When my brother Dave and I were very young our father, a journalist who, probably because he couldn’t afford college, had gone right into newspaper work when he returned from World War I, would grow agitated when he saw us reading comic books. I remember him saying he had read all of Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper when he was young. He may have exaggerated on “all” of Dickens, but his library attested that he read voluminously. I keep a dozen of his own books from the turn of the century—including Jane Eyre, The Cloister and the Hearth and The Brothers Karamazov—in my own library for inspiration. When I was in first grade, the nun kept a big box of books in front of the class and every day we had a reading hour in which I worked my way through several volumes of the Tom Swift series. The following years I moved into the Tarzan series, the Hardy Boys and eventually David Copperfield.
As the evidence accumulates that today’s children are reading less and less, I have invited a cross section of our writers and staff who have raised children to share their wisdom on what today’s children should read.
Raymond Schroth, S.J.
America’s Original Sin
Children’s books are like little paw prints in the virgin snow. The titles aren’t particularly memorable, yet they leave their indelible imprint. In first grade I remember my genuine pride in conquering Tip, our introductory reader about an erstwhile terrier, and its not-too-inventive sequel, Tip and Mitten, co-starring a kitten. My sensibilities as a third-grade traditionalist were shocked by Green Eggs and Ham, with its absurdist rhymes and almost Dalí-like illustrations by Dr. Seuss. As a young Yankees fan, I devoutly studied Mickey Mantle’s heroic The Quality of Courage, a tome that I realized years later was written by a ghostwriter while the Mick was probably out having a beer with the boys. Nevertheless, it’s always good for young people to have a hero or two.
Then there were books that truly made an impact and I think should be read by all youngsters. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be appreciated on many levels, including as a morality tale about America’s original sin of race. It first appealed to me as an eye-opening journey on the Mississippi River with irrepressible Huck, his pal Tom Sawyer and Jim, the slave on the run who joins him on the raft going down the river. (Nothing like a book with a lot of active verbs for the young mind!) Lastly, To Kill a Mockingbird is a hauntingly beautiful novel about race, justice and adult life seen through the eyes of a little girl. It reflects America in so many ways and leaves us with an internal voice by author Harper Lee that can last a lifetime.
Thomas Maier, an investigative reporter for Newsday, is the author of five books. The most recent is When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys, excerpted in the Oct. 27, 2014, issue of America.
A Lesson in Savage Realism
I was 12 when I got my hands on Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages. My copy was in tatters but all the pages were there and I read all of them in a week. Then I read them again; and after that I reread my favorite pages, thinking all the while, as I did with many books when I was 12, that this was the best book I had ever read. Here’s what I liked about it. It was about Indians, and about two boys interested in Indians, and it was filled with drawings and instructions for how to make teepees and moccasins. It was crammed with odd knowledge, like the fact that Indians walked with their toes pointed in. One of the characters was a witch woman who knew how to poison people with plants. But the very best thing about the book was the savage realism of the author about life. Yan, the principal little savage, had younger and older brothers who were unredeemed monsters. Yan was not his mother’s favorite, and in addition she was a religious bully. I sensed immediately and later understood more clearly that Seton was oddly incapable of telling a phony story to a child.
Thomas Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, has written several books, including The Death of Crazy Horse.
The Ghosts of History
Growing up, I never entertained the idea of running away from home. Yet one of my favorite books was a tale of two siblings catching a train from their home in Greenwich, Conn., to hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is now a children’s classic, but I did not know that when I first picked it up in, I think, fifth grade. What attracted me was the exotic notion of spending the night at the Met, a place I had been to many times before, but always amid throngs of people and never on my own. Sleeping in antique beds, trolling the Met’s fountains for loose change, spending each day in a new gallery—the adventures of Claudia Kincaid and her brother Jaime made learning seem fun and just a little bit dangerous. Would they get caught? Would they have enough money to survive? And just who was this Mrs. Frankweiler, who kept inserting herself into the story? Long before “A Night at the Museum” became a movie franchise (and a lucrative fundraising opportunity), E. L. Konigsburg introduced us to the thrills of camping out with the ghosts of history.
Maurice Timothy Reidy is an executive editor of America.
Where Christmas Never Comes
Before there was J. K. Rowling, an English writer whose imagination appeals to children of all ages, there was C. S. Lewis.
And while American children may need some explanations of mid-20th-century British language and furniture, they can still become immersed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
For starters, it’s about children. The youngest, Lucy, wanders into a wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek and ends up in Narnia, a world where it is always winter and Christmas never comes.
Her brother Edmund goes through the wardrobe, where he meets the White Witch, who is responsible for all the bad things in Narnia. She seduces Edmund with sweets, taking advantage of his character flaws to turn him to her side in a war between good and evil. The good is incarnate in Aslan, the mystical Lion whose sacrifice gives the other children a symbol to fight for.
When our daughters were small, my wife read this and the other Narnia books to them. Both girls, now grown, recall reading them themselves before they were 10. They were captivated by the story, the characters and the lessons. It’s no surprise they are both huge Harry Potter fans.
TomCurran is a former associate editor of The Newark Star Ledger.
King Arthur’s Magic Childhood
In this retelling of the Arthurian legend, T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, young Arthur grows up a foster son on the estate of Sir Ector, a minor nobleman, and is educated by the wise and eccentric Merlyn. To adult eyes, the book is an account of the future king’s empathetic education and an exploration of the structure of societies, authority and justice. To a child it is a series of adventures, narrated with a certain ironic detachment, full of very funny asides. Arthur gets lost in a forest, meets Robin Hood and his band, frees prisoners of a wicked sorceress and is transformed into various animals. Arthur, as enchanted by tales of brave knights and dramatic battles as any 6-year-old gazing up at the mounted knights in armor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is eager to go on his own quest and of course ultimately does, pulling the sword from the stone. But Merlyn, who lives backward through time and has seen the horror and folly of militaristic societies and the transience of power, is skeptical. He sends Arthur to meet a knight, but he is a slapstick fool, locked in a futile and endless contest.
The most affecting episodes in the book are Arthur’s education by experience, as he becomes a small fish, a hawk and a badger and understands power, fear and community in new ways. The psychologically complex and finely drawn relationships between Arthur, Kay, Merlyn and Sir Ector resonate with compassion. I read it aloud to my sons. I’d press it into the hands of another 10- or 12-year-old as an antidote to education that quests for the predetermined right answer and as protection against a world that honors might over right.
EIleen Markey has just completed a biography of Maura Clarke, M.M., who was martyred in El Salvador.
The Secret of the Hole
In Louis Sachar’s novel Holes, Stanley is thrust into the cold, cruel, arbitrary adult world away from the warmth and protection of parents and home. Arrested for stealing a pair of used sneakers, a crime he did not commit, the judge gives Stanley a choice: jail or camp. Stanley chooses camp. But Camp Green Lake, in Texas, bears no resemblance to the camp of Stanley’s teenage imagination, a place of swimming lessons, water-skiing and rock climbing. Instead, Stanley and the juvenile delinquents must dig holes all day long, five feet wide and five feet deep, under the relentless hot sun. The boys are the prey of rattlesnakes, scorpions and poisonous lizards, as well as of administrators who withhold drinking water.
Stanley’s bad luck begins to change after teaching another teenage boy at the camp to read. While digging a hole at the camp, Stanley finds a box of treasure that had been stolen from his great-great grandfather. He learns much about himself and others. He also learns the real reason—besides punishment—that the boys had to dig holes.
Louis Sachar weaves humor throughout the tragedy. The novel reads like a fast-paced mystery, with careful foreshadowing and many surprises. “That was such a cool book,” said my son, Andrew, who read it in middle school. “Make sure you write about them running away and how the adults realized he was innocent.”
Holes is the story of life’s accidents and tests of character, and the promise of ample rewards for developing strength, both physical and emotional. First published in 1998, the novel won a Newbery Medal, a National Book Award and many other awards.
LorettaTofani won a Pulitzer Prize while reporting for The Washington Post and served as the China correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Torches in Three Minds
Choosing one book every child should read is a little like choosing one food every child should eat. Through extensive bedtime reading, I’ve nourished my children, ages 7 and 9, on several. They include Kidnapped and Treasure Island, both of which stir a sense of adventure. Last summer we finished St. Patrick’s Summer by Marigold Hunt, a theological tour de force that should be required reading for every Catholic child in the English-speaking world.
Right now we’re on The Hobbit, the overture to J. R .R. Tolkien’s great symphony The Lord of the Rings. I’m reading them The Hobbit first because, as a hobbit would have it, that keeps everything in its right order. Tolkien has been praised to the heavens—and thoroughly by Boston College’s Peter Kreeft in The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. Also, quite fittingly I think, he has been scoffed at by modern literary sophisticates who seem to find beauty and morality threatening.
None of that matters as I lie in the bottom bunk with my son, reading by mini-light up toward my daughter in the top bunk. I am transported to a particular time in my childhood, when an uncle lent me his Tolkien books, as each paragraph lights torches in our three minds. In this age of dull materialism and high-tech chatter, it seems to me that children need quiet, imaginative nights with a hobbit more than ever.
Peter Reichard is a political journalist in New Orleans.
The Prince and the Pilot
I met Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in a freshman-year French class, gave it to my wife as our first Christmas gift, and then 40 years later gave it to our granddaughter. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Saint-Exupéry’s downed pilot meets a curious child, come to earth from his original home among the stars. An efficient caretaker of his planet, he tended especially to a one and only rose. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
Before our strange land, he journeyed to six asteroids with eccentric characters. “I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
The pilot and prince’s friendship, narrated in lovely prose and illustrated by the author’s original watercolors, will stir misplaced zest in the adult reader and laughter, furrowed brows and joyful delight in the child listener.
My granddaughter told me last week: “Pop Pop, I think it is just as important to care about other people and to be very smart.” At nine, she gets it and the prince smiles appreciatively.
Thomas McGovern is a professor emeritus at Arizona State University.
Why Does the Mouse Wear Clothes?
I am going to start off by admitting that I failed, so there will be no unnecessary suspense to this story. As my kids grew into their early reading years, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to a couple of books I remember absolutely loving as a child, perhaps the first books I ever loved. I thought my darling children would love these books in more or less precisely the same way I did. They were Stuart Little, by E. B. White, and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
Certainly the wonderful illustrations by Garth Williams and E. H. Shepard respectively were a part of their appeal to me as a child. They made Stuart’s nobility, Toad’s near mortal conceit, Badger’s steadiness and Mole and Rat’s kindly companionableness palpable things. I remember how desolate I felt as a child coming to the wistful conclusion of Stuart’s adventures, and the mournful realization that the book was over and I would hear no more of Stuart Little, nor discover if he ever would find his Margalo. I learned about the value of adventure and friendship, marveled at the great battle to recover Toad Hall, applauded what must be the first depiction of an “intervention” in 20th-century literature as Toad’s friends attempted to dissuade him from his vainglorious ways...but my boys just did not “get” my affection for these books.
Skeptical, skinny things, afflicted by iPhones and habitually thumbing through Calvin and Hobbes collections and one of the various Diary of a Wimpy Kids kicking around the house, they admit to maybe “kinda” liking Wind in the Willows, but Stuart Little? Come on. “It was boring; it was stupid…why does the mouse wear clothes?”
There is always The Lord of the Rings and Dune ahead of me. Master and Commander?
Better luck to us all.
KevinClarke is America’s senior editor and chief correspondent.
Trapdoors and Friendship
“Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car.” So begins The Tower Treasure, the first in the Hardy Boys series, a lead sentence knowingly crafted to deter its young reader from putting the book down anytime soon. Horror! Motorcycles! Who was that spooky figure on the front cover?
Adventure and clues—the red wig, the yellow jalopy—came and went before Hobo Johnny locked the heroes in a water tower. By then, the reader had learned quite a bit, and not just about disguises and trap doors. The stories are steeped in the rewards of hard work, cooperation, diligence, problem solving and, most of all, friendship and brotherhood. And those plot twists! The first book I read in a single weekend, something I had never heard of anyone doing before, was a Hardy Boys novel. I was almost 12.
The Tower Treasure and its first four sequels are high up on the bookcase in the bedroom of my two young sons. They’re not quite ready yet, but I look forward to the day when they meet Frank and Joe and stare, like so many before them, in horror at that oncoming car.
Mike Wilson writes a much-admired column on crime for The New York Times.
Rikki, Nag and Baloo
Good reading should be a pleasure, not a chore. Books were my comfort on sick days or during childhood pneumonia and a refuge from my father’s absences. I resembled the girl in Jane Eyre who hid behind a curtain to lose herself in stories, hardly aware the afternoon was waning until it was too dark to read. Some books I loved: Tom Sawyer, Lassie, Heidi, Treasure Island and, most of all, The Jungle Book.
Rudyard Kipling fired my imagination with “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” about a mongoose (the location was India). I had to learn new vocabulary. What was a mongoose, anyway? I loved Rikki for his fierce protective streak. He defended mother, father and son from the wily cobra Nag and his mate Nagaina. In contrast to Rikki was the muskrat Chuchundra, who clung to the wall. Animal characters fascinated me: a bear named Baloo, a panther named Bagheera, a tiger named Shere Khan, as real as anyone I met in daily life. These stories were about love, loyalty and character. Tales and authors that helped me pass into adult reading were: The Diary of Anne Frank, Dickens, Jane Austen, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and Anne Sexton. A blessing for life, in good times and bad. I’m grateful.
Emilie Griffin is a writer and poet in New Orleans.
Life’s Lessons on the Frontier
What a torture to choose a book or books that children under 12 should read—or equally appealing, have read to them! An ever-growing amount of high quality children’s literature is out there, and the classics don’t disappear. So with feet firmly held to the fire I’ll cast my vote for the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These autobiographical books describe the 1880s pioneering movements of the Ingalls family from the Wisconsin woods to the Kansas prairie, to the banks of Plum Creek Minnesota, before finally taking up a land claim near the new town of DeSmet in Dakota territory.
In each place Ma, Pa and the growing children face the arduous challenges of survival and subsistence farming. The daily tasks, the animals, the land, the weather, the neighbors and social gatherings are described in loving detail—in case you ever need to build a log cabin, plant a garden, churn butter or give a barn dance. Hard work and skilled self-reliance are the order of the day, as well as keeping an eye out for new opportunities. But all the while, Ma and Pa steadily embody their traditional values: mutual help, integrity, resilience, perseverance. Joy comes from family affection, playfulness, music and nature’s beauty.
As in real life, an individual has to be able to cope with setbacks and suffering. Disease, accidents and natural disasters take their toll. No person or place is ever perfect, although assuredly in the end, goodness and virtue prevail. Children do well to hear this news early on.
Sidney Callahan and her husband, Daniel, are recipients of America’s Matteo Ricci Award.
Hilariously Impervious To Adult-eration
I recommend A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Cornerbecause they are profoundly adult-resistant. The world of Pooh Bear, him of very little brain, fussy Piglet, gloomy Eeyore and the rest is forever protected in the Hundred Acre Wood of Christopher Robin’s imagination. Why else would Frederick Crews write The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh, in which wacky fictional critics like Woodbine Meadowlark subject Pooh to literary deconstruction? Then there are Pooh and the Philosophers and What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante or The Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet to reinforce my point. It is because Pooh and all are so impervious to adult-eration that the works cited are so hilarious or so revelatory.
It is essential to read the books in editions with the original illustrations by E. H. Shepard. His black-and-white sketches floating in blank spaces throughout the text embody the real but fragile life of the stuffed animals in Robin’s toy chest. Milne was so pleased with Shepard’s drawings that he suggested that he sketch Pooh and Piglet on his tombstone, so that St. Peter would immediately open the heavenly gates. “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).
George Dennis O'Brien is a former president of the University of Rochester, as well as an author and critic.