We all know that reading out loud to your child is the best thing you can do; if the psychologists (and my mother) are to be believed, it’s the only foolproof way to make sure your kid grows up to be a productive – not to mention brilliant – member of society, instead of an indigent criminal lying unconscious in a gutter somewhere. But when you just can’t face the 999th reading of Maisy the Mouse – or even better-known classics (your Where The Wild Things Are, your Alexander and the Terrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day), or when the soul of your child is crying out for something finer (or just a little more involved) here’s a list of great books sure to fit the bill. Some are famous, some less so – but all are guaranteed to stoke a child’s imagination and development. Whether they’ll fall asleep is another story – it all depends on delivery. – Rachel Shukert
Half Magic by Edward Eager
Like the E. Nesbit stories he so lovingly pays tribute to throughout his work, Edward Eager’s saga of fanciful magic is one of the greatest and most overlooked contributions to children’s literature. Almost every single one of his books could appear on this list (one other, The Knight’s Castle, does) but Half Magic is the Ur-text in which four siblings – adventurous tomboy Jane, practical Mark, dreamy Katherine and Martha, the baby find a small silver coin, engraved with mysterious writing, that has the ability to grant wishes. Perplexingly, the coin can only grant half a wish at a time, leading to all sorts of fanciful mishaps. Eager’s tremendous facility with language (not to mention the 1920s setting) makes it a prim delight to read out loud, and his endowing of ordinary children with extraordinary powers is sure to assuage (and comfort) even the most die-hard Harry Potter fan.
They Came From Aargh! by Russell Hoban
Since my mother first read this book to me in 1983, it has haunted my dreams, my speech, my very soul. It is hands down the best picture book I ever read, and I insisted we check it out from the library so many times that finally the librarian told me to just take it home with me and never come back. It has since been lost to the sands of time. In They Came From Aargh! Russell Hoban continues the gastronomic theme he began in his Frances the Badger series (bread, jam, eggs and things), as three intrepid space travelers (i.e. small children attired in goggles, helmets, tin foil, and other intergalactic accoutrements) voyage to another dimension in order to sample the cheese omelets and chocolate cake prepared by a galumphing extraterrestrial giant called a Mummosaurus – a word my mother still uses to refer to herself. It’s out of print and almost impossible to find, but it’s worth the search – and who knows? You might even find a churlish librarian sick enough of your kid to let you keep it
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
More elegant and slyly surreal than the better known Where The Wild Things Are, this book is a perfect bedtime story when you want your children to have very interesting dreams featuring Laurel and Hardy and naked children covered in dough. On his night journey to the eponymous kitchen, Mickey (a close cousin of the famous Max) falls into the batter and risks being made into cake himself, but thanks to the the bizarre logic of dreams, is able to construct a working airplane out of bread and save himself, to general merriment. Again, my quotable mother often still shrieks “Milk! Milk for the Morning Cake!” while fixing her cereal each day.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The movie is a perennial favorite of course, beloved by a strange trifecta of children, gays, and in at least one case (to my knowledge) by a severely mentally handicapped man who believed if he only yelled loud enough, he could sufficiently warn Dorothy of the Wicked Witch of the West’s imminent arrival – and when he failed, removed his penis from his pants and rubbed it against my bare ankle in frustration. But that’s a story for another time. The book, written in 1900, is far weirder and yes, more wonderful. Children can marvel over all of the details left out of the movie – the Silver Shoes, the Quadling Country, the dainty people made out of China – and you can puzzle over whether the whole book, as has been hypothesized, is really an elaborate prairie allegory for the end of the Gold Standard.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Kids who read will never complain about going to a museum again, as Claudia and Jamie Kincaid run away from home, go to New York City, and move into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to live off the change from the fountain and become embroiled in an international art mystery involving an enigmatic angel sculpture and an even more enigmatic elderly millionaire. With references to Michelangelo, Katharine of Aragon, the United Nations, and Sotheby’s, this is probably the most urbane children’s book ever written. And after reading, you can check out the film version, which features Ingrid Bergman in one of her last movie roles, and Madeline Kahn as “Schoolteacher!” What more can you ask for?
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Another surprisingly taut thriller, in which the residents of a ritzy Chicago apartment building find out they haven’t rented there by accident – they are the heirs of an extremely rich (and none-too-lamented) man named Sam Westing, who believes one of them was responsible for his death, and has devised a complicated game from beyond the grave to bring the killer to justice, and award the one who cracks the code with the big prize. The residents themselves are a perfect focus group of 70′s multiculturalism, but the book is oddly, startlingly honest about the tensions and internal conflict this diversity engenders-the social climbing WASP hostess is embarrassed by her husband’s Jewishness; the African-American female judge has complicated feelings about the racist white man who financed her education; the submissive Chinese wife has hidden reservoirs of resourcefulness and rage. Incredibly absorbing with a satisfying conclusion that is just simple enough for children to appreciate, without feeling cheated.
The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
There’s no better wa 01c4e028a314402d5e4a3df3372bb3aa y to tell your kid you love them than by reading them The Runaway Bunny. For real. “‘If you are a gardener and find me,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will be a bird and fly away from you.’ ‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’” And I’m crying. Forget about it.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Everything I just said about The Runaway Bunny is the same for Goodnight Moon. The sense of well-being and love from these books is palpable- they’re like the literary equivalent of breast-feeding. I’m sure you already have them both, but just a reminder, read them to your kid! Okay?
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The most famous lover of books in children’s literature, wee telekinetic genius Matilda is also one of its most beloved characters. And Roald Dahl’s signature nastiness is bracing and hilarious as usual – inflected with enough mordant wit and misanthropy to buttress your child’s brain against all the sentimental sludge they pick up elsewhere. I could read the opening chapter over and over – in which, apropos of little, the author muses on the scathing end of term reports he would write for a variety of monstrous children were he a schoolteacher. It’s the kind of epic malice only an Englishman of a certain age can really get right:and make so incredibly endearing.
The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Yet another example of how friends in real life are never quite as fun as the friends in books. April, a kind of sixth grade precursor to Patsy Stone, with her platinum beehive and droopy false eyelashes, is new in town and an obvious outsider, but soon hooks up with Melanie, the daughter of university professors. With the help of various boards and strange items purchased from a junk store run by a shadowy figure known only as the Professor, they build a make-believe version of ancient Egypt, complete with historically accurate rituals and rites, in an empty lot. Of course, play is curtailed somewhat when a serial killer hits the town. Yes, a serial killer (it was the sixties, after all).
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
Yeah, I could easily have put all seven books on this list, but that felt like cheating, and is there anyone who hasn’t yet read Harry Potter? However, if it’s a matter of the best one to read out loud, I’d like to make a case for Number of 5 (or OotP, as we Muggles in the fan community call it). After the trials of the Goblet of Fire, Harry is older, wiser, sadder, and ready for action. OotP delivers it in the form of the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society formed to battle the ultimate evil of Voldemort that bears more than a passing resemblance to the mythical French Resistance (if not the actual French Resistance.) Also, it is extraordinarily long, and can easily last you through a month of bedtime stories.
Mischievous Meg by Astrid Lindgren
As much as I want to put my beloved Pippi Longstocking on this list, I think Pippi’s subversive, parentless charms are best enjoyed in solitude – her self-sufficient adventuring loses some of its exhilarating mayhem when delivered in the calm voice of a parent. But for more familial reading, there is Mischievous Meg, another Lindgren creation, a rough and tumble girl who lives in a Swedish farmhouse. She’s Pippi with parents, and no less delightful for it, blaming her misdeeds on a fictional classmate named Richard, setting her sister adrift on the river, and cheerfully sustaining a concussion when she falls off the roof. Lindgren lets girls be naughty, too – how refreshing.
The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
For all parents, the time comes when their children start asking difficult questions: “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do babies come from?” “Explain to me the causes of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?” Well, I can’t help you with those first two, but when the third comes up, read them The Butter Battle Book, Dr. Seuss’ anti-war classic, in which two groups of essentially similar people become bent on each others’ total destruction over who eats their bread butter side up, and who eats it butter side down. And with that, Dr. Seuss somehow manages to elucidate the utter futility of armed warfare with an eloquence that an army of op-ed columnists could never hope to achieve.
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Similarly, when your child starts asking difficult questions about glacial melt, deforestation and global warming, it’s time for the Lorax. Yes, it’s the corporations who want to kill you. And also want to kill the brave, benighted Lorax, who reminds me more and more of Al Gore with each passing day – pre-Nobel Al Gore, anyway.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Do your kids a favor; if you’re going to let them watch the Tim Burton version on DVD, tell them you have to finish reading the book together first. Chances are, they won’t even be able to get through the movie – an almost bafflingly pale imitation of the real thing. There may be no character in children’s literature weirder, wilder, or warmer than the wonderful Willy Wonka, whose vibrance and vitality radiates off the page – and makes Johnny Depp’s creepy, cold-fish portrayal look as crazily off the mark as serving liver cooked in milk at a child’s birthday party. Let’s take back this story for the book – and it is glorious, full of the kind of scrumptious details that roll off the tongue and that film, no matter how glossy and expensive, can never quite replicate. And when you’re done, there’s the sequel.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl
This underrated sequel to the first Charlie book is so bizarre, it’s downright confounding. Charlie and the Buckets accompany Mr. Wonka to a luxury hotel in Outer Space, where they run into the President of the United States (presciently characterized as a buffoonish mental midget) and memorably, an enormous Vermicious Knid, a giant ball of a shape-shifting phlegm with enormous eyes that lurks in the elevator.
Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager
My personal favorite of the Edward Eager books; the children of the aforementioned Katherine and Martha of Half Magic are brought together by a magical toy castle that transports them into the yeomanly world of Ivanhoe, where they must joust with Templars and defend the honor of exotic Jewesses. Plus, it’s never too early to talk to your child about the Crusades.
Curious Tales by Milos Macourek
I have no idea how and why I got this book – I think it was a gift from a relative. However, the collection of stories, translated from the Czech, has haunted me my whole life – in a good way. Ottilie, who is covered in so many inkblots her mother washes her in bleach – and Ottilie disappears; Julie, the houseplant that eats roast turkey; the box of macaroni that goes out to a restaurant and is fed itself for dinner. The stories are so elegant, so dark, and true to form, so curious, that-never mind your kids-you won’t ever be the same.
Stories for Children by Isaac Bashevis Singer
If you’re Jewish, I think they present you with a copy of this book at your bris; for the rest of you, allow me to direct you to what might be the greatest collection of children’s stories ever written. Singer’s stories have witches, demons, holy men who fight evil, talking goats, and total morons – a fair approximation of the world if I’ve ever heard one. And the stories themselves are beautifully written: each word prefect and precise, their pure simplicity ideal for reading out loud, particularly to the very young. It’s a must-have, and a must-read.
This piece was originally published on October 2, 2008