Friday, March 1, marks the 16th annual Read Across America Day – the National Education Association’s initiative to build a nation of eager readers.
Of course, you don’t need a special day to read to your child; every day of parenthood should involve opening a book at some point. Still, this is the kind of occasion that calls for bringing out one of the classic children’s books that land on all the “100 Best” lists.
I love reading to my children, and it’s exciting to see them get caught up in the same stories I enjoyed at their age. But every so often, I come across something that sparks a yikes! reaction: an uncomfortable stereotype, a dated reference, a painful truth.
Back when the authors were penning their masterpieces, they had no clue that future readers might find their words offensive or laughably outdated. When Marjorie Flack wrote The Story About Ping, about a duckling who runs away from home to avoid getting swatted by his dad, could she have dreamed that spanking would one day be looked on as one of the big Parental No-Nos? And the vocabulary that was commonplace a century ago takes on a totally different meaning today. My 10-year-old son and I had quite the bedtime discussion the night we read in A Christmas Carol that “Scrooge’s heart was gay.”
Here are 10 more examples of famous kid-lit that could spark some deep conversations, make you a little uneasy, or inspire nostalgia for a time when mothers could leave their young children home alone all afternoon with a chaos-loving cat. Should you keep these titles off your shelves? Absolutely not! A childhood without Charlotte, Laura and Max would be a lonely existence indeed.
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Where the Wild Things Are 1 of 10Little Max's behavior is beastly, so his mom sends him to his room without supper - a common penalty back in the day, but not so much now. You can almost hear the parenting experts say, "Food should never be used as punishment. Suspend his Wii privileges for a day or two instead."
Charlotte’s Web 2 of 10The timeless story of a special friendship leaves both parents and children misty-eyed. But the book has also spawned many a discussion about eating habits. Expect to answer a lot of questions about where dinner comes from, and best to avoid serving bacon for a few days after you finish the last chapter.
Little House on the Prairie 3 of 10Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical novels are a thrilling look at pioneer life. Prairie, the second book in the series, is also an honest account of the hostile relations between the Osage tribe of Kansas and the settlers coming to occupy their land. You may find yourself wincing at Ma's attitude toward the tribe, and the Osage are portrayed several times in the book as dirty and thieving.
The Trumpet of the Swan 4 of 10The book's hero, Louis, is brilliant (he's a swan who can read and write!), and he blows a mean trumpet to compensate for his lack of a voice. But everyone refers to him as "defective" - a term more apt for a broken appliance than a living creature. If E.B. White had written the book today, he probably would have called Louis "vocally challenged."
Harriet the Spy 5 of 10While her dad works and her mother and nanny turn a blind eye, Harriet freely roams her Manhattan neighborhood, peeking in windows and hiding in dumbwaiters. These days, the police would get involved, and the headline in The New York Post the next day would read, "Neglectful Parents Lose Custody of Snoopy Tween."
Ramona the Pest 6 of 10Ramona Geraldine Quimby faces the world of kindergarten in this, the first of the Ramona series. But that world is a lot different from the one your children know now. Back then, 5-year-olds were allowed to walk a couple of blocks to school on their own, and kindergarten still involved show-and-tell and taking naps. A kid who misbehaved could even opt to stay home from school for three days until she felt ready to go back. Good luck trying to explain to your child that yanking a classmate's curls isn't a good way to get a few days' vacation.
The Encyclopedia Brown series 7 of 10Donald J. Sobol's boy detective has been helping kids sharpen their observational skills for four decades. Unfortunately, some of his cases don't quite stand the test of time. Be prepared to explain to your fourth-grader such foreign concepts as cameras that use film, banks without ATMs and etiquette rules about where women sit in restaurants.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 8 of 10Roald Dahl's classic book has everything a child could want: likable hero Charlie, the mysterious Willy Wonka, snotty kids who get their comeuppance and a wonderful world of candy. But it also has the Oompa-Loompas, who in early editions of the book were described as African pygmies. Later editions altered the description a bit, but the short, leaf-clad Oompas still come off as rather un-PC.
The Cat in the Hat 9 of 10Here's another classic from back in the days when mothers thought nothing of leaving their kids at home for a few hours while they ran errands. Try explaining to your kids why the brother and sister don't even lock their front door. Don't they know that's an open invitation for wacky felines to walk in and trash the place?
The Giving Tree 10 of 10The mother-figure tree gives her fruit, her shade and even her entire trunk to the boy she loves. But what seemed like devotion when Shel Silverstein wrote the book in 1964 may strike you as the kind of martyrdom that leaves moms feeling resentful and unappreciated. Personally, I wish sweet Givie would say, "You want a boat to sail the world? Get a job and buy one. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going with my bestie Willow on a well-deserved Tree's Night Out."
[Photos: via Amazon]
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