sensitive little ones. Try it! It’s short and it may hit the spot. Do get the edition with copious illustrations by Marc Simont.
Another take on fairy tales, but a little change of pace:
7. The Light Princess by George MacDonald
I’m including this with a giant helping of caveats, because old George needed and editor like fresh meat needs salt. Great stories, nifty characters, but oy, that prose. Here’s a George MacDonald passage (from The Princess and the Goblin) that made me want to set the book on fire:
When in the winter they had had their supper and sat about the fire, or when in the summer they lay on the border of the rock-margined stream that ran through their little meadow, close by the door of their cottage, issuing from the far-up whiteness often folded in clouds, Curdie’s mother would not seldom lead the conversation to one peculiar personage said and believed to have been much concerned in the late issue of events.
The Light Princess is like this in some passages, but it’s definitely his most accessible children’s book, and the story is the most intelligible. It follows a standard fairy tale format: King and queen insult a fairy at a christening, she curses the newborn, the princess grows up under a strange enchantment. A prince falls in love with her, and disguises himself to get near her to have a chance to win her heart. The details are bonkers, though. You really have to read it. Like all GMC books, it goes hard at the end, but unlike many, it has a happy ending, so that’s a relief. And you can grok the Eucharistic subtext if you want, or you can just let it be (although Maurice Sendak’s exquisite illustrations make it pretty hard to ignore)
8. Half Magic by Edward Eager
This is a story by someone who has read and digested and adored many, many fairy tales and adventure stories, and understands exactly what children love about them. The whole book is just plain fun. Four children discover a tricky magic charm one summer, and barely survive the adventures that ensue. The relationships between the children, who are siblings, are very realistic, and the story reveals their exasperating flaws in a way that just makes them each more sympathetic even as they endanger everybody else. It’s also the rare story where the magic comes to an end at the end of the book, and you truly don’t mind, because the kids have gained something else really valuable and satisfying. Just about a perfect book.
The book (written in the 50’s) is set in the 1020’s, so some plot points may need a bit of explanation, but kids age 7 and up or so should be able to follow along easily enough. Another thing I like about this book is that, while it takes the interior lives of children seriously, and treats them as full people, it also recognizes that they are just children and have their limits; and the children meet some adults who are dopey and ridiculous, but they also meet some who are good and wise and helpful.
Eager wrote six other books about kids encountering magic, and they’re all enjoyable, but Half Magic is in a league of its own.
9. Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
We’ve read the Pippi Longstocking books, and they are deservedly well-loved. (The most extraordinary thing is that Pippi is a hero who is kind — a virtue you rarely find in heroes.) We watched part of the Studio Ghibli animated series Ronia, which I knew was based on a book by Lindgren, but lost interest, I think partially because it actually followed the book too carefully, which made the pacing odd for screen.
The book, though, turned out to be fantastic, and perfect for reading aloud. The chapters are short and satisfying, and the translation is fluid and natural.
Entertaining and fast-paced and really makes you long for adventure in the natural world. Ronia is the only child of a robber chieftain, a strong, happy, wild person, born on the night of a terrible storm, when harpies swarmed through the air and a giant bolt of lightning cleft the ancient fortress in half. Ronia has just discovered that another child, the son of a rival robber chieftain, has moved into the other side, which is separated from their living quarters by a bottomless chasm — and that the two robbers were friends as children. Has some spooky magical peril that might be too much for very sensitive kids.
10. My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
This one is aimed at the youngest audience of all on this list, but anyone listening in will enjoy it. A peculiar, dream-like story about a boy who, at the behest of a talking cat, travels to a faraway island and outwits several different kinds of animals to rescue an imprisoned baby dragon. Strange, sweet, funny, and very much in tune with a child’s imagination. There are two sequels, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland, which are okay but not brilliant like the first one.)
I can’t find my copy at the moment, but the illustrations are to die for.
11. Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming
Okay, I haven’t read this for many years, but I remember it being silly but still gripping and brisk, and nowhere near as cloying as the movie (and in the book, the family is intact, with two kids and two happy parents). The author, Ian Fleming, is of course also the author of the James Bond books, which were always intended to be corking good adventure yarns with lots of fighting and narrow escapes and jumping around, and that’s what this is. The style of the prose is very playful and dramatic. It’s also quite a short book, so not a huge commitment. Warning, you will be required to do some corny French accents toward the end. It also includes a fudge recipe.
Look at the fun illustrations from my edition from the 60’s:
12. The Jack Tales collected and retold by Richard Chase
Not a chapter book, but a collection of Appalachian folk tales. It takes a little practice to get into the swing of the dialect, but it’s not hard after the first page or so. Gleefully violent, with lots of beheadings and other kinds of mutilation. Jack is a cheerful, resourceful hero in overalls who kills not one but several giants — sometimes giants with multiple heads — and meets all manner of magical creatures, crafty witches, dishonest kings, and beautiful maidens while seeking his fortune in I guess North Carolina.
This illustration kills me. All four giant heads have male pattern baldness. Life is hard!
Really interesting intersection of fairy tales and tall tales and Americana, and some of them are hilarious. Not for the faint of heart.
BONUS: We’re only a few chapters in, but we started reading Mio, My Son by Astrid Lindgren and . . . boy, it’s weird. The kids are loving it, but I don’t know what to think. It’s extremely action-packed, and so far, it’s written exactly like a polished version of a book that a kid would write, or want to hear, anyway. The names of the characters are names a child would invent (his friends are Pompoo and Totty, and the golden-maned horse is Miramis), and the plot is very oddly framed, and is making me uncomfortable, because I feel like there’s a psychological layer to it that may or may not ever be acknowledged.
A young orphan lives a wretched life, unloved and neglected by his aunt and uncle, until suddenly one day he’s whisked away by a genie and discovers that his father is alive and is the king of a magical country, and he is the cherished heir to the kingdom. He enjoys some very heavy-handed wish fulfillment, and remarks several times about what the people in his former life would think if they could see him now. But even as he plays in the garden of roses and eats the Bread That Satisfies Hunger, there are some early hints of dark foreboding, and within a few chapters it becomes clear that it’s his fate to do battle with the great kidnapping villain, Sir Kato, who is the only blot on the great happiness that pervades Farawayland. I don’t know! If you’ve read it, don’t tell me what happens! We’re definitely finishing it, and I’m very curious about how it will get wrapped up. I would love to have met Astrid Lindgren in real life. What an interesting person.
And that’s the list! I feel like I’m forgetting some major good reads we’ve enjoyed recently, but the titles are eluding me at the moment. What have you read out loud that everyone liked?
Note: I linked to Amazon throughout this post just for convenience, but Mio, My Son appears to be out of print, so it’s priced pretty high. Just wanted to make sure everyone knows about booksprice.com. You put the title or the ISBN in and it will show you new and used books for sale from a variety of sellers, including Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, Biblio, and more; and it shows you the shipping upfront, so you don’t get hornswoggled. So here’s the listings for Mio, My Son. If you don’t mind clicking around a bit, you can often get yourself quite a deal. I use this site all the time.