When we were little my parents read to us. Mostly I remember my mother reading, but sometimes my father would be reading one story (usually to my brother) while Mother read another; it was “terribly unfair” that they read at the same time so we had to pick! I would guess that it had to do with the stories- when there are four or five kids, what the older kids liked is different than what you read to the baby. I think we’d actually listen to almost anything. Even now at the lake or during a black-out one of us will read (Steven King or Terry Pratchett) while the others do something else that needs less light. There’s something wonderful about listening to a story, especially a good one, a familiar one.
If I was to give advice on child rearing, I realize that most of it is really personal, you have to tailor it to the situation, but I can’t think of one where reading to your kid is inappropriate. When done just before bed (as is traditional), it helps relax the listener and the reader. More importantly, it helps parents share stories that teach us the symbolism and culture of our people. Modern kids should recognize Zeus and Thor, Hamlet and Don Quixote, but they have modern symbols to draw on as well like Alice, Dorothy Gale, and Tinkerbelle. A lot of these classics have been made into movies, but when you read the book, not only do you get MORE and go deeper into the details of the story, it becomes a personal exchange. The parent can talk about what they’ve read, and no preamble or explanations are needed to make sure that both parties know: you were just there together, when Pinnoccio was turned into a donkey, or when Heidi got lost trying to find her way back home.
Books create a bridge between generations- the books that spoke to my mother and grandmother (like the Little Colonel books, or the Bookhouse series, watching Black Beauty be passed from hand to hand, or Lad: a Dog spend his life with his Master) were shared experiences. Fairy tales create a bond and mutual language between all who’ve heard and told them: the littlest sister or brother who isn’t appreciated by the older ones in their family, the orphan, the hard-worker, the misunderstood, the one with an impossible task. We all relate to those archetypes. Nursery rhymes are a prelude to fairy tales, then you start adding classic children’s books: The Jungle Books, the Secret Garden, Peter Pan. They became classics because they touch something in so many people. If you read to your child you can tell with which characters and situations your kids identify.
I was trying to think of a list of the must-read books I’d recommend (and thinking I probably missed too many with my kids). If you get the kids started reading, once they do, it is inevitable that the time you alot to reading too them won’t be enough to “find out what happens next” and they’ll finish the book themselves. This is not a problem, anymore than re-reading a book is. I know that I re-read Wind in the Willows and Swiss Family Robinson every year in the years after I’d first had it read to me. Diana read Charlotte’s Web when she was three, and Kat adored hearing the Alice books at five, but still loves them in her twenties. I think she’s watched over 20 movie versions- they compliment, and do not render the other medium redundant.
You will discover that children can be even more annoyed than adults when movies and books don’t match. (You should have seen how cross I was when they “sugared up” Mary Poppins!) For this reason, whenever possible, try to read the book to them before they see the movies, and whichever comes first, talk to them about the differences- what they liked better in the movie, what they liked better in the book. Let them say how they’d have handled it. Movies do have the advantage of being faster, and being available without having to get an adult’s time to experience. Because so many of the great books have been made into movies, your favorite kids movies may be a good place to start showing them how the book has so much more story than the movie can fit in.
I suggest starting with Poetry (and of course, music, but that’s another subject): Nursery Rhymes, Aesop’s Fables, Mother Goose, Child’s Garden of Verses, A A Milne, Shel Silverstein, a Visit from St. Nicholas. Then there are picture books: Little Red Riding Hood, Millions of Cats. I loved Little Black Sambo- if you can still find it. (A kid getting the better of five tigers? That’s right up there with the Jungle Book!) Dr. Seuss has his special place, but so does Uncle Remus. Some of my favorites were Harold and the Purple Crayon, & Make Way for Ducklings. Thinking about illustrated books, I also read my kids Asterix the Gaul, and the Elfquest comics, starting a lifelong habit of enjoying graphic novels, and appreciating the backgrounds.
Whenever you are reading picture books, please have the pictures be gorgeous. I started on the beautiful books illustrated by great artists that my mother had gotten when she was young, when Pyle and Wythe were not ashamed to do illustrations. The version of Little Red Riding Hood I grew up with was detailed, and rather creepy in it’s own way. But as I reached my teens and wanted more fairy tale books like my mother had in the thirties, I discovered that during the sixties they were being illustrated with highly styalized pen and ink and collages. I suppose they were trying by using minimalist illustration to encourage the kids to come up with their own images in their heads, but I was spoiled and I hated it. My Grandmother found me one called The Book of Enchantments (Pharmacopoedia), large format, full page paintings, great detail; I later discovered that the paintings were based on Breugel paintings. It was gorgeous. But when the binding gave out, I took the 12×15″ pages and pinned them up on my walls, and I’ve never found the book again. Luckily by the time I had kids of my own kids, others like me had started making fairy tale books with gorgeous illustrations again.
Fairy Tales are the best first books for bedtime reading, and luckily there are many: from Grimm, Anderson, Wilde, and Lang’s colored fairy books are great. Myths are often mixed in with fairy tales, and a great stories for kids: Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic African, Native American, Arabian Nights, Indian, Chinese and Japanese- whatever you can find. Myths lead to Legends and folk tales: King Arthur, Robin Hood, even more recent tales like Sleepy Hollow and ghost stories if they won’t spook your kids. Hiawatha may fall into this category, and lyric poems are something kids enjoy but many adults don’t consider.
For little kids the House at Pooh Corner, Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter stories, Alice in Wonderland (and through the Looking Glass), Wizard of Oz (did you know it’s a long series?), Heidi, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Just So Stories, & the Jungle Books, The Secret Garden, The Princess and the Goblin, Doctor Dolittle, Charlotte’s Web, Willy Wonka, The Velveteen Rabbit, Bambi, the Hobbit, Homer Price, and Matilda all have their place in my heart.
If you can, introduce your kids to these great books before they see the movie and think that Disney is the “right” version and the book “got it wrong”. And if you loved a book, share it. I don’t think that The Long Nosed Princess or the Enormous Egg were ever as famous as most of these “greats” I’m mentioning, but I loved them, and I’ll probably never forget the first book I bought with my own money at a book fair (I was in fourth grade) Fire Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard, a book about Hawk and Willow, cave people very reminiscent of the Jean Auel characters I loved as an adult.
As kids get older, adventures are what I wanted: Swiss Family Robinson, Mary Poppins, House at Greene Knowe, Five Children and It,The Chronicles of Prydain, Lad: a Dog, Wolf, Black Beauty, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, King Solomon’s Mines, The Little Prince, the Borrowers, Rats of NIMH, and don’t forget A Christmas Carol- it’s more of a short story than a book, and can easily be read in an evening or two. Other adventures are probably more likely to be read by your kids, but if you’ve got the family habit of reading, you need to switch to something at a more appropriate level for older kids: Gulliver’s Travels, the Three Musketeers, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, The White Company, Tarzan (and John Carter of Mars), Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s, even Jane Eyre- it will depend on your taste.
There were some books I didn’t discover until I was an adult, but would have loved to have read or had read to me when I was a kid. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Worlds of Chrestomanci, Wizard of Earthsea, Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Dark is Rising books, Madeline L’Engle’s Time quartet, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson, and Kane Chronicals are marvelous, and I expect his Norse series will be too. . Other books like those by Terry Prattchett, Piers Anthony (Xanth), and Dickson’s Dragon Knight books are part of my adult life, although they may be suitable for kids. Most good books are, especially when shared with the adult. The Princess Bride (the Good Parts Version) is not only is a good story, but celebrates the special bond a book can create between the reader and readee.
I’d love to hear from you what books you think are the “must read” books for parents to read to kids.